Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health, Janil Puthucheary (Puthucheary) has said that it will be up to the people of Singapore to decide if the country can have a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
However, is this statement perhaps a tad too simplistic?
The History behind this train of thought
The past two prime ministers and the current prime minister post independence in 1965 have been (or are) Chinese: late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee). Singapore is also a majority-Chinese country.
However, where did this idea of the Prime Minister having to be Chinese come from?
It may have originated from the late LKY. Back in 1988, LKY said that he would have considered then Minister for National Development, S Dhanabalan for Prime MInister had he not been Indian. LKY was certain of the opinion back then, that Singapore was not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
This idea has then been rehashed by Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat (Heng) in 2019 (some 31 years later) , seemingly without empirical data apart from apparently, his own experience walking the ground.
Yet, how do Heng’s views match up with what Senior Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam (Shanmugaratnam), said in 2015 when asked the same question? Back then, Shanmugaratnam had said that it was a matter of time before Singapore gets a non-Chinese prime minister.
“It seems to me inevitable that at some point, a minority prime minister – Indian, Malay, Eurasian, or some mixture – is going to be a feature of the political landscape“
While Shanmugaratnam did not commit to a timeline, it did sound from his interview then, that it was imminent. With this in mind, what changed in the intervening four years between Shanmugaratnam’s 2015 interview and Heng’s 2019 one?
The Empical Evidence
Based on the results garnered by a 2016 survey conducted by market research consultancy Blackbox, Shanmugaratnam came out as top choice among Singaporeans (69 per cent of almost 900 respondents) to succeed PM Lee. This is a clear indication that Singaporeans do not have a racial bias as to who should be their Prime Minister.
Why then does Heng still have the idea that the Prime Minister had to be Chinese?
Secondly, it is important to note that the most successful alternative political party in Singapore, the Workers’ Party (WP) has a non-Chinese Leader. Pritam Singh has successfully led the WP to greater success in the July 2020 general election, with the WP winning a second Group Representative Constituency (GRC) under his watch. Clearly, non-Chinese leadership has not affected the WP’s successes.
What this shows us is that an Indian politician is the top choice for Singaporeans to succeed PM Lee and that the most successful alternative political party in Singapore is also helmed by a non-chinese leader.
Does this not indicate that Singaporeans are not bogged down by race when it comes to who should lead them?
Who Really Decides Who should be PM?
While Puthucheary has diplomatically said that it was up to Singaporeans, the truth is much more nuanced than that.
Singaporeans only get to choose which contesting political party leads them. They do not get to choose the individuals who leads the political parties that contest. It is the leader of the winning political party that will form Government and become Prime Minister. So while Singaporeans get to pick which party they want to lead them, it is up to the party in question who it wants to elect as its leader.
This is something that was also voiced by WP’s Gerald Giam who aptly pointed out that unlike the president, the Prime Minister is not directly elected by Singaporeans, but by a political party. “So, it is really the decisions of the individual parties, whether they want to…field a non Chinese as the party leader, as a secretary general.”
Looking at Shanmugaratnam’s popularity in 2016, it is likely that had Shanmugaratnam been the secretary-general of the PAP in 2020, he would be the Prime Minister now.
The question therefore is whether it is the PAP that is not ready for a non-Chinese leader as opposed to Singaporeans.
After all, how do Singaporeans choose a non-Chinese Prime Minister to lead them if they have never been given the choice to begin with?
The GRC System and the Elected Presidency Fudge are Counterproductive to Genuine Representation
The GRC system was first introduced in 1988. The official reason for this was to ensure that Parliament would always be multiracial in composition and representation given that at least one member from a minority community. Yet, critics have noted that the proportion of minority members of parliament per GRC has decreased with the advent of five-member and six-member GRCs.
For example, it was noted in a GE2020 commentary by TODAYONLINE that while minority candidates such as PAP incumbent Murali Pillai and Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party did relatively well in Single Member Constuencies (SMC), by contrast, the WP’s slate in Aljunied GRC which comprised three ethnic minority and two Chinese candidates, prevailed over a PAP team of four Chinese and one minority.
It would be remiss not to mention that right before the GRC system was introduced, the PAP had not been performing well and the GRC system would mean whichever party wins the most votes in a GRC wins all five or six seats which would in turn produce a disproportional seat allocation that always favours the PAP.
This could indicate that the PAP does know how to use the racial card to its advantage which in turn makes it disingenuous to suggest that it is down to the racial preferences of the average Singaporean when in reality, it is the PAP acting as the swengali, manipulating the issue of race for its own benefit.
Another example is that of the elected Presidency. Back in 2017, the rules were coincidentally changed such that only Madam Halimah would qualify. Again, the official reason for that change was ostensibly ensure minority representation. Yet, the timing of the change could well lead to speculation that these changes were brought in to ensure that the popular ex PAP turned critic, Tan Cheng Bock would not be able to contest. It is also manifestly clear that the office of the presidency wields no real political power beyond influence which could lead to criticisms of “tokenism”.
Both the GRC and Halimah examples show that the PAP is well aware of how the need for minority representation can be repackaged to suit their needs. It is certainly well equipped to take the lead to make the necessary changes to suit its purposes.
Shanmugaratnam is certainly experienced and popular enough to be leader of the PAP. If it were truly up to Singaporeans whether or not a non-Chinese person could be Prime Minister as Puthucheary claims, why not pick a non-Chinese to head the PAP and we shall see?
Does the PAP really think that a non-Chinese secretary-general would cost it the election? I highly doubt it.