[Photo: Tharman Shanmugaratnam]
Someone like Tharman Shanmugaratnam could be the next leader of Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in an interview with BBC programme, HARDtalk.
However, Mr Lee also emphasised that race is still a consideration for voters when they go to the ballot box.
Mr Lee was responding to host Stephen Sackur’s question on Singapore’s political leadership succession plans.
He asked Mr Lee if he still thought that a non-Chinese could not be the country’s next prime minister. Mr Lee had indicated in the past that Singapore was not ready for such a person, although he also said it could happen one day.
In the interview aired on Wednesday, Mr Lee again held the same view. He said that while “in Singapore it is much better than before”, referring to the racial situation here, “race and religion still count.”
“I think that ethnic considerations are never absent when voters vote,” he said. “And I think that makes it difficult, it’s not impossible, and I hope one day it [a non-Chinese PM] will happen. If you ask whether it will happen tomorrow, I don’t think so.”
Mr Sackur said he had met Mr Tharman and that the latter had told him that he didn’t believe he would ever be PM of Singapore.
“[Polls] suggest most Singaporeans see him as the man best qualified to be the next PM,” Mr Sackur said. “Perhaps it’s time to reassess.”
Mr Sackur perhaps was referring to a Yahoo poll conducted in September last year which found that “69 per cent of all 897 respondents said they would support Tharman as a candidate to be prime minister.” This put him way ahead of all the other contenders in the poll.
“It may be I’m wrong but my sense is that Singaporean voters will look for a good man, a man who can resonate with them, a man they can identify with,” Mr Lee said in reply to Mr Sackur’s question.
Mr Sackur persisted and asked: “Could it be Mr Tharman?”
Mr Lee was non-committal and said, “It could be somebody like Tharman but …”
“But he’s your deputy,” Mr Sackur said.
Mr Lee reiterated that “it could be somebody like him”, but said “there are very few countries where you can say that race doesn’t count at all.”
When asked about the succession plans themselves, Mr Lee said he has gathered a group of younger ministers, among which the new PM would be selected.
“Amongst themselves they must throw up and acknowledge and support a leader,” he said.
Mr Sackur asked if Mr Lee would pick the leader.
“I cannot pick that leader,” the Prime Minister said. “They have to decide whom they’re going to work for. If I pick a leader and they don’t support him or they decide that they’re off to become…curator of the Victoria Albert Museum or something like that, then that’s the end of Singapore.”
Mr Lee’s remarks about Mr Tharman, where he avoided saying directly that the latter could be PM, drew strong reaction from some quarters, particularly those online.
Some say it is strange that while Mr Lee feels Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM, his government has engineered changes to the presidential elections for Singaporeans to elect a non-Chinese president in September this year in what is termed a “Reserved Election”.
“If race and religion matter when choosing the next PM, how about choosing the next President?” Mr Gary Tan asks. “Why are we forced to accept a non-Chinese president and also forced to accept a Chinese PM? Isn’t meritocracy widely practiced in Spore?”
Others saw Mr Tharman, who first entered politics in 2001 and has held various ministerial portfolios, as being the most qualified, based on merits, and were disturbed by the racial discrimination they saw in Mr Lee’s remarks.
“Singaporean choose Tharman because he is the best man for the job,” said Lai Heng Tan. “There is a level of trust and respect in him from all level. This is seldom seen in politics. This is not about race or religion. Singaporean will gladly accept anyone who is capable as PM. It is disturbing to see LHL keep playing the race card.”
Mr William Sam posted, “If he implied that race does count, wouldn’t be choosing a non-chinese as the President be ‘risky’ for the Chinese?”
But all this may just be an academic debate, given that the man at the centre of the debate has himself said he is not interested in the job.
“I am not the man for PM,” Mr Tharman said in September, after calls for him to take the top seat started circulating online.
“Just to be absolutely clear, because I know of this talk that’s going around, I’m not the man for PM. I say that categorically. It’s not me. I know myself, I know what I can do, and it’s not me,” he said.
“I’m good at policymaking, I’m good at advising my younger colleagues, and at supporting the PM – not at being the PM. That’s not me.”
Watch the full half-hour interview with Mr Lee Hsien Loong, and like our Facebook page here: