Singapore’s leadership crisis: Shan, the phenom

This is the fourth of five in a series on Singapore’s prospective next prime minister. See here for the third, on Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam, 61, minister for law & minister for home affairs

It may seem odd to include Shanmugam, never touted as a potential leader of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), in this series. Yet he is clearly a, if not the, power behind the throne. And observers do wonder if he harbours even greater ambitions.

The lawyer turned politician is arguably Singapore’s most polarising public figure. His supporters regard him as a swashbuckling hero, ever-ready to defend the PAP’s brand of conservatism against the dark forces they see bubbling up from every crevice, whether local historians like PJ Thum and local artists like Preeti and Subhas, or foreign provocateurs apparently out to pollute Singapore’s drug-free society. His critics see him as a firebrand for the kind of authoritarian politics that is stifling Singapore’s growth in many ways, including crimping the sort of open, honest discourse that a thinking society needs.

Still, even they would probably agree that Shanmugam is brilliant and quick to the draw. He has taken over from Lee Kuan Yew as the party’s main legal strategist. Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (Pofma), writes Cherian George, “is Singapore’s most sweeping media legislation since LKY’s 1986 press law amendments…Like many of Lee’s legislative creations, Pofma is globally unprecedented…post-LKY, nobody other than Shan, as his fellow lawyers used to call him, could have pushed through the Constitutional amendments to reserve Presidential Elections for minority candidates.”

Shan is also the PAP’s chief attack dog. Though his methods and influence probably extend far beyond his own direct words, the exact remit of his operations is unclear. 

Some official PAP assaults on opposition politicians are, sources say, likely to be directed by Shan. This perhaps includes the horrible attempt, just days before the recent election, to smear The Workers’ Party’s Raeesah Khan as a Muslim chauvinist for old social media posts in which she attacks the perceived privilege of rich Chinese and Whites in Singapore. 

“Raeesah is one of the most liberal Muslims around,” a local academic recently told me. “And the PAP tried to paint her out to be some right-wing UMNO fanatic?”

That attack was probably the single most politically divisive event of the last year. It almost certainly cost the PAP votes, not only among younger progressives but also, as this academic told me, older Muslims disgusted with the attack on one of their young leaders. As an electoral gambit, it was an utter failure, suggesting that Shan is out of touch with the Singaporean ground. 

(If indeed he was involved; listening to some party insiders, I sometimes get the feeling that “Blame Shan” is a convenient excuse for any undignified party action.)

Credit: Sonny Liew

Shanmugam, separately, is the perfect embodiment of the PAP’s long-held mantra that conflicts of interest do not affect Singaporean leaders. In this telling, such is the moral purity of these godly figures that they are able to effortlessly rise above the internal conflicts that might hobble mere mortals. 

The fact that Shanmugam oversees both the ministry for law and ministry for home affairs—everybody from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to the Internal Security Department and the Singapore Police Force (SPF)—should be proof enough. 

Shanmugam helps create laws (as an MP); Shanmugam helps implement laws (as law minister) and Shanmugam helps enforce laws (as home affairs minister).

Singaporeans got an insight into the problems this creates with the recent Parti Liyani case, when Shanmugam stood up to defend both the AGC’s and the SPF’s handling of the case. In his extraordinary ministerial statement, he not only tried to shred the credibility of the poor Indonesian maid—presumably she hadn’t already suffered enough—he also effectively sent a message to society that he has the power to reframe and sanitise judicial rulings.

Recently, during the defamation suit by Lee Hsien Loong against Terry Xu of The Online Citizen, Singaporeans were blessed to receive another sutra describing Lord Shanmugam’s powers. Lee admitted that in the deliberation over 38 Oxley Road, his late father’s residence, Shan was effectively able to hold three separate views in accordance with three separate roles.

First, Shan as friend helped Lee Kuan Yew craft the demolition clause in his will. Second, Shan as cabinet member recommended not demolishing the house. Third, Shan as individual may have had a separate view.

(That’s only the half of it. Since Shanmugam in Tamil means “six faces”, one wonders if the Lord can perform three more roles still.)

Over the years Shan’s fans have tried to soften his image by presenting him as affable in person or frank in conversation; or by playing up his supposed promotion of women’s rights and LGBT rights, or his affinity for animals. Carrie Tan, his newest disciple, appeared to be lost in emotion when describing the fact that he used a cat emoji in a private text message.

I believe that these Shan fans often miss the forest for the trees. What is the point of making the right noises about LGBT rights if one never attempts to change Singapore’s numerous unjust laws and policies that discriminate against the vulnerable community? What is the point of being open and frank in private conversations, or glamming up for interviews with Michelle Chong or Nas Daily, if one then proceeds to evade an uncomfortable question in the parliamentary debate on POFMA (as I highlight in video at bottom)?

To me Shan often appears like somebody who, while fundamentally wedded to the PAP’s old conservatism, is also trying desperately hard to keep up with the times, to maintain a hip image. 

The reality is that as the second-longest serving MP in parliament (after Lee Hsien Loong), having entered politics amid the alleged Marxist Conspiracy, Shan can often appear like an anachronism. His lingering, domineering presence is at odds with the PAP’s talk about renewal and change with the 4G.

One of the ironic things about Shan’s post-election call for “soul-searching” is that he himself is unlikely to be given a mirror. Surrounded by acolytes itching for a fight, and with the PAP’s unsavoury Internet Brigade hanging on his every word, it would not surprise me if the attack on Raeesah is still celebrated by the party’s right-wingers, if Shan is continually prodded by his echo chamber to keep doubling-down and hentaming people.

That is unfortunate. Notwithstanding my own socio-political views, I think it is extremely important for Singapore to have a robust and respected conservative intellectual movement. This group today perhaps includes people like Bilahari Kausikan and institutions like RSIS.

Shan is certainly a figurehead for this group. His rags-to-riches story is inspiring. Born in 1959 to Tamil immigrants without a formal education, he graduated top of his NUS law class in 1984 and became, at age 38, one of the youngest ever senior counsels appointed. 

Shan is testament to the virtues of individual responsibility and, to some extent, the Singapore model. He once said that his parents gave him “total faith, which I then adopted without question, that it didn’t matter who you are or the colour of your skin, what race your were, all that mattered is that if you study hard, you can do well in life.” 

However, I worry that the fair and important articulation of these conservative values is often overshadowed by his perceived viciousness and vindictiveness toward more liberal and progressive opponents, by Shan’s sense of duty and loyalty to the party.

The Select Committee on Fake News, for instance, presented an opportunity for conservatives to impress upon society how and why greater digital media controls might improve public discourse in Singapore; instead it will mostly be remembered for Shan’s diatribe against PJ and his research

He has grown into the role of chief attack dog partly, I think, because of the diffidence of other party seniors. One wonders if Shan can ever escape that siege mentality that appears to infuse his every action, his every word.

Given the current uncertain trajectory of the PAP, set against the growing confidence of The Workers’ Party, this seems unlikely. Shan will have to keep being Shan. 

Ironically, his divisive rhetoric is actually making it all the harder for him to ever achieve what he calls the only goal of his life: to make Singapore a more compassionate society “with greater communitarian spirit and which looks after those who can’t look after themselves”.

Yet politically that very combativeness might propel him to the top, especially if factionalism within the party grows.

Shanmugam is a phenomenon. He should not be completely ruled out of the running. Even if not king, surely the kingmaker.

Top image: K Shanmugam’s Facebook page

If you enjoy my work, please subscribe to Jom, the new weekly magazine that a few of us co-founded. All my writing and work is now there.

This is the fourth installment of a five-part leadership series. The last one, on Lawrence Wong and Pritam Singh, is here.

Video of Shanmugam evading a pertinent question in parliament during the POFMA debate

Article extras

On being the PAP’s “chief attack dog”. Shanmugam once objected to somebody calling him a “barking dog”. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I use “attack dog” in the typical style of accepted political jargon.

Lee Hsien Loong describing Shanmugam’s roles in relation to 38 Oxley Road. “Well, because he is a personal friend of my sister and to help to draft a clause to express the wishes of my father is one thing, but his personal view whether it should be done. And what he will recommend to do and argue for as a member of the Cabinet is a different matter,” said PM Lee.

7 thoughts on “Singapore’s leadership crisis: Shan, the phenom

  1. Love your series. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! My friend jokes that the K stands for Killa! Anyway, the plural of counsel (meaning lawyer) is counsel.

  2. Sorry Sudhir, I don’t agree with you on your point. Daniel Craig was/is not the best Bond. It was Roger Moore – he was more impassionate. But the better person would be Johnny English!!!

  3. You examine others, but have you reflected on your past prejudices? Did you not, by your own volition, stand up for Amos Yee when he was sprouting hate, that you condone as free speech? Look where is he now…and look where you are. Wanna do something good for Singapore? Get involved with community work. Not just write about it…

  4. Hi, Sudhir,

    Keep up with the good work of writing your views/comments. Writing your views/comments in a public forum is certainly a form of community work, thus I don’t understand how anyone can suggest to you to get involved in community work, by not only writing but also doing something else.

    Doing what else, TK?

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