Singapore chooses a president who may have been much better, says Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Many Singaporeans would have let out a tiny sigh of disappointment as they chose Tharman Shanmugaratnam to be their next president.

In the nation’s first competitive presidential election in more than ten years, the former top minister won a record 70.4% of the vote on Friday, easily defeating two other contenders.

The obvious front-runner has always been Mr. Tharman. He is regarded as one of Singapore’s most popular politicians and is considered urbane, well-spoken, and clever.

Because of this, many Singaporeans were perplexed when Mr. Tharman revealed a few months ago that he was leaving the party in power, the People’s Action Party (PAP), to run for president. They felt it was a waste of his potential.

Apart from having some control over how Singapore’s enormous financial reserves are used, the president’s position is mostly ceremonial and carries little real influence. The administration, which has the authority to impeach the president, has made it plain that the president cannot talk too freely and has compared the position to that of the British monarch, giving it even less influence over public affairs.

Many believe that a pleasant, uncontroversial individual should fill this figurehead position, as has historically been the case with presidents. Mr. Tharman, though, is much more.

The former economist has held high council posts at international organizations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in addition to serving as Singapore’s deputy prime minister and finance minister. He was even considered at one point to lead the IMF.

If he ever left the PAP, some Singaporeans believed he would go on to create a name for himself abroad.

More people wished he could become prime minister. In a poll conducted a few years back, he was rated as the top candidate to succeed Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister. After Mr. Lee’s, Mr. Tharman’s constituency frequently receives the highest vote totals in general elections.

A portion of this popularity can be attributed to the fact that Mr. Tharman’s reputation has been protected from the public criticism Mr. Lee has had to endure due to his extended service as a deputy.

But unlike some other politicians, the 66-year-old has developed a reputation as a gentleman and avoided making personal jabs. This has gone over well with those who want elegant, statesmanlike leaders.

Many believed he had the credentials and stature to surpass a glass ceiling that the government has long said is concrete and become that almost mythical creature—the first non-Chinese prime minister of Singapore.

PAP leaders, known for their racial realpolitik, frequently reaffirm that Singapore, a country with a Chinese majority, is not prepared to tolerate a minority PM.

Up until last week, Mr. Tharman remained silent on the subject, which made his supporters’ dismay all the more acute when he stated he believed Singapore was prepared.

However, Mr. Tharman has also adamantly stated that he would not make a good prime minister, and with the PAP’s new leadership poised to take the helm, it might be said that he was already on his way out. According to one idea, the PAP desired that he run for president in order to guide the next generation of leaders.

He decided to run for president as a result. Singapore has previously had non-Chinese presidents, but Mr. Tharman is the first elected by the people.

His supporters would argue that his triumph was a victory for diversity and a rejection of bigotry. Some social media messages in the run-up to the election stated that Singapore must have Chinese leaders. Both of Mr. Tharman’s rivals were Chinese.

Ironically, he has also disproved a crucial PAP racial policy.

Prior to the 2017 presidential election, the government implemented regulations assuring that minority race candidates would only be allowed to vote in certain polls. They said that the regulations were necessary to guarantee improved representation of Singapore’s minorities, which include Malays, Indians, and Eurasians.

Mr. Tharman has demonstrated that a minority race candidate can win on their own steam – and with a landslide victory – since those restrictions did not apply this time.

Because of this, Mathew Mathews, a principal research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies who specializes in race, said that his triumph “is certainly a win for race relations” in Singapore.

The results, he continued, “don’t necessarily mean that Singapore society is race-blind,” since race would probably play a bigger role in a more level playing field. The other applicants were less well-known or had resumes that weren’t as impressive as Mr. Tharman’s.

concerns about influence
This election in Singapore, like all others, was considered as a referendum on the PAP, which has recently been the target of unusually high-profile political controversies.

Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, an assistant professor of social sciences at Nanyang Technological University, noted that while Mr. Tharman’s landslide victory can largely be attributed to his personal popularity, which has always exceeded that of the PAP, it also “shows that the party brand is not so toxic such that the association with it drags a person down.”

Still, concerns about the PAP’s influence have cast a shadow over the victory. Many people believed Mr. Tharman to be the government-endorsed candidate.

Despite his insistence that he will act freely, few people think a man who has been one of the PAP’s most devoted team members will actually act independently.

Regarding its ambiguous and constrictive criteria, this election also saw a resurgence of discontent. In contrast to Tan Kin Lian, who had been accused of sexism and racism, a more contentious candidate, George Goh, who had the potential to be well-liked, was rejected.

It was reminiscent of the 2017 election, which was marred by controversy and outrage over rule modifications made by the government.

Thus, Mr. Tharman’s victory might have strengthened the notion that the government is progressively rigging the presidential election.

Even though there was a movement encouraging Singaporeans to throw away their ballots in protest, the final proportion was only about 2%, demonstrating that “the overwhelming majority viewed this election worth partaking in and legitimate,” according to Dr. Abdullah.

“Respect for all,” including “respect for different views and political leanings,” was a campaign promise made by Mr. Tharman.

However, it is unclear how he would accomplish that in his capacity as president within a system that is thought to maintain the PAP’s dominance—a system he helped to design for decades.

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