This was what I wrote on May 14, 2023: “I cannot see beyond Khaw Boon Wan or Tharman Shanmugaratnam if he is not going off to the IMF/World Bank – or someone just as solid outside the establishment. PE2023 is important. So many issues to air. We have already wasted six years.” Well, Tharman will be the establishment’s preferred candidate for the 2023 Presidential Election, judging by the exchange of letters between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and him. Yet, it is still a surprise for many because he seems more useful as Singapore’s point person on the financial world stage.
Some observers described Tharman’s candidacy as an overkill: “He is overqualified for the post”. What they meant was that he would be wasted on what they felt was a ceremonial job where his expertise and experience would not be fully utilized. And that would be considered a loss for the country. Tharman thought otherwise: “As a head of state if I’m fortunate enough to be elected, I could play a very helpful role for Singapore internationally as well. I do play a very active role currently, but as a head of state you have a different stature in your international roles.”
So it looks like he intends to carry the official Singapore message or position in addition to his own views as a respected world figure on the financial stage. The international system is now under stress and undergoing a forced transformation because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the US-China rivalry. Singapore needs to be part of the conversations dealing with the problems.
A Tharman presidency will offer an extra and expert hand as Lawrence Wong and the team take over at a time like this. It would be foolish to lose his contribution.
An economist by training and profession, Tharman was the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He also chairs the board of the Group of Thirty, a global council of economic and financial leaders from the public and private sectors and academia. He is also a member of the United Nations High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, which will make recommendations on Effective Multilateralism for the UN’s 2024 Summit of the Future.
Tharman will not just be the next president in a normal succession story.
The badly handled last Malays-only presidency was, in the opinion of many, nothing more than an attempt to deny Dr. Tan Cheng Bock a second shot at the office. Whatever the justification, PE2017 damaged the presidency considerably. As an institution, the presidency has lost much of its stature.
Tharman’s candidacy should help repair the damage – and advance Singapore’s multi-racialism as an asset and not always be seen as a problem.
“I think I can play that unifying role on race, religion, social backgrounds, the way you respect people … and also people of different political persuasions. I feel I can play that role,” he said. And there is no reason to question that given that his own family is a mixed-race one.
And with his MAS background, he should be able to carry out his constitutional function as a second key to the reserves without much trouble.
However formidable Tharman may be as a candidate, another walkover would not be good for the presidency. A strong contest will strengthen the institution as it allows Singaporeans to be involved.
Certainly, we look forward to a good fight between Tharman Shanmugaratnam and, I hope, Lee Hsien Yang.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.