Singapore hopeful tries for political hole-in-one
By Sebastian Tong
SINGAPORE, Aug 12 (Reuters) - In a corner of Andrew Kuan's three-bedroom, book-cluttered apartment hangs a photo of him, grinning as he receives a trophy from former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. "That was in 2002 when I scored a hole-in-one in a golf tournament," said the 51-year-old chartered accountant, who has created a stir by seeking to run for president in the city-state, a largely ceremonial but potentially powerful post.
The political establishment has turned decidedly less cordial after Kuan, a member of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), emerged last week as a possible contender in what had been seen as a second-term shoo-in for the 81-year-old government-backed incumbent, S.R. Nathan, a former internal security chief.
An unknown before his surprise bid, Kuan has come under attack for his employment record. This week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called on him to be "completely open" about his past.
On Thursday, the government agency that employed Kuan as chief financial officer for three years issued a public statement saying that he was asked to resign after an "unsatisfactory" performance. It would not give details.
State-controlled media have also cited the unhappiness of another former employer, water treatment firm Hyflux , over not knowing of Kuan's "ambitions" when it hired him.
Kuan told Reuters he was unperturbed by the adverse publicity as he was "physically, mentally and spiritually prepared".
"I believe in the letter of the Singapore Constitution and the spirit of the national pledge," he said. "It's for all of Singapore to see if we are a truly democratic society based on justice, equality and meritocracy."
POWER OVER $116 BILLION
Kuan is one of three candidates seeking to enter the race against the incumbent. But he is the most likely to meet the strict requirements for the post, which has custodial powers over the city-state's vast reserves of $116 billion.
Before facing Singapore's 2.1 million eligible voters, candidates must display experience in heading a state body or a firm with minimum capital of S$100 million ($61 million).
Kuan, an avid reader of political biographies and motivational books, said he decided six years ago to run for the post, which has been uncontested since 1993.
Singapore's constitution was modified in 1991 changing a government-appointed post to an electoral one and giving the office veto power over government budgets.
Garry Rodan, Director of Murdoch University's Asia Research Centre in Australia, said the government's response to Kuan's bid throws into question its promise for greater openness.
"If he is deemed ineligible for the contest in spite of a lack of any wrongdoing on his part, then the government displays a complete lack of confidence in the Singapore people to judge for themselves," he said.
This could have consequences for the ruling party in the next general elections, expected later this year, he said.
Kuan, however, insisted he was not interested in testing political limits in the wealthy Southeast Asian state.
"I'm just doing what the Constitution allows me to. I am pro-Singapore and not anti-PAP ... Let the people see if we really walk the talk," said the father of two adult children.
Prior to his government stint, Kuan ran his own business consulting firm for more than 13 years and worked in foreign multinational companies.
The eighth of 15 children, Kuan said his father became a locksmith to support the family after he lost his goldsmith business. "I have known hardship," he said.
Kuan said he joined the ruling party six years ago to better understand its inner workings ahead of his bid: "They are very well-organised. It's a systematic and well-oiled machine. I've learnt from the best."
The first directly elected president, Ong Teng Cheong, was openly critical of the government, complaining that information about Singapore's national reserves was withheld from him in spite of his custodial role.
His successor, former civil servant Nathan, has had a more harmonious relationship with the government since his tenure began in 1999. A government-appointed committee will determine by August 17 if Kuan or the other two applicants can run. If the presidency is contested, the election will be held on August 27.