Singapore’s leadership crisis: why not Tharman?

This is the third of five in a series on Singapore’s prospective next prime minister. See here for the second, on Ong Ye Kung and Chan Chun Sing.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 63, senior minister

May 7th 2015 is a day that will live long in the memory of many Singaporeans. At the forty-fifth St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, whose piercing questions on HARDtalk have left many guests floundering, took on then deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. 

In a broad conversation about the Singapore model, Sackur critiqued, among other things, our form of democracy, the lack of press freedoms and our relatively weak social protections.

It would be a bit unfair to say that Sackur left with a bloody nose—unfair to Tharman, who never once engaged in the viciousness, the defensive moralising or the whataboutisms that one associates with many in the Singapore establishment. 

Instead Tharman gently schooled Sackur, alternating between long circumspect explanations and witty retorts, like a cross between Osho and Dumbledore, leaving the poor journalist in a state of cold, dumbfounded shock, seemingly on the verge of saying “Thank you, guru.”

Finally, many of us thought, Singapore again has somebody who can effortlessly represent us on an international stage. Not since Lee Kuan Yew has somebody inspired that sort of deep nationalistic pride. Same same but different: the fiery precision of Lee’s rhetoric versus the mesmerising brilliance of Tharman’s melody. (Perhaps that evolution of styles is a reflection of Singapore’s own journey, from the paranoia of the 1960s to the confidence of the 2010s.)

Even though at the time there was no indication that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had ever considered Tharman as a future leader, many of us believed he must be the one. After all, since independence in 1965 the PAP has repeatedly professed the mantras of meritocracy and multi-racialism; surely, in keeping with that, there could really only be one choice.

Apparently not. By sidelining Tharman, the PAP has undermined faith in core Singaporean values. It has also shown an incredible capacity for self-destructive behaviour.

“If the PAP had chosen Tharman, its current top electoral performer who elicits broad, cross-party adoration, it would have pulled the rug from under the opposition,” I wrote last year. “A long period of dominance would beckon. That the PAP failed to execute this obvious electoral gambit suggests that narrow interests are being prioritised over the party’s.”

Over the years, I have heard many theories for why Tharman cannot be prime minister. First, Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister. Next, Tharman is too liberal for the PAP Old Guard. “The real issue with Tharman may be the colour of his politics, and not his skin,” writes Cherian George. “More than any other minister, he has an appetite for progressive reforms.”

And finally, the rationale commonly whispered these days is that Tharman is too individualistic, not enough of a team player. In stark contrast to somebody like K Shanmugam, so it goes, Tharman is unwilling to spend any of his political capital to defend his party; hence he can’t be trusted. Tharman’s post-election comments, where he apparently spoke out of turn in saying that the outcome was good for Singapore, was apparently the latest evidence of this.

My own sense, having heard the evolution of the Why-not-Tharman rationale, is that there may be some belief in each of these three strands within the PAP (both politicians and cadres). Quite possibly euphemisms camouflage inherently racist sentiments. In other words, “Tharman’s too liberal” may be code for “Tharman’s too brown”.

To be clear, there is little electoral evidence that Singaporean voters care about skin colour. From JB Jeyaretnam’s triumphs in the 1980s to Murali Pillai’s recent victories, Singaporeans have a long history of voting for Indians over Chinese. If one looks even further back, to the 1955 general elections, which was the first where a majority of seats were elected rather than appointed by the British colonialists, the following minority candidates won their districts by beating Chinese: Ahmad bin Ibrahim, Anthony Rebeiro Lazarous, David Marshall and Madai Puthan Damodaran Nair.

So the reality of the “Tharman’s too brown” argument is not that Singaporeans are necessarily racist in their voting preferences, but rather that there may be racist tendencies within the PAP—which the party then occasionally ascribes to the electorate. This, along with the 2017 reserved presidency, is part of a worrying recent pattern of the party weaponising race for its own narrow political gain.

Nevertheless, many younger PAP members recognise that the race argument, whatever its validity within the party, is bad for optics. Hence I sense a desire within the PAP to deflect the narrative toward the two other supposed reasons: Tharman’s too liberal; Tharman’s not a team player.

“We have more to do. We are not a perfect country, we are not a perfect government, there’s more to do. And we are quite straight about it, we are quite honest about it,” Tharman once said. Unfortunately for Tharman, few of his teammates have the self-confidence to engage in this sort of introspection. They might perceive his candour as undermining their “Creators of the greatest country on earth” trope.

Next, if we look outside the PAP, these past few months have been interesting because, for the first time in my life, I have heard ordinary Singaporeans more vocally criticising Tharman or losing patience with his perceived political sluggishness.

There are three broad critiques. First, the argument that Tharman should not be seen as some liberal or progressive hero. He is fairly conservative and may not necessarily promote the kind of social welfare the left deems necessary today in Singapore. 

This is certainly true, Tharman has centre-right economic views that will likely be brought into sharp contrast through his debates with the Workers’ Party’s Jamus Lim: for example, Tharman’s progressive wage model versus Jamus’s minimum wage. 

Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that Tharman is so much more intellectually capable and nimble than his peers (Lee aside), his star power so great, that ordinary Singaporeans have long been projecting their own ideological desires onto him. 

The reality is that Tharman may be too progressive for some of the PAP Old Guard; and at the same time too much of a centrist for those on the left.

(Aside: In 2004 Tharman said that he hangs four canes in a cupboard at home, one for each child, though only as a threat; he claims he’s never used them. In other words, like his economics, Tharman’s parenting might also be classified as “centre-right”.)

The second critique is that Tharman does not do enough to stand up for minority issues, leaving it to others who may have insufficient moral clarity to lead (as evidenced by last year’s brown face incident). By contrast Tharman, so it goes, might offer Singapore a much more level-headed and inclusive approach to multiculturalism. 

I can see the allure of this argument, but there is no evidence to support it. If anything, going by his comments at St Gallen, Tharman appears to be a firm supporter of Singapore’s top-down, micromanaged, CMIO approach to race relations and ethnic integration. Besides, even if true, even if Tharman can offer better moral leadership on minority issues, perhaps it is a lot to ask of him, one more thing on his crowded plate. Should we just make him Minister for Everything?

Third is the critique that Tharman is doing Singapore a disservice by not fighting harder for the prime ministership. I am most sympathetic to this argument. I believe any politician, once they have entered the ring, has an obligation to show personal leadership. Part of that is requisite ambition, seizing the mantle of power when there is an obvious vacuum.

For years some Tharman supporters have insisted to me that he really doesn’t want it; and that he can’t wait to leave local politics and move on to some exalted position with a multilateral in DC or Geneva, where his legions of foreign admirers can every night be seduced cerebrally by him.

Really? Can Tharman really scoot off in the knowledge that he’s leaving Singapore rudderless?

Whatever the case, it appears that Singapore has passed peak Tharman. In the recent election, a newly formed Red Dot United team shaved almost five percentage points off Tharman’s winning margin from 2015. Perhaps this reflected dissatisfaction with his disciples Ivan Lim or Tan Wu Meng, but still it was interesting to see the great Tharman humbled in the same election where voters appeared to be discriminating even more between the PAP’s candidates: consider that Tin Pei Ling managed to grow her winning margin by over six percentage points.

The various trajectories of the personalities discussed in this series together suggest that Tharman will go down in history as Singapore’s almost man, an effete intellectual more comfortable in Davos than in Jurong, somebody whose personal political decline mirrored his party’s.


Top image:

Merry Christmas! I will be taking a break for a few days, but plan to publish the fourth installment of this five-part leadership series on Dec 28th. That one will feature Singapore’s other “Shan”: K Shanmugam. See here.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation to help with the running costs of “Musings from Singapore”, so that I can keep this content free and accessible to all.

No obligation. Give what you want. Even a dollar is great.

1) PayLah! or PayNow or Bank transfer

Send the money to UEN: 53406735B (“STV Works”) or simply scan the QR code below.

Alternatively, you can also do a direct bank transfer to “STV Works” at United Overseas Bank (UOB), account: 4653009199

2) PayPal

If you have a PayPal account, click here to make a donation.

3) Credit card

Donate via Credit Card

Note: There are no transaction fees with PayLah! or PayNow. With Paypal or Credit Card there is a percentage on top of a fixed cost, e.g. 3.9% plus $0.50 per transaction.

To understand why I am seeking donations/tips now in this way, and exactly what your money will be used for, please read here.

That St Gallen performance

“I didn’t mean it entirely as a compliment,” Tharman told Sackur.

One of my favourite lines. I’ve bookmarked the video below at that precise segment, do spend twenty seconds on it.

Article extras

On the PAP’s self-destructive behaviour. Ordinary PAP cadres and members should be absolutely outraged that the party has not chosen the most electorally-viable leader. This is basic self preservation. Notwithstanding the Why-not-Tharman arguments above, the fact that more cadres are not revolting over the sidelining of Tharman is proof to me of the sway Lee Hsien Loong, Ho Ching, and other senior members have over them. Shame.

A concern from Tharman’s supporters. One buddy has, on several occasions, told me to dampen my enthusiasm for the man. The worry is that excessive “Tharman for PM” cheerleading might lead him to an “Anwar moment”, referencing how the ambitious Malaysian politician was fixed by opponents, including Mahathir, in the late 1990s.

Another minority nicety from the 1955 election. In the two-horsed race for the Southern Islands seat, which included the areas of Sentosa and Pulau Brani, Mohamed Sidik bin Abdul Hamid beat Hollupatherage James Caldera Kulasingha.

8 thoughts on “Singapore’s leadership crisis: why not Tharman?

  1. history will tell us many a time – leaders sure make tons of mistakes. lhl is no different. his shortsightedness will be seen sooner if not later. in fact since that old man moved on , lhl has been grappling fumbling befuddling – poooor fella.

Leave a Reply