By: Michael Han
DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam has spoken and he has spoken firmly. He said, “Just to be absolutely clear, because I know there’s this talk going around … I’m not the man for PM, I say that categorically. It’s not me.”
Well, the people’s choice is not always the person’s choice. And maybe the consideration for the people’s choice is somewhat different from that of the cabinet’s choice? Go figure.
That said, DPM Tharman is a man of many talents and holds many portfolios. Besides serving as a DPM since 2011, he is also Chairman of the MAS and currently heads the IMF monetary and financial committee. And before that, he was a minister for education and minister for finance. If you think about it, he is a shoo-in as the people’s choice for being the next PM, even the next President.
But this man has found his niche and he is content to serve it well. “I know myself, I know what I can do and it’s not me. I’m good at policy-making, good at advising my younger colleagues and supporting the PM, not being the PM. That’s not my ambition and that’s not me,” he said.
Clearly, DPM Tharman is not “ambition-less”. Both in the academic and in the public realms, he has done well – even exceptionally.
In the last election 2015, he was among those rare PAP candidates (both past and present) who was sensible, balanced, fair, humble, and firm. His several short and sweet “smackdowns” on the opposition demonstrated his political mantle.
In the contest for Bukit Batok, he told Dr Chee to go do his homework if he doesn’t understand the economy, jobs and CPF. He told him to be honest about it. He was therefore no pushover.
But more than knowing the economy and finances and how they are interconnected both globally and locally, DPM Tharman humbly followed the proud tradition of the Socratic self-inquiry or self-examination. He knows his limit. He knows his strengths. He acknowledges his weaknesses. He submits to them.
This is how he puts it, “We all have our preferences, and I was always in sports, centre-half rather than centre-forward; I enjoy playing half-back and making the long passes, but I am not the striker unless I am forced to be. And I don’t think I’ll be forced to it because I think we’ve got choices.”
Well, I guess he is the Sheringham to Alan Shearer, or the technical director Ross Brawn to Michael Schumacher. FYI, Brawn was the brain behind Schumacher’s phenomenal success.
Lesson? Just one.
We always think that it is the one at the top that makes the difference. It is the leaders who shake the world. They are the change-makers and the game-changers. They lead their nation by the sheer force of their personality, policies and wit. Their popularity is thus well deserved. They will be remembered in the history books, read about by generations to come, and emulated in many ways.
But aren’t we forgetting that one swallow does not a summer make, or that a single twig breaks easily, but a bunch of them is strong and resilient?
A leader without his trusted and able confidant upon whom he relies and depends on, and deeply respects for their unbiased and honest opinions, even to the extent of disagreeing with him when the political rubber meets the reality road, is no different from a ruthless dictatorship who has zero tolerance for disagreements, however right, true, helpful or effective they are.
DPM Tharman understood his invaluable role intimately well when he cited stellar and sagely lieutenants as his inspiring examples during the LKY era who rather chose to play “second-fiddle” to the leader. And they did a brilliant job at that
He said, “Just think back to our early years, when we had people like Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Rajaratnam. Their contributions to Singapore were immense, and till today they are in a league of their own, but even they would not have been ideal as a Prime Minister…I mention them as illustration. I myself and no one in future is going to come close to Dr Goh and Rajaratnam’s contributions to Singapore, but even they would not have been ideal as Prime Minister.”
DPM Tharman continued with this: “Whoever’s the next Prime Minister will be part of this team culture. He or she would be first amongst equals, first among equals in a team…We each find a way to contribute to Singapore, that matches our strengths, and we each contribute to a strong team.”
If anything, he understands well enough – with humility and foresight – his critical role as the metaphorical curtain ring that keeps the curtains drawn and open, that vital hinge that keeps the door open and shut, and one of the monkey bars in the playground that moves our nation forward from strength to strength. His role is no doubt hardly seen, but its impact is visibly felt.
On this, DPM Tharman reminded me of a Mafia organization (minus the negative connotation of course) where the close and trusted friend and confidant of the mob boss is called the Consigliere. He is the “mob’s version of an elder statesman.”
In most instances, the Consigliere knows his place in the organization. More importantly, he thrives and is highly treasured/respected in his secondary/supplementary role, away from the blinding limelight.
But his role is of course not a passive one. He is not afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right and he picks his battle and is discreet enough to know when to retreat and when to confront his boss. He is the best team-player any organization can ever hope to have.
Maybe, I should end with how Socrates described himself as a rather idiosyncratic but no less valuable Consigliere for the politicians he advised and served during his time. He wrote: “I am a sort of gadfly, given to the democracy by the gods, and the democracy is a large, noble horse who is sluggish in its motions, and requires to be stung into life.”
DPM Tharman is that sting that keeps the wheels of government moving forward. With that sting, he dedicates his life and service to make his country a success, and not so much himself a success – although that is undeniable. Cheerz.
PS: Well, he did mention this, “I am not the striker unless I am forced to be.” So I guess we have the best of both worlds here when such time comes for him to step up to the plate. That is, a man who knows his place, yet ready to serve in all preparedness. That’s the almost perfect NSman for you.