DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam–Happy just to serve Singapore

October 2, 2016

DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam–Happy just to serve Singapore

Surekha A. Yadav

by Surekha A. Yadav


The most popular politician in Singapore has categorically stated that he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister.

Earlier this week, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and long-time Finance Minister went on record saying, “I’m not the man for PM. I say that categorically. It’s not me. I know myself, I know what I can do, and it’s not me.”

Such categorical statements are unusual from politicians in general, and in this case particularly unusual as:

1. There are no looming elections therefore no apparent reason to speculate on the matter of new PMs so decisively now.

2. If we are, for whatever reason, thinking about new PMs  — Shanmugaratnam is, in fact, the most logical candidate — in terms of seniority within the ruling party, popularity, profile, and ministerial track record, academic background etc. he ticks all the boxes.

So why the denial? Because obviously people have been asking the question — will you be the next PM?

These questions seem to have arisen on account of ongoing concerns of a successor within the top echelons of the ruling party. A concern amplified by the health scare the incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared to have at this year’s National Day speech.

Singapore DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said he does not wish to be prime minister. — Picture courtesy of TODAY

Singapore DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said he does not wish to be prime minister. — Picture courtesy of TODAY

And the people asking Shanmugaratnam have good reason to want to know. After all, a quick glance at the current Cabinet leaves Shanmugaratnam as the most apparent candidate.

In addition to seniority he has a higher profile than any other minister in government and appears to be popular both within his constituency and nationally. In the last general election, he won his GRC (polling district) by the highest margin of any MP — including the Prime Minister.

Plus the #tharmanforpmcampaign (a low-key but visible Tharman for PM campaign led by, it seems, fans of the Finance Minister, rather than the man himself) remains popular and persistent.

His record as Finance Minister is impressive. In the nine years he has held the position, Singapore has proved resilient in the face of global financial turmoil. With 15 years of experience as an MP, 10 years as a senior minister, and academic credentials from the LSE, Harvard and Cambridge on all fronts his claim for the top spot is rock solid.

Yet he’s just said quite emphatically that he’s not the man for the job.  Why? One reason is age. Shanmugaratnam himself has said that the next Prime Minister will be drawn from the 4th generation of the People’s Action Party (PAP) Leadership; the Finance Minister counts himself as a 3rd generation leader.

However, at 59 he’s not exactly a geriatric and globally being in office in one’s 60s is still par for the course. Many critics also argue, at present, that none of the 3rd generation leadership seems to have the standing and presence to lead the country.

His other stated reason seems to be personal temperament. He says he is happier being part of the leadership team than its leader but again looking at the weakness of other potential leaders, Shanmugaratnam look to be the best we have got.

We’ve seen him deliver extremely statesmanlike addresses domestically along with his annual Budget and internationally at the IMF.

From the perspective of constituents, nothing appears to be wrong with his temperament but of course there is another factor — race. Shanmugaratnam is an ethnic Indian/Ceylonese and (post-independence) Singapore has yet to have a minority Prime Minister.

The nation’s effective founder Lee Kuan Yew stated explicitly that the country was not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister but that was more than 20 years ago.

Judging by Shanmugaratnam’s electoral record: Singapore seems to be ready — in 2015, his team won 79 per cent of the vote in the Jurong GRC — which certainly isn’t accounted for by minority votes alone.  And the voices backing various Tharman for PM campaigns have been multi-ethnic.

In many respects, his minority status only bolsters his credentials for the job as our first minority PM. A minority leader would only strengthen the idea of a broad-based Singaporean nation.

A qualified capable and well-positioned minority candidate does not come along often. Shanmugartnam’s present situation is a historical opportunity but is an opportunity that seems to have slipped away because the man himself doesn’t want the job.

To many, including me, it seems a wasted opportunity; a missed chance to complete the task of nation building that has been the mission of Singapore’s leaders from the birth of our nation.

But then succession struggles especially in Singapore with its weak opposition are a complex internal, inter-party business and perhaps staying out of the fray will prove a wise decision by an astute man.

However, his personal prudence in this case may have robbed the nation of a historic and important opportunity and I wonder if this will end up as the one blot on the record of a man with an otherwise exemplary record of service to his country.


11 thoughts on “DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam–Happy just to serve Singapore

  1. There is a difference between being an effective technocrat minister and a national leader. As the former you just do your job efficiently and as part of a cabinet team faithfully supporting your PM, but the latter requires you to play national and international politics which requires a special kind of stomach. Even LKY has said that he went into local British colonial politics accidentally and was elected by his PAP peers to be their front man simply because he spoke English well.

    He, Tharman, has been a hardworking civil servant most of his working life, and if he was not inducted into the PAP, perhaps from the immense pressure exerted on him from LKY / LHL, he would have remained so until his obscure retirement as most senior civil servants all over the World do.

    He knows his own temperament and limitations, not least the delicate balancing act he would be required to perform on the one hand in overtly promoting the pressing economic interests of the minority race he hails from as expected of him against the overwhelming pressures from the majority ethnic Chinese to promote their’s. He may find it hard to please all sides and ended up angering everyone.

    And last but not least if he appointed and promoted too many ethnic Indian Singaporean ministers or civil servants, even if on pure merit, he would still be accused of biases. He could never win.

  2. Someone in SCMP insinuated that Thaman refused to stand for PMship due to the fact that it’s tough for a minority such as Yindians becoming PM of Singapore. SCMP stands for South China Morning Post. While it may be true, there are 2 reasons why Thaman would not be able to become PM is because

    1) He is 59 years old now, by the end of the parliament term, he would be 64 years old. Too old according to Singapore standard

    2) By convention, a Singapore PM must speak at least 3 out of 4 official languages. Which Thaman can’t.

    I believe CLF would yell otherwise but then I don’t give a damn towards his opinion since he refuses to engage his alter ego in australia due to dubious reasons. Not that that really matter

  3. I personally pray this generation of Singaporean could teach this Cina pendatang one thing.. Singapore could transcend race. I pray Dr Tharman could give Singapore this opportunity to do so, in spite of his personal reason.

  4. Tharman has all the credentials to be a PM – a brilliant and sharp minded technocrat, popular to the electorate, at ease in relating to the ordinary and the extraordinary with the ability to explain complex things in simple terms. He knows Tamil, a little Malay and a bit of Mandarin and if this is a drawback for high office, all he needs to do is brush up the languages.

    But he doesn’t want the job. He has said that his strength is in formulating policies and helping younger ministers to learn more and become even more better. I suspect he must have had a hand or even initiated the idea of the next PM to come from fourth generation leadership. If he is indeed the author, his rationale would be not to breach his own first principle.

    He is an extremely valuable asset for Singapore. As the baton is passed on to the next PM (or even before that), Tharman should be made a Senior Minister and later on as Emeritus Senior Minister

  5. The talk of opportunity is valid and the admirable prudence is in fact, not all admirable. The fact is Shanmugaratnam’s recusal is a bit presumptious and cowardly. By recusing oneself for whatever reason, it basically assumes that the next generation possesses those leaders that can exceed what he or the team he can lead to be better. Even if the next generation of Singapore leaders are as talented, its presumptious they can gather the political capital of experience and insights that those before them can for what will be EVEN GREATER challenge that Singapore faces.. Suppose its unlikely there is a leader among them that can exceed the political capital of Shanmugaratnam, then the “opportunity” that is spoken here would have been wasted in nation building.

  6. Take a look at another Indian besides S Rajaratnam. A astute man by the name of S Dhanabalan. LKY had said that he would prefer him to be the next PM but unfortunately.

    Heard of Ong Teng Cheong before. He too was qualified to be PM too. Instead LKY decided to handover to Goh Chok Tong.

  7. S Dhanabalan was never touted as the next preferred PM by LKY. His preference was Dr Tony Tan (current President). But the younger Ministers, who were tasked to choose their leader, chose Goh Chok Tong instead.

  8. I think Tharman is either being coy, smart or just bidding his time. Many years ago, Dr Tan Eng Liang (Rhodes scholar and Olympian) was touted as PM material by Time magazine. After that, he didn’t last long as he was perceived to be a threat to the ascension of you know who. Next was Lim Chee Onn, another impressive guy who was unceremoniously taken down over the bad handling of NTUC. His purported mishandling of NTUC senior management relationship was just an excuse – the real reason was that again he was a competitor for the PM post.

    So, in Singapore, to be singled out as a PM candidate is a kiss of death.

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