Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat again said Singapore was not ready for a prime minister who is not Chinese, the majority race of the country.

“Will we ever have a non-Chinese as a prime minister? It will come one day because the Singapore society is maturing,” Heng said at the Forbes Global CEO Conference on Sept 11, reported the Straits Times.

On 28 March 2019, Heng, a Chinese Singaporean, said that while a fraction of Singapore’s population was happy to have an individual from a minority race as their prime minister, the older generation was not ready for that, reported Today newspaper. He was replying to a question by someone who noted Tharman Shanmugaratnam was a popular choice for prime minister.

Heng’s comments on Sept 11 came a few weeks after former deputy prime minister Tharman said Singaporeans were ready for a non-Chinese prime minister while he was campaigning for president. On Sept 1, Tharman, who is of South Indian heritage, was elected Singapore president in a landslide victory with 70.4 per cent of the vote.

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On Aug 25, as widely reported in local media, Tharman said, “Singapore is ready any time for a non-Chinese prime minister.”

Race is a factor in politics anywhere in the world, including the US, where Barack Obama was affected by racial issues, Tharman added.

Obama was the first black man to be elected US president in Nov 2008. On Oct 25, 2022, Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian Hindu background, became the first non-white and non-Christian prime minister of Britain.

In a BBC interview during the 1990s, Anwar Ibrahim, who was then Malaysian deputy prime minister, was asked if Malaysia could have a prime minister who was not Malay, the majority race of Malaysia. Anwar replied that, in theory, it was possible, but in practice, that was a question. Anwar, in return, asked BBC whether the US could have a black president and the UK could have an Indian prime minister. One wonders whether Anwar, who is now Malaysian prime minister, might have changed his views since then.

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In an interview with Bloomberg chief editor John Micklethwait on 15 Aug 2022, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who is expected to succeed Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister, said, “We choose our leaders on the basis of merit and if there is a leader that emerges down the road who is not Chinese, I would certainly welcome that person.”

Earlier, at a forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on 25 June 2021, Wong said a Singaporean of a minority race who wants to be prime minister should be aware of attitudes and realities on the ground, that a significant proportion of Singaporeans are more comfortable with a prime minister of their own race.

He said such attitudes, as reflected in surveys of Singaporeans, should not be accepted, reported the Straits Times.

“We should instead work very hard to change them,” Wong added.

In 1988, then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said S Dhanabalan, who was then minister of national development, was a good candidate to succeed him as prime minister, but Singaporeans were not ready for an Indian prime minister.

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Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consulting firm