Home News "Gentleman politics" in giving way to Singapore-styled leadership renewal

“Gentleman politics” in giving way to Singapore-styled leadership renewal

Teo, the classic Christian Brothers School graduate, and Tharman, the limelight-eschewing midfielder, pass on the baton in gentlemen politics.




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Leadership renewal, Singapore-style, is best reflected by two deputy prime ministers (Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam), who are now graciously giving way after 45 years in politics.

They’re not walking into the sunset, however. Pragmatically, they’re making way for the younger generation, yet giving the explicit assurance that they will stand in the upcoming General Elections (GE), widely expected to be held towards the end of the year.

I’ve known both the DPMs, who served a combined 18 years in their top leadership roles. Teo, 64, was my St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) school-mate. Tharman, 62, played hockey for Combined Schools in the mid-1970s: he, a tough-tackling midfielder and I, the goalkeeper.

Their magnanimous gestures in stepping aside for the younger guards rank as the most gracious sporting distinction and characterises the changes as an important step in leadership renewal, Singapore-style.

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And, their continued participation in politics — even from the sidelines — resemble role-models as both core leaders of Singapore’s third-generation political leaders intending to play value-add roles in the heartlands as Members of Parliament (MPs) of Pasir Ris-Punggol (for Mr Teo) and Jurong (for Mr Tharman) in the coming years.

Branch activist Victor Lam of Thomson GRC salutes them as “gentlemen politicians after political careers spanning 45 years in total”. He says: “When the time is right, they know how to hand over the big baton to the 4G (fourth-generation) leaders and yet show dedication to serve Singaporeans in their constituencies, while continuing in the Cabinet as Senior Ministers.”


Teo, as I remember in the 1970s when he was a diligent prefect and NCC (National Cadet Corps) stalwart, perfectly stands up to the SJI motto, ‘Ora et Labora’ (Pray and Work). The holistic education he garnered from St Micheal’s School and SJI smacks of a classic example of a CBS (Christian Brothers’ School) icon role-model.

The former President’s and Singapore Armed Forces scholar studied electrical engineering and management science, and did post-graduate studies in computing science, and public administration.

He was a Rear-Admiral in the Navy before entering politics in December 1992 in a by-election at Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC). The then prime minister Goh Chok Tong had wanted “ministerial calibre” candidates to join the government just as he had succeeded the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in November 1990.

SJI alumni William Chua says Teo’s class “distinctly showed as he was further re-elected to Parliament five times in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC”.

Chua adds: “His true people-hearted mandate shows as he wants to still serve the grassroots even in the upcoming GE.”

Before his appointment as deputy PM on April 1, 2009, Teo gave distinguished service in the Home Affairs and Defence ministries and other portfolios. At one point, he was the Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service.

From May 1, besides his senior minister appointment, he will continue serving as Coordinating Minister for National Security, a post he has held since 2011.


In a press statement this week after the Cabinet changes were announced, Teo hailed the “Singapore way of ensuring smooth leadership transition, continuity and stability”.

“Senior leaders make way in good time for the next generation, share their experience and help the next generation of leaders to succeed,” he said.

Likewise, the sports-hearted Tharman, 62, moved into politics in 2001 as one of the “Super Seven” candidates alongside Khaw Boon Wan, Ng Eng Hen, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the late Balaji Sadasivan, Raymond Lim and Cedric Foo.

Astute at wearing multiple political hats, he starred as education and finance minister, and was appointed DPM in 2011. He was made Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies in 2015.

Like Teo, he will — from May 1 — be designated senior minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, but will continue to advise the prime minister on economic policies.

His global-class financial mind will also come in valuable use as he will be appointed deputy chairman of the country’s sovereign wealth fund GIC. He will also continue to be chairman of Singapore’s central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

I remember Tharman — once highly touted as a non-Chinese prime minister candidate — using a hockey analogy to say that he was better as a midfielder, passing the ball, rather than a striker scoring the goals.

In sporting terms, it simply means he’s advocating his preparedness to be one of the humble key players in the middle rather than taking the premier role as the team captain or to score the goals.


From Anglo-Chinese School (ACS), where he was a hockey stalwart, he specialised in global economics and still holds a high repute in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Posting on Facebook about the Cabinet changes, Tharman noted Singaporeans’ changing views and aspirations, and a less predictable world. Climate change will also demand bolder actions everywhere, he said.

He reiterated the need for the fourth-generation leadership to “keep their ears close to the ground, stay open to new ideas and initiatives, and keep evolving our strategies to keep our society inclusive and vibrant”.

Education was one of his pet-portfolios and he led the SkillsFuture lifelong learning movement, which was launched in 2014. Notably, he has often spoken about the role of Singapore’s education system in increasing social mobility, but needing to evolve to spur innovation and create a sense of individuality among Singaporeans.

Jurong GRC branch activist Ismail Salleh remarks: Mr Tharman is a people’s man and he gets to the thick of grassroots work. I’ve served him since he was re-elected thrice since 2001. We were very proud when he led Jurong GRC in getting the highest vote share in the 2015 General Election.”

In my books, both Teo and Tharman are excellent examples of the motto: To lead is to serve. To serve is to lead


They’re genuine servant leaders with the biggest heart to serve the people and when the time is right, they know how to graciously give way knowing the importance of continual renewal of good and effective leadership.

Looking at neighbouring countries, both men have shown that pragmatic leadership must always be renewed and refreshed to remain relevant, dynamic and effective for Singaporeans for a long time to come.

Retired unionist James Santhosam, 68, says the “two DPMs have called it time at the right time”. He praises: “They’re very selfless leaders who don’t think of themselves too much. They’re always prepared to give way to younger blood, and pushing the successors and if they even fall through the cracks, the show must go on.

“Big salutes to Teo and Tharman. They’re exemplary leaders who believe in what they want to do, subscribe to what they want to do, and faithfully following it through.”

That, in a nutshell, is gentleman politics in giving way to Singapore-styled leadership renewal.

Suresh Nair is a grassroots volunteer at Nee Soon GRC and was a journalist at Straits Times and The New Paper. Follow us on Social Media

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