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It’s not whether Tharman is popular, it’s whether he is suitable

by Augustine Low

From the day he announced his presidential candidacy, the media has been gushing about how popular Tharman Shanmugaratnam is.

The Straits Times was first off the block, saying that “Mr Tharman’s popularity could deter other hopefuls from throwing their hat into the ring.”

TODAY reported that race was not an issue in this open presidential election “because Mr Tharman has a broad appeal that cuts across racial groups.”

Political pundit after political pundit have also spoken of how Tharman’s popularity makes him a formidable candidate.

But they all seem to be looking at it in a vacuum.

Popularity aside, what about suitability? Let’s try and distinguish between the two.

Tharman had to resign from the People’s Action Party (PAP) government to contest the presidential election. And ever since, he’s been trying to distance himself from the PAP government, saying he would not be on the same team with them if he were President.

Why the need to distance himself from the PAP he served for more than 20 years?

This shows his eagerness to come across to the people as his own man, independent of the shackles of being a PAP man.

Jumping into the fray, Ho Ching said in a Facebook post that the role of the President is “not to be an independent voice.”

However, this does not square with what her husband, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has expressed.

In a letter accepting Tharman’s resignation, PM Lee said he was confident that Tharman, as President, would exercise his “custodial powers independently” and carry out his duties “with the independence of mind.”

Why the need for PM Lee to emphasise independence not once but twice?

What all this goes to show is that it is not a natural progression, and not a natural fit for Tharman to be President. His popularity does not equate to his suitability for the office of the presidency – the PAP will always be in his DNA, and his independence will always be questioned.

The PAP knows too well the difference between popularity and suitability.

It wasn’t so long ago that a segment of Singaporeans were clamouring for Tharman to be Prime Minister. But the word from the PAP was that Singapore was not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.

Is it fair to infer that although popular, Tharman was not considered suitable to be Prime Minister, and the time was not right for him?

Having bypassed him for the post of Prime Minister, the PAP wants to leverage on Tharman’s popularity by endorsing him for President.

Ironically, the people can now make the same distinction the PAP once made – popular but unsuitable.

Even if Tharman is as popular as they say he is, the fact remains that he is simply not suited for the role of President because of this:

Singapore can do much better than yet another PAP person as President.

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