Opinion: S’poreans Are Interested In Presidential Candidates’ Spouses Because Of Their Public Role As Dignitaries

This piece is part of MS Speaks, a segment in which MS News reporters share their honest views on current affairs and trending topics.

Singaporeans Care About Who The Presidential Candidates’ Spouses Are As They Must Be Dignified

Since the presidential election was announced, various candidates have appeared with their spouses at press conferences and public events.

Three candidates in particular — Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Mr George Goh, and Mr Ng Kok Song — have all prominently featured their partners.

Some ask why the women have to be front and centre, but this isn’t a new phenomenon.

Around the world, there’s been a long history of powerful leaders with their spouses by their side.

In Singapore, a portrait of the President’s spouse hangs beside their own in public places and Government buildings.

Source: The Istana

Spouses cannot escape the public eye and it seems like the candidates’ partners are ready for this.

On the part of the public, Singaporeans may be looking at how the women match up to their partners.

Ideally, they would be a dignified representative of not only the President but also of Singapore.

Past presidential spouses set standards to follow

Particularly beloved presidential spouses include Puan Noor Aishah, the late Mr Yusof lshak’s wife.

Puan Noor Aishah, Singapore’s first First Lady since the nation’s independence, shared in a book in 2017 that she “had no task lists”. No one also briefed her on things like etiquette, dress codes and protocol.

Source: Alchetron

However, Puan Noor Aishah took to the job well, according to The Straits Times (ST).

She took English lessons and even taught cooks at the Istana to prepare local favourites such as beef rendang.

She also insisted that the family lived simply in the Istana. Instead of the grand presidential palace, they chose to stay at a small bungalow on the grounds.

When Mr Yusof Ishak had a heart attack in 1968, Puan Noor Aishah also shouldered some of his duties.

Since she was the first First Lady, it fell on Puan Noor Aishah, who was just 26 when her husband became the President, to set the standards. These are standards that continue to this day.

Power couples with inspirational love stories

Besides Puan Noor Aishah, the late Madam Ling Siew May, wife to the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, is also widely and fondly remembered.

More fondly remembered is the pair’s love story, which began at a Christmas party organised by Mr Ong’s schoolmate in 1952.

Madam Ling was fascinated by how Mr Ong had played the piano during that party, and they spoke after his performance. The rest, as they say, was history – they began to meet more when their respective schools staged a combined play performance and the two ended up as the leads.

When Mr Ong became President in 1993, Madam Ling took over the company she set up with him, Ong & Ong Architects, becoming Singapore’s only working First Lady, noted NLB.

She was diagnosed with colon cancer just four years later but continued working on her final project even as her health worsened, finishing the campus for her alma mater Nanyang Girls’ High School at Linden Drive.

Madam Ling also still made public appearances in support of her husband till shortly before her passing on 30 July 1999.

Presidential candidates share glimpses of their partners

With these historical examples in mind, whether the present candidates consider having their partners in the limelight an advantage is up for discussion.

But it’s perhaps not a coincidence that Mr Tharman formally introduced his wife Ms Jane Ittogi for the first time in a Facebook post after announcing his presidential bid.

Tharman Shares About Wife In Rare Facebook Post, She Runs NGO That Uplifts S’pore Residents

He revealed much more about her than he ever did as a politician, which could suggest a deliberate strategy ahead of his campaign. She’s even featured prominently in videos.

As a prospective First Lady, Mr Tharman’s wife will definitely be in the public eye considerably more.

The same goes for two other candidates, Mr George Goh and Mr Ng Kok Song. Their wife and fiancée are frequently seen together with them on walkabouts and other media engagements.

Mr Ng, in particular, has been candid about both his first wife, Pauline, and his fiancée, Sybil Lau.

Source: Ng Kok Song on Facebook

It remains to be seen as to whether this candid approach can give him an edge at the polls.

Some former Presidents’ spouses preferred to remain private

On the other hand, our past two Presidents’ spouses have been relatively less public.

Although they perform their ceremonial duties, they have rarely opened up about their lives.

Singapore’s ‘First Gentleman’ Mr Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee accompanies his wife Madam Halimah Yacob, but the public knows relatively little about him.

Ms Mary Chee, the wife of former president Tony Tan, is also an elusive figure.

The most overt display of affection Dr Tan ever shared was in a 2017 Facebook post celebrating the couple’s 53rd anniversary.

Source: Dr Tony Tan on Facebook

Spouses reveal humanity of presidents

Besides being a pillar of support for the president, the spouse displays the humanity of our officeholder. That our president can fall in love, marry, and have children like anyone else might be something we forget amidst all the politicking.

A president’s spouse is also a reminder of where the leader came from before they entered office.

In particular, if they’ve weathered many years and challenges together, the steadiness of the relationship gives people faith and inspiration that their president is capable of lasting responsibility.

Perhaps it’s this human connection and the display of personal values that give the public more impetus to vote for a particular candidate.

Note: The views expressed within this article are the author’s own.

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Featured image adapted from Lianhe Zaobao on YouTube, Tan Kin Lian on Facebook & MS News. Photography by Iqmall Hayat and Iskandar Rossali.

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