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Who really is “not ready” for a non-Chinese PM?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on December 11, 2007

By Gerald Giam

The recent announcement of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s promotion to Finance Minister — in addition to his current Education portfolio — set many tongues wagging as to whether he might be the successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong many moons from now. (link)

This in turn sparked a debate in the Straits Times as to whether Singaporeans (read: the Chinese-speaking majority) are ready to accept and support a non-Chinese prime minister.

This isn’t the first time this issue has surfaced. Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that former Cabinet Minister S. Dhanabalan was one of the four men he considered as his successor, but decided against him as he felt Singapore was “not ready” for a non-Chinese prime minister. That was almost 20 years ago.

Fast forward to the year 2007, and this whole mantra of “Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM” is getting very tiresome to listen to. It seems to be most repeated among the English-educated, ethnic Chinese elites, many of whom have little regular contact with both Chinese-speaking “heartlanders” and ethnic minorities. These elites assume that they know the thinking of the Chinese ground. Yet I wonder whether they are just using this as a cover for their own primordial mindsets.

Here are some of the arguments (undoubtedly from these elites) that have been put forth against having a non-Chinese PM:

“I am a realist and am inclined to agree with Mr S. Dhanabalan that Chinese Singaporeans are not ready to accept a non-Chinese prime minister….This is the reality and fact of life that we cannot pretend that such mindset does not exist.”
(Straits Times Forum, 1 Dec 07)

“If anything, the ascendency (sic) of China in this century is the very reason why Singapore CANNOT have a non-Chinese Singaporean as leader….A potential Malay candidate as leader will never do because of the region we are in. Neither is an Indian one wise since India is on a headlong fight for economic and political influence with China.”
(Comment on ST Forum, 5 Dec 07)

“Let’s be realistic. A majority chinese Singapore will never accept a non chinese PM. Even, i cannot accept it. I am not a racist fyi. Let me tell you why. First, we are a tiny island surrounded by hostile malay/muslim nation similar to Israel…”
(HardwareZone Forum, 30 Nov 07)

I find it hard to reconcile how a country that prides itself in meritocracy and rubbishes its neighbour up north for their racialist policies, apparently has the strongest proponents of meritocracy still harbouring this mindset. It reminds me of the oft-repeated mantra that Malay Singaporeans cannot be placed in sensitive positions in the military because their loyalty in times of war may be questionable.

The political reality in Singapore is that it is not up to the Chinese masses to choose their prime minister. Unlike in the US, the electorate does not directly elect their head of government. It is effectively the ruling party (or more specifically the PAP Central Executive Committee and its cadres) which chooses the prime minister, because the head of the ruling party is usually made the PM.

This means that if an eminently qualified minority is passed over for the prime ministership, it is because our elites do not want him there, not because “Singaporeans are not ready”.

Having said that, if it is true that Mr Shanmugaratnam is being groomed to be the next prime minister based solely on the merit of his abilities and character, then I applaud PM Lee for his progressive mindset.

There are so many areas in which Singaporeans were “not ready”, yet the government pushed through policies for what it deemed was in the country’s best interest. National service, English medium education, the casinos, CPF rate cuts and ministerial salaries are just a few that come to mind. Isn’t choosing the best qualified man or woman to lead the country, regardless of race or religion, far more important that all these policies?




24 Responses to “Who really is “not ready” for a non-Chinese PM?”

  1. Gary Teoh said

    Whether Chinese or non Chinese be the PM, it makes no difference at all.The government policies are still the same,rich getting richer,poor getting poorer,cost of food and transport sky high and many more grivences….So it doesn’t matter Tharman or Lee becoming the PM,Chinese say ‘change soup never change medicine’

  2. saintmoron said

    This is truly a racial discrimination if non-chinese are not allow to ‘run’ the state.

  3. Robert HO said

    1. Just to think a little out of the box, from a deep intuitive understanding of the Old Man I fought and defeated after 15 years, it may be to LHL’s interest to put another Seat Warmer in the nominal PM position. Like GCT warmed the PM seat, without any real power or clout, so that LHL can more easily inherit it when time, LHL may actually put an Indian in the PM post for exactly the same Seat Warming reason. So that, without real power, clout or a power base of his own, nor any chance of building 1 since he is closely watched and obstructed every step of the way, this facilitates the Prince LI Hong Yi’s grand entrance when time, to inherit the dynastic throne, after a suitable Seat Warming period.

    2. We are much, much, closer to the grand Imperial traditions of China Emperors than many realise; forget the modern trappings and the mock Parliament and rigged elections — even stuffing fake ballots into fake boxes — it is all a grand charade, a grand illusion of masterlee David Copperfield dimensions. We are a Third World dynastic kingdom, complete with Eunuchs earning millions just to Yes their way through each day. Without any, including LIE KY LHL, etc, being really able to think their way through problems, let alone solve them. Here, a plug for my blog : see some of my solutions there.

  4. macabresg said

    Why not? If he becomes the next PM and is willing to address all the complaints against the ruling party in a fair and equal way, I think he will eventually earn the respect of all Singaporeans.

  5. Marc said

    I am ready for anyone regardless of race- as long as he is capable and able to do the job. What I am not ready and is unwilling to accept is another person from the “exceptional” family.

    The second example is just about the most moronic reasons ever put forth. Are we to choose our PM based on the whims and fancies of the Chinese government? What? Since when did we become a province of China that we must pick a PM that China can deal with?

  6. George said

    I read it differently. I feel that the second quote was inferring to the reality of relationship between the China Chinese and Singapore Chinese. There are very few if any govt with ethnic Chinese in charge in this region which China can quite confidently do business with whether in the economic or the geopolitical sense. And Singapore has done a whole lot to convince the Chinese govt of its supportive and friendly disposition towards it. Quite obviously LKY and company is doing it for the ultimate good of the country.

    Then again do we seriously think it is possible that a Malay could eventually take over give the history and geopolitics of this region? If indeed Tharman is going to be the seat warmer as Robert Ho thinks, then it still means that the place will be under ethnic-Chinese rule.

  7. Frankly, I find the assumption that the English-educated Chinese are the ones who are not ready for a meritocratic notion of selection, misleading and upsetting.

    I am English-educated, Peranakan Chinese, perhaps some might want to push me into that elitist camp. No matter. I would rather see this myopia as a generation issue, rather than anything else. Most of my peers are highly liberal in our political leanings, and even if we would have to grudgingly realise that the PAP is quite likely to form the next government, I can safely say that most of the people I know, rather Singapore have a non-Chinese PM.

    Why? We need someone who is able to articulate the notion that Singapore is a nation that is race-blind, even though it might be a symbolic gesture.

    We need a PM who does not by nature of existence, perpetuate a myth that Singapore is a Chinese nation, which certain elements might favor, unfortunately.

    Marc’s right. The second example is an exercise in daftness and a clear sense of ignorance when it comes to politics and national interest. Why should China have any influence, direct or indirect, in the way we choose our leaders? Since when did we lose our backbone and decide to become a tributary state of the PRC?

    Don’t forget we’re the front-runner in ASEAN regionalism. Party politics in our domestic sphere aside ,this role is a neccesary role that we have to play. True meritocracy has to be seen to be done, not just spoken like campaign promises.

  8. Jason said

    Why don’t we appoint a white foreign to be our next PM . Afterall they are talented and represent the cosmopolitant made out of Singapore.

  9. Why white? Talent is talent.

    (At least that’s what those snooty ones love to think. Talent is not everything.. lest they forget)

  10. saintmoron said

    White, black, dark and light colours do not matters, all he must have are conscience and propriety, that’ all. Not difficult at all for a virtuous man to have.

  11. Hi Gerald,

    It always puzzles me how the PAP decides what we are ready for and what we are not. Nonetheless, you are only partially right. The PAP itself is not ready for a minority PM, but you forget to ask why they are not ready.

    Ultimately they fear the possible repercussions of that decision. Most obviously at the polls where the majority are of course the Chinese (due to THEIR policy of racial quotas i must add). We all claim to be enlightened and colourblind, but the majority of us still subconsciously make decisions and judgments along racial lines. To claim otherwise would be naive.

    We all know that cultural heritage and skin pigment do not matter, but the heart and subsequent actions may prove otherwise.

    This very debate is an indication that we are all too aware of the fact that Tharman is an Indian. Would we have this same debate over Teo Chee Hen?

    So indeed they fear the majority is not ready and hence they lack the political will to test that hypothesis.

  12. Tencentsworth said

    Unfortunate Singaporean is partially right. We subconsciously make decision and judgments not really “along racial lines”, but based on the cultural setting and environment we were brought up in. Put a Chinese in a Malay or Indian family, he will act, think and talk like an abang. That’s why Singapore Chinese are so different from PRC or American Born Chinese, for that matter.

    I am personally ready for a non-Chinese PM – as long as the incumbent has the aptitude and charisma to lead, and most importantly – integrity.

    I think a more pertinent question to ask is whether we are ready for a female PM!

    Well I guess, Democrats in USA are facing this problem – race or gender – Obama or Clinton. My gut feel is the USA, the forerunner and amplifier of equal rights and whatever shit, are still not very ready for either – if given a choice. It doesn’t help that the Republican candidates are mediocre.

  13. Dingo said

    Why not we outsource?

  14. Lefleche said

    I dont want anyone who belongs to a gang who declares utmost integrity and loyalty to the nation before the elections and then use that same power to increase their salaries, failing which they’ll leave for greener pastures or turn corrupt, after elections, to lead us. doesnt matter if he is white, black, purple or blue.

  15. Alan Wong said

    Frankly, I can accept any person irrespective of race, sex or religion to be our PM as long as he/she is upright and capable.

    What I cannot accept is that the decision as to who should be the next PM is left entirely to the decision of one person and/or a small group of people.

    This is when absolute power can corrupt. There is no way that we can effectively check on the excesses or abuses of this particular person and/or small group of people.

  16. aniza said

    they have been shouting meritocracy for many years and i can say becoming an envy for it’s neighbours…actually if u read it carefully LKY is concerned of the majority at that time meaning 20years ago to have S.Dhanabalan who is an indian if they can accept it…that;s the issue…i was only 8 at that time and i can say that period of time still considered conservative not only for the majority but for all…
    to have whoever that sits at that PM post is no joke as we are a small island that on and off have hostilities among the neighbouring countries…and just to make it simple and short…that important person that one day will replaced LHL is actually officially up to the cabinet ministers…time will tell…

  17. MrProper said

    I think you all miss one key point. It is not about whether a number of citizens will object to a certain PM or whatever. Anyway it is no way similar to choosing your “Singapore idol” where everybody can SMS their choice.

    The PM is chosen by the winning party, period. It is entirely up to that party to choose and they don’t need to explain the internal rationale to anybody at all.

    I thought this is might clearly understood ? Sorry if I am the one missing the point !

  18. Gerald said

    MrProper, that was my point exactly in my article. The PAP chooses the next PM, not the people. But they jolly well explain their rationale.

    UnfortunateSingaporean – I really don’t think that if you have a minority candidate of THarman’s calibre, the Chinese electorate is going to vote against the party just because he is Indian. Let’s have a bit more faith in Singaporeans. But I do agree that primordial tendencies tend to be more powerful than we care to admit.

  19. Mr Proper, yes you’re right, in the technical sense.

    Westminster parliamentary democracy means the leader of the winning political party usually becomes the PM by means of popular vote within his own party.

    The public only has a say in the party being sent to Parliament, but no legal option to directly vote on the Prime Minister.

  20. wabbittooth said

    to marc & celluloidrealitys, i think you’ve both misunderstood robert ho’s second example. what he means, i think, is how the PM seat is passed down by blood relations like the emperors of china. and that is not the people’s republic of china. it’s like those ancient-emperor-Qin-Shihuang kinda thing. not influence by the china gvment now. by chinese history would be more appropraite. problem is just which dynasty. if you look up that topic you’re gonna find many similarities with the s’pore gvment.

  21. brick said

    Singapore has had three Presidential Elections, of which two were won by a former senior civil servant of the Indian race in walkover situations.

    Presidential election candidates do not have party support and they are subject to polling by the entire electorate (unlike a GRC situation where ethnic minority candidates supposedly benefit from being in a multi-racial team).

    There must have been several hundreds of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, from both the public and private sectors, who will fulfil the stringent requirements prescribed for the office of presidency, but none did. Not a single eligible ethnic Chinese Singapore citizen stood for the office.

    So at the end of the (polling) day, it all depends on who is willing enough, committed enough, confident enough, popular enough and capable enough to stand up and carry the responsibility and leadership. Even more so for a Prime Minister. If that person happens to be a non-Chinese, or a woman, or was born in a foreign land, so be it. While none will disagree that we want only the best to assume that position, in reality it will only go to the best among the willing.

  22. ridgester said

    I was a little shocked to read that someone strongly believes that
    “we are a tiny island surrounded by hostile malay/muslim nation similar to Israel”.

    Are we really like Israel? Did we conquer a territory and force the inhabitants out of it? Do Malaysia and Indonesia attack our people?

    This comment on a forum could be one of an ignorant minority, but it is a sure sign that some citizens think that they are being threatened by the Other: the less economically successful, the less “progressive”, the less secular nations.

    I hope most Singaporeans are aware that “hostile” is hardly an accurate adjective to describe Singapore’s relations with our two largest neighbouring countries. That kind of thinking could spark off anything between a flame and a raging fire.

    The whole debate about the ethnicity of the future PM seems to imply that Singaporeans obviously think that their PM physically represents them overseas; should the PM be non-Chinese, could the majority of Singaporeans believe that he would not be holding their priorities as his own?

    If that is true, then we’re far from being the harmonious society we are so so proud of. It still seems to be every ethnicity for itself. I still remember a minimart Chinese auntie cursing at a couple of Chinese schoolchildren for talking about voting for Taufik Batisah instead of Sly.

    Is that wrong?

  23. Nietzsche said

    It seems to me that we may have so far as a “progressive” nation albeit still lack the character to do the best for everyone; namely in this case, to select a personnel who best fit the role in terms of work ethics, character and intellect.

    One can always say that we are democratic and believes in prosperity for all irregardless of race or language by reassuring the citizens. But ultimately, things will show whether the party holds its policies to such ideals, rather than see such rhetoric as necessary to maintaining their power. There seem to be selective opportunities being meted out here.

  24. anon. said

    Singapore is a democratic society, which believes that all races,and all groups in society, whether majority or minority groups can live in harmony and stand equal opportunities, regardless of the ethnics or gender. (Refer to the Singapore pledge written in 1966) Why can’t Singapore have a non-Chinese PM? If we are as democratic as we believe, talent and capabilities aside, there is no issue of conservatism, or even the topic of whether Singaporeans are “ready or not” to accept and support a non-Chinese PM.

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