Why should Singapore's Prime Minister be Chinese?
If Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party captured people’s attention during the general election period, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has undoubtedly emerged as the darling of the post-GE period.
There’s already a Tharman for PM Facebook page with, at the time of writing, over 760 likes. Reuters did a profile on him as a “rising star”. As anchor minister of the Jurong Group Representation Constituency (or GRC), his People’s Action Party (PAP) team coasted to victory with almost 80 per cent of the vote, an even better performance than the team in Ang Mo Kio GRC led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
If Singapore had a more competitive democratic system, Tharman could probably mount a leadership challenge within the party and win power. Yet the matter of Tharman’s suitability for leadership consistently runs into another question (apart from his own apparent unwillingness): is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?
The question was first brought up in the 1980s, when Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew revealed that he had considered then Minister for National Development S Dhanabalan to be a worthy successor, only to decide that the country was not ready for an Indian prime minister. This message was endorsed by Dhanabalan himself in 2007, when he said that he was “not saying it’s not possible [to have a non-Chinese prime minister], but I think it will take some time.”
Current prime minster Lee Hsien Loong reiterated this in 2008 shortly after Barack Obama was voted in as the first black president of the United States of America:
Will it happen soon? I don't think so, because you have to win votes. And these sentiments - who votes for whom, and what makes him identify with that person - these are sentiments which will not disappear completely for a long time, even if people do not talk about it, even if people wish they did not feel it.
Lee now believes there’s more of a chance for a non-Chinese prime minister as Singapore’s younger generations grow more accepting and are more ready to connect across racial lines, although he still notes the need to communicate with voters in Mandarin.
The question is thus an old one. But it’s high time it got turned on its head: why shouldn’t Singapore be ready for a non-Chinese prime minister? Why shouldn't we be able to have a non-Chinese prime minister right now (or whenever Lee Hsien Loong steps down)?
The question about winning votes shouldn’t actually be an issue, seeing that Singaporeans don’t get for vote for the leader of the PAP, and therefore the Prime Minister, anyway. (In fact, most PAP members don’t get to vote for the leader of the PAP either; only cadre members – who are selected by the Central Executive Committee of the party – get to vote on the leadership in the Central Executive Committee.) Singaporeans only get to have a say over whether that candidate gets elected as an MP; once that's done the leadership of the party is out of our hands.
In any case, Tharman's ability to win votes has been amply demonstrated in the recent general election, showing that it is not the ethnicity of the candidate, but the respect that he/she can command, that does the trick.
The issue of being able to communicate in Mandarin might be more of a consideration. Chinese Singaporeans do make up the majority of the local population, and it would of course be important for the prime minister of the country to be able to connect with his citizens.
Yet being a Chinese majority country has not stopped Singaporeans from electing non-Chinese leaders before. Singaporeans got to vote in their first general election in 1955, following the Rendel Constitution that gave all local citizens the right to elect the majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly. The Labour Front won enough seats to form a minority government. Their leader, and therefore Singapore's first Chief Minister, was David Marshall, born to a Baghdadi Jewish family.
Research by historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin based on the Chinese newspapers of the time show that despite not being Chinese, Marshall was popular among the Chinese in Singapore, as they felt that he stood for labour rights and freedom from colonialism:
While the Chinese press avoided endorsing any specific politicians, their editorials and readers’ letters show a clear respect for Marshall. They believed that he understood the Chinese, and felt the Labour Front would represent Chinese working class interests better than the businessmen of the [Progressive Party] and [Democratic Party].
Throughout Singapore's history there have been non-Chinese politicians who have managed to connect across racial lines and represent the people's interests: Devan Nair, S Dhanabalan, Othman Wok and Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam among them. These men stood as candidates even before GRCs – supposedly introduced to help racial minorities get into Parliament – and have arguably done more to prove themselves and convince voters than any Chinese Singaporean former army officer parachuted into Parliament on the coat-tails of an established anchor minister.
Chinese-ness has for years been positioned as desirable, a criteria for success and power. Lee Kuan Yew has been described as a Chinese supremacist who believed that certain "Chinese" traits were crucial to Singapore's success. Under the government's CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) system of classifying everyone into neat racial categories, Singapore is an incredibly race conscious country.
Yet this might not be giving Singaporeans enough credit. As voters, Singaporeans are more than capable of discerning who is or isn't able to represent their best interests, regardless of the individual's race. When push comes to shove, what really matters is the person's ability to prove that he or she is a worthy representative and leader, and that's a challenge for Chinese and non-Chinese politicians alike.
It is therefore strange that comments that Singapore is "not ready" for a non-Chinese prime minister is thus accepted as a reasonable political statement, and not some sort of ahistorical concern trolling.
Even if Singaporeans are voting along racial lines or according to racist assumptions, then what is needed is not a ruling out of a non-Chinese leader, but to tackle head on the skewed value judgements and uneven playing fields faced by different racial groups, and to find the common ground and common concerns that Singaporeans have for their country. A prime minister, after all, represents the entire nation, not just the majority.
Lee Kuan Yew himself said in 1965 that "[t]his is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation." Singaporeans have been reminded of this often this year, the year of the nation's Golden Jubilee as well as the year of his death. If this is indeed the vision of Singapore that we want to live up to, then there is no reason to doubt our readiness for a non-Chinese prime minister.