Finance Minister and presumptive fourth generation Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s recent comment that Singapore – specifically the older generation in Singapore – might not be ready for a non-Chinese PM has irked many.
Heng, who is positioned to succeed PM Lee after his recent appointment as the ruling party’s first assistant secretary-general, made these comments as he spoke to students at a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) forum, last Thursday.
At the forum, NTU assistant professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah highlighted Tharman’s popularity and asked: “Is it Singapore who is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, or is it the PAP (the ruling People’s Action Party) who is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?”
Heng disputed the notion that Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese PM as he asserted that the older generation is not prepared to accept a minority PM.
Noting that many students might be happy to have a non-Chinese PM, Heng said that his “own experience in walking the ground, in working with different people from all walks of life, is that the views — if you go by age and by life experience — would be very different.”
He added: “I do think that at the right time, when enough people think that we may have a minority leader, a minority who becomes the leader of the country, that is something that we can all hope for.”
Heng’s comments drew widespread backlash from Singaporeans who criticised the Minister for his outdated views. Workers’ Party (WP) member Bernard Chen joined the chorus of voices criticising Heng, as he slammed the Minister for his “clueless leadership” and “hollow rhetoric”.
Chen, who contested the 2015 General Election under the WP ticket, highlighted that Heng’s comments frames the nation-building Pioneer and Merdeka generations “as the ones’ least understanding of progress and most resistant to building a new Singapore.”
Taking issue with the notion that “Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM” that Heng perpetuated, Chen wrote in a pointed Facebook post:
“When Singaporeans were not ready, we moved our people out from kampongs and into public housing blocks. When Singaporeans were not ready, we taught ourselves to speak English. When Singaporeans were not ready, we started campaigns and clean up Singapore.
“When Singaporeans were not ready, we conscripted young Singaporeans to defend our land. When Singaporeans were not ready, we chose an export-orientated economy over the accepted wisdom of the day. When Singaporeans were not ready, we cleared jungles and drained swamps to build Jurong.
“When Singaporeans were not ready, we passed the Women’s Charter. When Singaporeans were not ready, we moved our airport from Paya Lebar to Changi. When Singaporeans were not ready, we made and accepted tough, unpopular decisions.
“When Singaporeans were not ready, we left Malaysia and never look back.
“Alas, if our pioneering generation had waited for Singapore and Singaporeans to be ready, we would not have made the progress we’ve made in a generation, and to enjoy the success and stability we enjoy today.
“The people who profess to be the rightful heirs of the passion and values, ambitions and aspirations that built Singapore are the very people who are today holding the nation and our people back.
“The nation-building generation whom we affectionally coin as the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation are now being framed as the ones’ least understanding of progress and most resistant to building a new Singapore.
“The irony, the national tragedy. & the words from a [future] Prime Minister of Singapore, no less. Hollow rhetoric. Clueless leadership. Not ready for Singapore.”
The sentiments Heng shared at the NTU forum were disputed by a Facebook poll that went viral in the days after he made those comments.
The poll, published a day after Heng’s remarks, asked respondents to choose between Heng and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam for the top position. A whopping 92 per cent of 19,900 individuals voted for Tharman, clearly disputing the notion that Singapore is not ready for a minority PM:
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