As we deal with our post-GE hangover and soothe ourselves with funny politician Telegram stickers, lest we forget, the work after our political awakening has only just begun. There is still one nagging issue that has resurfaced during this General Election. The matter in question is how Singaporeans are still not ready for a minority Prime Minister (PM). I have to say that in 2020, it befuddles me that this is still a point of contention in our society.
After all, this is not the first time the case of having a minority as PM has been brought up. This issue has been hotly debated for a while now ad nauseam. We want to think that we live in a Singapore that has evolved past these predicaments.
However, the fact we need to talk about this underlines the glaring problems in the way we perceive race, and how that bleeds into politics, leadership renewal; and how, after fifty-five years of independence, we are still forced to look at skin colour as a way to segment people and their perceived usefulness to society.
Let’s first situate ourselves. Most of us would think that the notion of Singaporeans not being ready for a minority PM comes from Minister Heng Swee Keat, but in fact, this can be traced back three decades ago to what then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said back in 1988.
At the time, PM Lee Kuan Yew said he would have considered the then-National Development Minister Dhanabalan for the PM’s job if not for his Indian ethnicity.
This is the quote from the article:
“Singapore, Mr Lee said, was not ready for an Indian prime minister.”
Mr Dhanabalan, himself, however felt that Chinese Singaporeans were ready for a minority PM. We must remember that it was a different time—the swinging 80s. A time where Singaporeans were more interested in economic growth and the loveable Ah Meng to be troubled over concerning statements like these.
Then, comes the historic 2008 presidential election when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Shortly after, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked whether Singapore was ready for a Prime Minister of a minority race, specifically from the Malay-Muslim community. To which he responded:
“Will it happen soon? I don’t think so, because you have to win votes. And these sentiments – who votes for whom, and what makes him identify with that person – these are sentiments which will not disappear completely for a long time, even if people do not talk about it, even if people wish they did not feel it.”
Fast forward about ten years, on 28 March 2019, during an NTU forum Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat echoed these same ideas.
During the forum, Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah of NTU’s School of Social Sciences’ public policy and global affairs programme posed a question to Minister Heng Swee Keat:
“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?”
To which he replied,
“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”. Minister Heng notes that while the younger generation is more open to a minority PM, that in 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”.
What I gather from all these three statements is that after 30 years, we have not arrived at this so-called ‘right time’. Yet, after decades of rhetoric and political gaslighting, there is now overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that Singaporeans are actively looking past skin colour in choosing a leader that best represents their interests and aligns with their ideals of what political leadership should look like now.
So, who is the one who is not ready?
For those who recently went through a personal political awakening during GE 2020, first of all, allow me to congratulate you and offer you a pat on your back. It’s always encouraging when more people get involved in politics and let their voice be heard regardless of which party they vote. But before we get into who we want as PM, we need to know how the process works.
Quite simply, the President of Singapore appoints the Prime Minister who is most likely to command the confidence of the newly elected members of Parliament (MP).
In practice, the Prime Minister is the leader of the ruling party. The Prime Minister then chooses members of the Cabinet, nominates the Speaker of Parliament and passes legislation. It is a highly influential role, and thus far we’ve only had three Prime Ministers in our fifty-five years history— the late Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and currently, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong.
Whenever the topic of who makes for the best Prime Minister surfaces, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s name will inevitably come up. The case for Mr Tharman is compelling. Years of service and accolades aside, let’s take a look at this year’s GE results.
Jurong GRC, led by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, won by a landslide, clinching 74.62% of the vote—one of the highest vote shares from the People’s Action Party this year.
This number is by no means a fluke. In the elections of 2015 and 2011, Tharman garnered 79.28% and 66.96% of the vote respectively.
Political pundits would note that for GE 2020, Tharman significantly outperformed his peers. This is in comparison to Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat who only acquired 53.41% of the vote, or even Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, for Tanjong Pagar GRC who clinched 63.13% of the vote.
The other popular candidate for the coveted position of PM, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin of Marine Parade GRC, secured 57.76% of the total vote share.
It might also be worth pointing out that unlike his peers, Mr Tharman did not do as much campaigning. It was an easy win, and Tharman definitely has won over the hearts of the people many times over.
I have to bring up the viral Facebook poll of 22k by user Mark Rozells. He created a poll asking who Facebook users preferred as a candidate for Prime Minister; Heng Swee Keat or Tharman Shanmugaratum.
A thumping 19,900 people voted for Tharman Shanmugaratnum as opposed to Heng Swee Keat for their next PM.
That’s a margin of 92%.
Another survey by Blackbox commissioned by Yahoo Singapore asked 897 respondents who they would choose as their first choice for Prime Minister. No guesses of who came out on top. Once again Tharman won by a landslide 69%.
Another case-in-point is Secretary-General Pritam Singh of Worker’s Party. Besides his strong leadership, equanimity, and solidarity for his party, it is also important to note that his GRC line-up was racially diverse. Amongst its ranks, we have—Sylvia Lim, Leon Perera, Gerald Giam Yean Song, and Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap.
Aljunied GRC’s continued wins are proof that Singaporeans vote for the people they deem most competent to lead and govern them.
The statistics don’t lie and if anything, it shows us that Singaporeans have long looked past skin colour and cultural differences when it comes to choosing a representative for Parliament. So, what gives?
‘But, Tharman doesn’t even want to be Prime Minister!’, naysayers bemoan. That’s true, Tharman himself has said many times that he has no interest in being Prime Minister and fully supports Heng Swee Keat on the path to Prime Minister.
Yet, when it comes to the topic of minority representation for the highest office of the land, we must know and acknowledge that it is something bigger than Tharman. We have to think about the harmful implications that a multicultural society like Singapore in this day and age is still not ‘ready’ for a minority Prime Minister.
The repercussions of these statements are two-fold.
The first is its detrimental effect on minorities. By assigning racial criteria to the role of Prime Minister, skin colour now becomes a factor of how far you can go in public life.
This emphasises Chinese privilege in the worst way possible and encourages a rift between the majority and minority races. What impact does this have on minority youth when there is a ceiling to excelling in public life?
These concepts go on further to undermine our meritocracy. After all, the Singaporean narrative we’ve been fed is that as long as we work hard, we will succeed, regardless of race, language or religion. But that is not the case here, is it?
Our Ministers are extensively fielded and judged based on their performance and competence. Why do the same rules not apply to the role of Prime Minister? After all, this is the pinnacle of public life. While we acknowledge that not everyone is suited to become Prime Minister, to have that option taken away before having a chance to prove oneself is wholly unfair.
You can contend that according to the survey Minister Heng Swee Keat quoted, the older generation (above 50) are not keen on the idea of having a non-Chinese PM. However, sentiments have changed and with the results of GE 2020, it is blatantly obvious that Singaporeans will always put their trust in the most capable candidate and race is secondary to that decision.
In fact, we should actively correct and stamp out these outdated and harmful beliefs.
With such a strong mandate GE 2020 has thrust upon our Parliament who is in the midst upon forming the cabinet, I do believe we have arrived at the ‘right time’. The people have spoken and the ball in the Parliament’s court now.
To cite PM Lee’s words the PAP “must never, ever be afraid to do what is right for Singapore”. If we want to be the vibrant, progressive and inclusive country we all know we can be, our politicians have to be brave and move us forward. Skin colour be damned.