Hits the right button
Second DPM talks of a cabinet shifting to centre-left and
need for diversity among Singaporean youths. By Seah Chiang Nee
Apr 27, 2013
(Synopsis: Tharman gives a polished
performance in an extensive interview with the media.)
THIS month, the
spotlight in Singapore – quite deservedly – falls on Second Deputy
Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
For two hours,
Tharman, who joined the Cabinet only nine years ago, gave a polished
performance befitting his title as a possible or potential prime minister.
He spoke about
the gradual shift of ruling party’s ideology – from centre to centre left – to
a new emphasis on social objectives, and more proposed taxation on wealth.
covered were wide-ranging. The tone was firmer than the generalities and
hedging that the public has been hearing from some leading politicians.
At the end of the
interview conducted with The Straits Times, serious-minded Singaporeans can
feel a bit better about succession choices.
capable Singaporeans are attracted by politics.
Many people have
often wondered who will immediately take over if something untoward happens to
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Action Party (PAP) has never made public its plan for crisis succession for
prime ministers in such an event. A plausible explanation is that it wishes to
avoid heated rivalry.
would be one of the two deputy prime ministers: First DPM Teo Chee Hean, 59,
and Second DPM Tharman, 56, who is also Finance Minister). By comparison, PM
Lee is 61.
On paper, Teo,
who acts as PM when Lee is abroad, comes across as first among equals, but that
could not be the full story.
commander, he is now Home Affairs Minister but has rarely figured in the public
mind as an automatic choice.
Some major points
Tharman covered included the following:
workers – “Keep the ratio of foreigners in the workforce to about one-third
over the long term.” (No mention if it includes permanent residents).
** Politics – It
is in Singapore’s interest to have a dominant party and the PAP wants to remain
that dominant party.
** Winning back
votes – “The PAP today is quite different from five years ago and almost
unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago. You can see that the PAP today is
quite different from five years ago ... Still a lot of work to do.”
** Asset taxes to
rise – Two moves were made in the last three years and this year. I don’t think
that’s the final step.
was his reference to ideology, something that Lee Kuan Yew had long shunned.
“When I first
entered politics about 11 years ago, I would say that the weight of (Cabinet)
thinking was centrist but there were two flanks on either side of it,” he said.
“There were some
(in the Cabinet) who were a little right-of-centre, and there were some a
little left-of-centre. Now I would say the weight of thinking is
“You still get
diversity of views in Cabinet, but the centre of gravity is left-of-centre.”
agrees that the Cabinet during the Lee Kuan Yew era was “centrist”.
Many saw it as
right-wing, conservative in nature, which differed from its early
constitutional definition of itself as a “democratic socialist” party.
I remember during
early days of reporting, someone asked Kuan Yew whether it was time – in view of so little welfarism – to drop the word
“socialist” from the PAP constitution, but Kuan Yew firmly turned it down.
He thought it
justified it because public housing, healthcare and education were subsidised.
But I suspected
it was more to preserve the PAP support base.
For a long time,
the PAP was a member of the Socialist International.
however, it was somewhat different from other socialist governments.
At most, it was a
practical form of socialism.
wrote that Kuan Yew was once (in 1995) so annoyed when he was addressed as
“Comrade” that he threatened to detain anyone else calling him that under the
Emergency Regulations for being a communist sympathiser.
In a way,
Tharman’s long interview rekindled talk about potential leaders.
ministers are elected by an informal gathering of ministerial peers.
position is that PM Lee will lead for another 10 – possibly 20 years – which is
not given too much public credence.
This was aimed at
stifling unhealthy speculation.
So far, the
decision of who will be prime minister has entirely been an internal party
But with the
changed political environment, it would be irrational to exclude public
Tharman, whose chances are considered slim because of his race, has emerged as
the most promising minister.
Singaporeans in this predominantly Chinese city feel that as an ethnic Indian,
he may find acceptance tough. It is something Tharman seems to agree with.
Asked in the
interview about a non-Chinese prime minister, Tharman replied: “My own sense is
if you talk about in 20 years, I’d say entirely possible. I’d find it very odd
if we only have Chinese prime ministers forever.
“.. I have no aspirations by the way to be prime minister! I enjoy being part
of the team, contributing as much as I can.”
nearly half a century of independence, the younger generation of Singaporeans is
generally less influenced by a person’s race when judging qualities for
Besides, with an
ambition of becoming a world-class city, race has become even less of a
leadership factor today than 40 years ago.
(This article was first published in The Star, Malaysia on Apr 27, 2013.)