The United Kingdom is ready for an Indian Prime Minister, so Singapore should be ready for a Prime Minister who is Indian, Malay or of any other ethnic and religious minority.
There is buzz in the UK on whether Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak might succeed Mr Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister.
On Nov 26, a Scottish newspaper, The Herald, published a story headlined “Chancellor Rishi Sunak – a PM in waiting?”
On Oct 24, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, ran a story with the headline: “Rishi Sunak ‘is acting like he’s already Prime Minister’.”
On Oct 6, Bloomberg, a major US news agency, reported members of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party as increasingly seeing Mr Sunak as their next Prime Minister.
On Nov 15, the Evening Standard quoted Mr Sunak saying he has no ambition for the premiership but reported he was “often touted” as a potential successor to Mr Johnson.
An Ipsos MORI survey in September found British people rated Mr Sunak better than Mr Johnson and Mr Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, in various categories.
According to the poll of 1,103 people in the UK, 54 per cent said Mr Sunak was good in a crisis, while 32 per cent thought so of Mr Johnson and 31 per cent of Mr Starmer. A solid 55 per cent said Mr Sunak understands the problems facing the UK, while 43 per cent said the same of Mr Johnson and 50 per cent of Mr Starmer. And 47 per cent think Mr Sunak is a good representative of Britain on the world stage, while 42 per cent think so of Mr Starmer and 30 per cent of Mr Johnson.
Mr Sunak was born 40 years ago in England to Indian Hindu parents who emigrated from Africa. He has academic credentials normally associated with the British elite. He was head boy at Winchester College, a prestigious boarding school in England, obtained a First Class Honours degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University and gained a Master’s of Business Administration from Stanford University as a Fulbright scholar.
In his past business career, he worked for Goldman Sachs, a leading US bank, and Catamaran Ventures, an investment firm owned by his father-in-law, Mr N R Narayana Murthy, the Indian billionaire who founded Indian technology giant Infosys.
With such an impressive track record, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, when he was Singapore Prime Minister, would have welcomed Mr Sunak into Singapore’s Cabinet. But would Singapore’s founding father, if he were alive today, accept someone like Mr Sunak as Prime Minister?
In 1988, Mr Lee said he had considered a Singapore Indian minister, Mr S Dhanabalan, a potential Prime Minister but Singapore was not ready for an Indian Prime Minister.
In an interview on BBC HARDtalk on Feb 23, 2017, Mr Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said he did not think Singapore was ready for a Prime Minister who is not from his country’s majority Chinese race, but expressed the hope that it would happen in future.
The irony is Singapore already had a Chief Minister from an ethnic minority in the 1950s, a Jew named David Marshall.
My favourite for a Singapore Indian Prime Minister is Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He speaks eloquently and exudes statesman-like charisma. I admire Mr Tharman for saying in 2015 that the opposition can play a positive role in Singapore. He has international stature, being a trustee of the World Economic Forum and chair of the G20 Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance.
One possible advantage of a non-Chinese Prime Minister for Singapore is he or she can deal well with Beijing without the baggage of being a Chinese leader of the only Chinese-majority country outside China.
Mr Richard Nixon, when he was US President in the 1970s, was able to normalise US relations with China because he had a previous reputation as a fierce anti-communist and thus could not be accused of being soft on Red China.
Likewise, a non-Chinese Singaporean Prime Minister can cultivate extremely friendly ties with China without being accused of favouritism on grounds of common ethnicity and language, yet maintain good relations with the US. Being able to navigate the tensions between these two superpowers is a tricky but important task for Singapore leaders.
While there may still be pockets of racism among the majority white population in Britain, this country has come a long way since 1968 when a white politician, Mr Enoch Powell, made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech against non-white immigrants from parts of the former British empire like India, Singapore, Pakistan and the West Indies. The late Mr Powell, who was then British shadow Defence Secretary, said: “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Some interpreted that statement as a hint at possible bloody racial riots in the UK. Shortly afterwards, Mr Edward Heath, then leader of the opposition Conservative Party, sacked Mr Powell from his shadow Cabinet and told Mr Powell he regarded his speech as racialist.
Given the Singapore government’s strong desire to maintain racial and religious harmony, if any Singaporean politician of any party were to make speeches similar to “Rivers of Blood”, undoubtedly the Singapore Home Affairs and Law Minister would punish and silence him.
The question of whether Singapore will have a minority Prime Minister is pertinent in light of a recent incident between Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and a netizen called Nubela Goh.
Recently, Mr Goh posted on Mr Shanmugam’s Facebook calling the Indian minister a “black man in a white shirt”. On Dec 11, Mr Shanmugam posted on his Facebook saying Mr Goh has apologised and Mr Goh explained there was no racist intent in his statement.
While this matter has been resolved, the ethos of Singapore’s pledge — “regardless of race, language or religion” — will be better fulfilled if it is demonstrated that a minority member can be Prime Minister.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.