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Jeyaretnam questions Tharman’s eligibility for presidency, citing father’s rejection and Tharman’s past conviction

Just a day after Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced his resignation from the People’s Action Party (PAP) and his intention to run for the presidency, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Secretary General of the Reform Party, expressed doubts regarding Mr Tharman’s eligibility as a presidential candidate in a blog post published on Friday (9 June).

In his blog post, Mr Jeyaretnam scrutinised Mr Tharman’s political history and personal character, raising questions over whether Mr Tharman, who had served in key positions in the PAP government, including as Finance Minister, would be an appropriate choice for the role of President, which is seen as a non-partisan role above politics.

In his blog post, Mr Jeyaretnam went into extensive detail about his past interactions with Mr Tharman when they were both studying in the UK.

He claimed that Mr Tharman distanced himself from political dissidents once he returned to Singapore, even avoiding a coffee meeting with Mr Jeyaretnam, fearing it might jeopardise his career prospects.

He also raised the matter of Mr Tharman’s previous conviction.

Mr Jeyaretnam pointed out that Mr Tharman, who was then serving as the Director of the Economics Department of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), was fined $1,500 for a charge of negligence under the Official Secrets Act in 1992. This was curiously less than the fines given to his co-accused journalists who had seen his figures.

Interestingly, this amount was just below the threshold that would have disqualified him from becoming a Member of Parliament (MP). Notably, a few years following this incident, Mr Tharman resigned from his position at the MAS to stand as an MP in Jurong GRC.

Mr Jeyaretnam contrasts Mr Tharman’s past with the treatment of his own father, J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was prevented from running for the presidency in the first Presidential Election by the Presidential Elections Committee due to allegations of moral character issues.

In response to JBJ’s disqualification, the late Ong Teng Cheong said in an interview, “He was not allowed to run because he did not meet the stringent criteria. Maybe it’s too stringent,” Mr Ong commented.

Mr Jeyaretnam also wrote: “The role of EP [Elected President] being to guard state assets may go to a man who when in a senior civil service position was convicted of negligence in revealing our data.”

Moreover, Mr Jeyaretnam criticised the potential conflict of interest in Mr Tharman’s move from Finance Minister to a presidential candidate, saying that the latter role, which is expected to check the management of state reserves, should not be filled by someone who was in charge of those reserves.

Mr Jeyaretnam expressed concern over a perceived decline in Singaporeans’ appreciation for democratic principles, particularly checks and balances, and voiced opposition to Mr Tharman’s candidacy.

He suggested that as a former Finance Minister, Mr Tharman was instrumental in presenting what Jeyaretnam considers to be misleading budget accounts. He further criticized Mr Tharman’s subsequent roles as Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Deputy Chairman of GIC, saying it represents a “ludicrous conflict of interest” for him to now potentially hold a role tasked with auditing the management of the state’s reserves.

He finished with a stinging remark, describing the situation as “Ownself Check Ownself”.

Mr Jeyaretnam further commented on Mr Tharman’s apparent lack of intervention in recent controversies, like the Ridout Road properties issue, suggesting Mr Tharman’s character would not offer the rigorous checks and balances necessary in the role of the President.

He noted Mr Tharman’s stance on the Elected President’s role, which, according to Tharman’s interview on CNA, he views as a “back-up driver” supporting the government rather than a co-driver providing checks and balances.

Mr Jeyaretnam criticised this, suggesting that Tharman’s tennis-playing analogy of being “just part of the team” doesn’t align with his apparent willingness to back the government without critique.

Mr Jeyaretnam criticised the potential of Tharman becoming the Elected President, viewing it as another instance of the People’s Action Party (PAP) disregarding conventional checks and balances. He equated it to the controversy of the Prime Minister’s wife’s appointment.

Recalling a past push for Mr Tharman as a successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which was followed by a controversial response from PM Lee and Mr Heng Swee Keat implying a racial bias in government positions, Mr Jeyaretnam speculated that the Presidency may have been presented to Mr Tharman as a consolation for not protesting during that period.

“Although with his card marked by the earlier conviction he hasn’t really ever been in position to express an independent thought. Indeed the EP from the time when the first President was not able to find out the size of our reserves has always just been a Wayang used to demonstrate to the outside world that our government is not authoritarian and presiding over a virtual one party state.” wrote Mr Jeyaretnam.

Mr Jeyaretnam’s criticisms paint a complex picture of the challenges and scrutiny Mr Tharman will likely face as he moves forward with his presidential campaign.

It remains to be seen how these allegations will impact public perception and Mr Tharman’s future political trajectory just as it is with Mr Jeyaretnam’s posts about the Ridout estates of Minister K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan.

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