By: Surekha A. Yadav
The most popular politician in Singapore has categorically stated that he doesn’t want to be prime minister.
Earlier this week, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and long-time Finance Minister went on record saying, “I’m not the man for PM. I say that categorically. It’s not me. I know myself, I know what I can do, and it’s not me.”
Such categorical statements are unusual from politicians in general, and in this case particularly unusual as:
- There are no looming elections therefore no apparent reason to speculate on the matter of new PMs so decisively now.
- If we are, for whatever reason, thinking about new PMs — Shanmugaratnam is, in fact, the most logical candidate — in terms of seniority within the ruling party, popularity, profile, and ministerial track record, academic background etc. he ticks all the boxes.
So why the denial? Because obviously people have been asking the question — will you be the next PM?
These questions seem to have arisen on account of ongoing concerns of a successor within the top echelons of the ruling party. A concern amplified by the health scare the incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared to have at this year’s National Day speech.
And the people asking Shanmugaratnam have good reason to want to know. After all, a quick glance at the current Cabinet leaves Shanmugaratnam as the most apparent candidate.
In addition to seniority he has a higher profile than any other minister in government and appears to be popular both within his constituency and nationally. In the last general election, he won his GRC (polling district) by the highest margin of any MP — including the prime minister.
Plus the #tharmanforpmcampaign (a low-key but visible Tharman for PM campaign led by, it seems, fans of the Finance Minister, rather than the man himself) remains popular and persistent.
His record as Finance Minister is impressive. In the nine years he has held the position, Singapore has proved resilient in the face of global financial turmoil. With 15 years of experience as an MP, 10 years as a senior minister, and academic credentials from the LSE, Harvard and Cambridge on all fronts his claim for the top spot is rock solid.
Yet he’s just said quite emphatically that he’s not the man for the job. Why?
One reason is age. Shanmugaratnam himself has said that the next prime minister will be drawn from the 4th generation of the People’s Action Party (PAP) Leadership; the Finance Minister counts himself as a 3rd generation leader.
However, at 59 he’s not exactly a geriatric and globally being in office in one’s 60s is still par for the course. Many critics also argue, at present, that none of the 3rd generation leadership seems to have the standing and presence to lead the country.
His other stated reason seems to be personal temperament. He says he is happier being part of the leadership team than its leader but again looking at the weakness of other potential leaders, Shanmugaratnam look to be the best we have got.
We’ve seen him deliver extremely statesmanlike addresses domestically along with his annual Budget and internationally at the IMF.
From the perspective of constituents, nothing appears to be wrong with his temperament but of course there is another factor — race. Shanmugaratnam is an ethnic Indian/Ceylonese and (post-independence) Singapore has yet to have a minority prime minister.
The nation’s effective founder Lee Kuan Yew stated explicitly that the country was not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister but that was more than 20 years ago.
Judging by Shanmugaratnam’s electoral record: Singapore seems to be ready — in 2015, his team won 79 per cent of the vote in the Jurong GRC — which certainly isn’t accounted for by minority votes alone. And the voices backing various Tharman for PM campaigns have been multi-ethnic.
In many respect, his minority status only bolsters his credentials for the job as our first minority PM. A minority leader would only strengthen the idea of a broad-based Singaporean nation.
A qualified capable and well-positioned minority candidate does not come along often. Shanmugartnam’s present situation is a historical opportunity but is an opportunity that seems to have slipped away because the man himself doesn’t want the job.
To many, including me, it seems a wasted opportunity; a missed chance to complete the task of nation building that has been the mission of Singapore’s leaders from the birth of our nation.
But then succession struggles especially in Singapore with its weak opposition are a complex internal, inter-party business and perhaps staying out of the fray will prove a wise decision by an astute man.
However, his personal prudence in this case may have robbed the nation of a historic and important opportunity and I wonder if this will end up as the one blot on the record of a man with an otherwise exemplary record of service to his country.
Born and bred in Singapore, Surekha A. Yadav is a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia.
Article was first published in Malaymail Online. Republished with permission.