Who really is "not ready" for a non-Chinese PM?

The recent announcement of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s promotion to Finance Minister — in addition to his current Education portfolio — set many of tongues wagging as to whether he might be the successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong many moons from now. This in turn sparked a debate in the Straits Times as to whether Singaporeans (read: the Chinese-speaking majority) are ready to accept and support a non-Chinese prime minister.

This isn’t the first time this issue has surfaced. Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that former Cabinet Minister S. Dhanabalan was one of the four men he considered as his successor, but decided against him as he felt Singapore was “not ready” for a non-Chinese prime minister. That was almost 20 years ago.

Fast forward to the year 2007, and this whole mantra of “Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM” is getting very tiresome to listen to. It seems to be most repeated among the English-educated, ethnic Chinese elites, many of whom have little regular contact with both Chinese-speaking “heartlanders” and ethnic minorities. These elites assume that they know the thinking of the Chinese ground. Yet I wonder whether they are just using this as a cover for their own primordial mindsets.

Here are some of the arguments (undoubtedly from these elites) that have been put forth against having a non-Chinese PM:

“I am a realist and am inclined to agree with Mr S. Dhanabalan that Chinese Singaporeans are not ready to accept a non-Chinese prime minister….This is the reality and fact of life that we cannot pretend that such mindset does not exist.”

(Straits Times Forum, 1 Dec 07)

“If anything, the ascendency (sic) of China in this century is the very reason why Singapore CANNOT have a non-Chinese Singaporean as leader….A potential Malay candidate as leader will never do because of the region we are in. Neither is an Indian one wise since India is on a headlong fight for economic and political influence with China.”

(Comment on ST Forum, 5 Dec 07)

“Let’s be realistic. A majority chinese Singapore will never accept a non chinese PM. Even, i cannot accept it. I am not a racist fyi. Let me tell you why. First, we are a tiny island surrounded by hostile malay/muslim nation similar to Israel…”

(HardwareZone Forum, 30 Nov 07)

I find it hard to reconcile how a country that prides itself in meritocracy and rubbishes its neighbour up north for their racialist policies, apparently has the strongest proponents of meritocracy still harbouring this mindset. It reminds me of the oft-repeated mantra that Malay Singaporeans cannot be placed in sensitive positions in the military because their loyalty in times of war may be questionable.

The political reality in Singapore is that it is not up to the Chinese masses to choose their prime minister. Unlike in the US, the electorate does not directly elect their head of government. It is effectively the ruling party (or more specifically the PAP Central Executive Committee and its cadres) which chooses the prime minister, because the head of the ruling party is usually made the PM.

This means that if an eminently qualified minority is passed over for the prime ministership, it is because our elites do not want him there, not because “Singaporeans are not ready”.

Having said that, if it is true that Mr Shanmugaratnam is being groomed to be the next prime minister based solely on the merit of his abilities and character, then I applaud PM Lee for his progressive mindset.

There are so many areas in which Singaporeans were “not ready”, yet the government pushed through policies for what it deemed was in the country’s best interest. National service, English medium education, the casinos, CPF rate cuts and ministerial salaries are just a few that come to mind. Isn’t choosing the best qualified man or woman to lead the country, regardless of race or religion, far more important that all these policies?

This article was first published in theonlinecitizen.com.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

10 thoughts on “Who really is "not ready" for a non-Chinese PM?”

  1. Hi Gerald
    I agree with you that Tharman is eminently qualified to lead the country sometime in the future.
    Unfortunately not all S’poreans are as rational as you and I.
    I hope in the near future, S’poreans can learn to be colour- and cultural-blind.
    If the elite does not start taking the lead, we cannot expect the population to breakthrough the colour political ceiling.
    Whatever it is, I have been impressed with T’s work so far.



  2. Dear Gerald,

    I had actually thought it was Vivian and Tharman that is more outstanding of this generation.

    Having said that, I do believe that the ruling party’s position that Singaporean is not ready for a non-chinese PM has more to do with pandering to those who dislike changes to status quo.

    There is only so much you can challenge the status quo before you start losing votes and support. I do believe that the latest rhetoric has more to pander to the elites than to the masses.

    Will Singapore ever become race blind? I do not know. Are we race blind now? I do not know, what I do know is that based on an anecdotal story in Freaknomics (hahaha),in the US Southern state, the opinion polls vs the actual poll result of racist candidates are often not in sync. In fact, actual poll result often showed racist candidates receiving more votes than what the opinion polls indicate. What this may show to a certain extent is that whilst people may express in public their position on racism, they may not act accordingly in the privacy of the ballot box.

    Will this then be what Singaporean is. While they may express positions on meritocracy, yet they may not practice that in the ballot box.

  3. I wonder whether it is *because* the PAP has a publicly acceptable frontman that they feel they are able to make the harder decisions “in the country’s interest.” I think it would be harder to make these decisions acceptable to the populous if they were seen to be coming from someone who was ‘outside’ the majority. Maybe some parallels can be drawn between the Singaporean ethnic situation and why the USA has never had a woman president?

  4. Dr H – I agree. Our leaders should be taking the lead instead of constantly harping on Singaporeans being racist. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    newcastle – Afraid of losing votes? Then they shouldn’t have raised their own million dollar salaries.

    byleduct – The above also applies to my response to your point. I believe there are so many factors involved. I don’t think the guy’s race will play as big a part in the day-to-day running of govt than our elites think it will. As far as public face/image, I reckon Tharman’s bald pate might be a bigger impediment than his skin colour!

  5. byleduct – you think Australia will ever get a non-white male PM? USA is 200+ years old and they have yet to elect a woman or minority president.

  6. Over the past decade there have been various Asian and women Lord Mayor’s in the capital cities of Australia (eg. Alfred Huang & Jane Lomax-Smith (Adelaide), John Chun Sai So (current Melbourne)).

    Similarly there have been various State Premiers (eg. Carmen Lawrance – WA; Anna Bligh – current QLD) and Governors (eg. Marjorie Jackson-Nelson – SA; Marie Bashir – current NSW from Lebanese background) who have been women.

    I think there have been various non-white men in Australian society who could have been accepted by the populous. Aiden Ridgeway comes to mind. Noel Pearson another.

    Therefore I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that in the near future Australia will have either a non-white or non-male prime-minister.

  7. Dear Gerald,

    Perhaps raising ministerial salary is one political gambit that they are willing to take but where a non-chinese PM is concerned, that is one area they are too paranoid about. Lets recall what MM Lee once said, he had mentioned that it is not likely they will field a women or a minority race candidate in a single seat ward as the probability of votes lost is higher based on gender and race.

    Until our leaders can take the lead and be race-blind, we will be stuck in this self-fulfiling prophecy of the majority not being ready for a minority race PM.

    Personally, its the ability, passion and emphathy for the people that counts for me as a PM, not the skin colour.

    At the end of the day, the ruling party probably felt its a political gambit with too high a cost to even play

  8. Given the dominance of Chinese in all areas in Singapore including Politics in a country which originally belonged to Malays who form a pathetic 20% or so of the population, I am not convinced by this purile argument about a non-Chinese PM. If that were to happen, still there will be a Chinese Deputy PM and a Chinese Mentor who wield real power.

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