With elections around the corner, perhaps it is a good time to look back at a comment by then Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in March last year.
During a forum at the Nanyang Technological University on March 28 last year, this question was posed to Mr Heng: “Is it Singapore who is not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister, or is it the PAP who is not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister?”
Mr Heng replied that he felt that the older generation was not ready for a non-Chinese leader, even though young Singaporeans at the forum were satisfied to have a non-Chinese PM.
A report on the forum in todayonline.com on March 29 last year stirred quite a bit of controversy.
Mr Heng had added: “I do think that at the right time, when enough people think that we may have a minority leader, a minority who becomes the leader of the country, that is something that we can all hope for.”
However, I do believe that Singaporeans have no reason to unwelcome a non-Chinese PM, especially if we look at what Singapore prides itself to be — a champion of meritocracy.
Singapore, A Meritocratic Society
This is perhaps the most obvious reason why we are, or at least why we should be ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister — meritocracy is fundamental in Singapore society. It’s something we’ve all heard of and recited in the National Pledge.
In the words of our current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “Since then (Singapore’s Independence), we have held firmly to the belief that before race, language and religion, first and foremost, we should all be Singaporeans together and so, we have built a fair and just society, based on meritocracy, where ability and not your background or the colour of your skin, determines how well you do, determines what contributions you make, and what rewards you get.”
This narrative of being able to attain success regardless of background has been ingrained in all Singaporeans since young through, for instance, our education system.
Our Prime Minister should be chosen based on merit and capability, as with all other ministerial positions, workforce and other opportunities that one is presented with. Race should take the back seat if Singaporeans are expected to truly be custodians of meritocracy. Why then is this an exception when it comes to who gets to be our Prime Minister?
When Mr Heng’s comment was reported, many found it problematic that there was no data to back his statement.
Many Singaporeans responded by highlighting the popular Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who was the alternative to Mr Heng to succeed Mr Lee as Prime Minister. In 2016, then DPM Mr Tharman was voted the most popular candidate to be Prime Minister in a Yahoo Poll. Mr Heng, who took the second spot in the same poll, only garnered 25% of the votes compared to Mr Tharman’s 69%. Mr Tharman has also done exceptionally well during the elections that he has contested. For instance, he was the top performer in the 2015 elections, outperforming the Prime Minister himself.
As stated by the former editor of The Online Citizen Andrew Loh: “Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s resume, experience, global credibility, and above all his ability, is second to none. In other words, he is really the best man for the job, based on meritocracy.”
Apart from Mr Tharman, we have seen the current older generation supporting other leaders from the minority groups on their own accord. The same generation elected a Jew to be Singapore’s first Chief Minister, Mr David Marshall. Mr J B Jeyaretnam’s success in the 1981 elections allowed him to be the first opposition member in over 15 years to enter Parliament. Moving away from elections, many have also recently applauded Dr Paul Tambyah on being the first Singaporean to be elected to head the International Society of Infectious Diseases. Some have even expressed their view that, because of this appointment, Dr Tambyah should take the lead in Singapore’s fight against Covid-19. These examples showcase that minority leaders are indeed welcomed to lead Singapore.
In essence, it is important to uphold the integrity of the meritocratic system that Singapore constantly prides itself for.
We Need To Progress With Time
The key message in Mr Heng’s statement was that the older generation were the ones who would be the least comfortable with a non-Chinese Prime Minister. It is not hard to see why he would say this, albeit a rather over-generalised statement.
However, it is important to be aware that even if this is true, it is unwise to pander to the racist views that the older generation is said to uphold.
Is it right to adapt the political system or any other system to accommodate such views that can jeopardise the already vulnerable race-relations that exist in Singapore? By saying that Singapore needs a Chinese PM to ease the anxieties of the older generation, is to justify older values or outdated mindsets that may not be suited for today. We can all agree that racism is bad. So why protect or even encourage it?
Locally, we see how policies, acts and speeches in Singapore’s history resurfacing as part of the controversial “Chinese Privilege” discourse that has been popularised today.
Many have even quoted Mr Heng’s statement as a case of “Chinese Privilege” at work, only to contribute to greater tensions between the Chinese majority and minority groups. By securing the Prime Minister spot only for someone who is Chinese, is perilous. This only serves to further the perception that the majority race benefits more than the minority groups.
The reason why the younger generation of today (a generalisation) finds these issues problematic is because of our evolving belief systems that has progressed over time. What was deemed as acceptable back in the day is no longer applicable today.
One example to illustrate this more clearly can be seen in the role of women in society. Not too long ago across the world, women were bound to the boundaries of the home because of traditional beliefs that women’s main role in society were to essentially reproduce and take care of the family. Of course, this has changed drastically today in many societies – Singapore included. It is precisely because of this evolved belief system that allows most of us in Singapore to embrace a female President like Halimah Yacob, for example. The gender barrier in politics is something that the nation has moved past and the race barrier (which should not be a barrier in the first place given how we have always been a multicultural society) should also be overcome.
It is likely that the group of people in the older generation that Mr Heng is referring to, is a minority in itself. One could argue that eventually, this group of individuals will no longer be in existence in Singapore.
However, one cannot ignore the fact that within the younger generation as well, it is equally likely that a minority shares the same views as their predecessors and will naturally become the same older generation that will be uncomfortable with a Prime Minister from a minority group.
Will we then be stuck in an endless cycle of accommodating the views of this minority, at the risk of causing detriment to our social fabric?
Perhaps a better response that could have been offered by Mr Heng during the time, should have been to address these racist and potentially dangerous views, and to suggest a way to change the mindset of the older generation he was referring to (and those who hold the same view in the younger generation). It is by no means an easy task to do so, but it is a necessary act in diverse Singapore.
Why Is It Important To Address This?
Because if we don’t, Singapore’s belief system based on meritocracy is placed into question and is completely undermined.
I actually argue that both our history and our present have shown that we have always been ready for a minority to be our Prime Minister. Racialised politics was precisely why our merger with Malaysia failed in 1965 and why since Independence, we have committed ourselves to ensuring everyone should be afforded equal opportunities regardless of their race and background. Our leaders have always been elected based on who we think can best serve the needs of the people, never because of race. If we did, then perhaps we need to do some rethinking: What is Singapore and what does Singapore believe in?
Jillian Colombo, Editorial Intern of TheIndependent.SG, is a budding historian studying at the National University of Singapore. She believes in using history to understand the affairs of today.