Featured News Tharman Shanmugaratnam and his "back pages"

Tharman Shanmugaratnam and his “back pages”

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Mr Tharman thinks he is more idealistic now than he was 20 or 30 years ago

SINGAPORE: Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratam, speaking to the media recently, quoted a line from Bob Dylan’s song, My Back Pages: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Mr Tharman thinks he is more idealistic now than he was 20 or 30 years ago, reported Channel NewsAsia, explaining why he used that line from Bob Dylan’s song.

But he always wanted to shake things up ever since he was elected to Parliament for the first time in 2001. He and another newcomer, Madam Halimah Yacob, were elected from Jurong. Now, while she is stepping down as President, he is campaigning for the post with a public service record marked by a “baby boomer” partiality to changes.

That’s the other notable thing about the coming presidential election on Sept 1. Probably, for the last time, three “baby boomers” are facing off against one another for public office in Singapore — Mr Ng Kok Song and Mr Tan Kin Lian, both 75, and Mr Tharman, 66.

Mr Ng’s Horatio Alger story of pulling himself up by the bootstraps from hut-dwelling poverty to investment tsardom as GIC’s former chief investment officer is a timeless rags-to-riches saga short on period details such as whether he preferred the Beatles to the Rolling Stones.

Mr Tan has been more forthcoming on his independence and differences with the Government than his musical preferences. But Mr Tharman came of age in the Swinging Sixties. He not only knows his Bob Dylan and David Bowie but graduated in economics from the London School of Economics, where he was also a student activist like so many “baby boomers”.

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What Tharman did

Appointed Education Minister in 2003, he ended streaming at primary school. “After 29 years, streaming in primary school will be scrapped,’ reported Today on Sept 29, 2006. Mr Tharman said ending streaming would benefit late-bloomers. “Some students start off slow, but can catch up later. We should keep the system open for them,” he said.

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Later in his career, he would show the same concern for others who had fallen behind as wage earners or needed new skills in the job market.

First, however, he had to nurse the economy back to health and tackle the 2008-2009 recession. He was the Finance Minister when the recession struck. On his new job, also, he broke new ground. He was the Finance Minister when the Government tapped past reserves for the first time.

In January 2009, the Government sought the then President SR Nathan’s approval to take out $4.9 billion from past reserves to fund two one-off measures to boost the economy – the Jobs Credit Scheme and the Special Risk-Sharing Initiative (SRI). Eventually, the Government drew $4 billion for the two schemes. The money was returned to the reserves in 2011.

Mr Tharman retained the finance portfolio when he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies after the 2011 general election. He held the finance portfolio till 2017, when Heng Swee Keat followed him from education to the finance ministry.

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Singapore’s GDP rose from US$194.2 billion in 2009 to US$343.7 billion in 2017 when he ceased to be Finance Minister.  According to the Department of Statistics Singapore’s website, Singapore’s GDP has grown since then to the equivalent of US$474.3 billion in 2022. The earlier figures are from the World Bank.

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Mr Tharman broke new ground not only in primary education and economic management. He also led the SkillsFuture programme, promoting lifelong learning, launched when he was Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Heng, who replaced him as Finance Minister, succeeded him as Deputy Prime Minister in 2019 when Mr Tharman became Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies.

After 22 years of public service, Mr Tharman finally called it a day on June 8 when he informed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that he was retiring from politics and the Government to seek election as President.

Mr Tharman, regarded by some as the best Prime Minister Singapore never had, ruled himself out for that role in September 2016 when he told reporters, “Just to be absolutely clear, because I know of this talk that’s going around: I am not the man for PM. I say that categorically. It is not me. I know myself, I know what I can do. I am good at policy making, I am good at advising my younger colleagues, and at supporting the Prime Minister, not at being the Prime Minister.”

Mr Tharman has his admirers — naturally, considering his ability, dry wit and humour, and air of modesty. “I’ve never thought too highly of myself, honestly. A lot of my life has been a matter of luck and circumstance. Obviously, I take whatever I do very seriously and apply myself, and I have some capabilities. But you contribute because you want to see things change for the better for others, rather than contribute because you’re hankering for a certain position in life. And I’ve never had that ambition throughout,” he said recently.

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There’s a whiff of the 1960s about him. It was amusing to see a Facebook photo on Aug 2, showing him and his fellow Jurong GRC MPs crossing a road in single file like the Beatles on the cover of the Abbey Road album.

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The coming elections have not robbed him of his smile and humour. He is a happy warrior.

Singapore’s presidency will be a consolation prize for Tharman, wrote Michael D Barr, the author of Singapore: A Modern History, on the East Asia Forum. Barr describes him as the most popular politician in Singapore. That’s a bit premature, considering there’s an election coming on Sept 1.

Tharman has been passed over before. His name came up when Christine Lagarde stepped down as the IMF managing director in 2019. He chaired the International Monetary and Financial Committee, an IMF advisory panel, from 2011 to 2014 while Finance Minister of Singapore. The Economist and the Financial Times mentioned him as a long-shot candidate to head the IMF — long-shot because the position is traditionally filled by a European. Indeed, the tradition continues — the Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva succeeded the French Lagarde.

As for Mr Tharman, wait for what the returning officer says on Sept 1. Win or lose, Mr Tharman, a happy warrior, may recall another Bob Dylan song: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.


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