Writers Daniel Low and Sudhir Vadaketh respond to HSK’s comment on prospective non-Chinese PM

On 28 March (Thursday), Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, the expected successor of Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong, responded to a question posed about Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s popularity to take on the top job.

Mr Heng implied that the older generation is not prepared to have an individual from a minority race as their leader and rationalised this by accrediting the young people’s partiality for a non-Chinese PM to the Government’s emphasis on unity “regardless of race, language or religion”.

Writer and senior editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, has experienced the “typical, utilitarian pragmatic Singaporean position” as a minority race in the country. He wrote on his website that “while basic minority rights are guaranteed, our preferences and habits are sometimes disregarded for the sake of the greater good.”

On the morning of 29 March (Friday), Mr Sudhir decided to address Mr Heng’s “regrettable comments” and “point out room for improvement” through an enlightening opinion piece he posted on Facebook.

He started off with a rhetorical question of whether Singapore is supposed to gratify the racist prejudices of some people. He also said that Mr Heng could have answered the question in “a hundred other ways” even if it comes off as a form of retaliation.

But what Mr Sudhir intends to highlight through his post is “PAP’s repeated use of sophistry to hammer home its ideologies”, especially when the empirical evidence is in their favour. He gave an example of the PAP challenging arguments that are not based on the data they protect, resulting in the “ongoing, long-drawn efforts for a Freedom of Information Act”.

On the contrary, PAP would rely on “anecdotes, observations and feelings” when there is no evidence to back their claims. This goes the same with race. Mr Sudhir pointed out that all “available electoral and survey evidence” shows that “Singaporeans are very comfortable with non-Chinese leaders”. For instance, JB Jeyaretnam who won the by-election in 1981 against the PAP’s Chinese candidate and managed to hold onto his seat in the 1984 general election as well.

Mr Sudhir contrasted this incident with Mr Heng’s statement about the “older generation” resisting a non-Chinese PM, presuming that those who voted for Jeyaretnam 38 years ago would have voted for Tharman as well.

He also brought up “many other policy areas” whereby the evidence that did not fit into PAP’s objectives were tossed aside, such as the inequality issues and the hosting of the Youth Olympic Games or Formula 1. PAP would rather use easy and vague excuses to defend and justify “any grandiose project”.

Another trick PAP would employ is to rule by decree when it’s convenient and defer to the electorate when it’s not. “Throughout our history, the PAP has ignored ground views and actively sought to dictate values, whether, for example, in terms of culture in the 1960s (language policy: Mandarin over dialects), family values in the 1970s (“Stop at two”); or societal norms in the 2000s (the return of gambling),” Mr Suthir cited.

The “Singapore consensus” is looked up by emerging-market countries and businesses due to “its ability to push through unpopular policies in the name of long-term developmental goals, ethical considerations or egalitarianism”. However, deference is only given to people when their own biases or prejudices align with those of PAP.

“But whatever happened to moral leadership?” Mr Sudhir asked rhetorically.

He admitted that other political parties (SDP, WP and all the rest) resort to such tactics but he hopes that by exposing them, it would help Singaporeans who “still have this rose-tinted view of the PAP and its motives” to ponder deeply about these issues so that debates can be improved as well as life in Singapore.

Merely a few hours after Mr Sudhir made his “excellent” post, economist and former Associate Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY), Donald Low shared it to his Facebook with a supportive comment of his own.

Mr Low recalled asking Mr Heng “what he thought of the apparent paradox in Singapore between the fact that Singaporeans have high levels of trust in the government” but also low trust according to a number of surveys including the World Values Survey.

He said that Mr Heng’s response was a little similar to his current response; he disagreed with the survey results that Singaporeans didn’t trust one another “based on his work on the ground and interactions with residents. This claim that “social trust in Singapore is high” contradicts with his statement that older Singaporeans would not accept a PM from a minority race.

Mr Low also said that although the incompatibility can be rationalized “by saying that high social trust does not mean that we accept a minority as PM”. But, as pointed out by Mr Sudhir, “you can rationalize and justify whatever you wish to believe to yourself and to others”.

This is known as “motivated reasoning” in psychology whereby “your reasoning is driven by your prior motivations, beliefs and biases, not by evidence”. Philosophically speaking, this motive is called “failing Popper’s falsification test, which states that your statement is a meaningless one if you cannot specify the conditions under which it is false”, he deduced.

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