It has been less than a week since the upset win by the People’s Action Party (PAP) at the polls last Friday, with the unpopular government gaining 83 out of the 89 seats total in parliament. Many have mourned the results for being a farcical display of irrational voters driven by fear and sympathy. Others have claimed that the ruling party now has a mandate to proceed with controversial policies such as the importing of more foreign labour, increasing goods and services tax (GST) and the minimum withdrawal sum on its citizenry’s Central Provident Fund pension scheme.
But behind this disappointing victory is a remarkable phenomenon which some observers have termed “the Tharman effect”. The unexpected popularity of the previously low key PAP politician of Tamil descent has driven some political analysts to ask: Will Singapore see its first Tamil politician in 2020?
It is anyone’s guess as to what the next 5 years of PAP rule will bring, but if all goes well for the ruling party, the speculation will only intensify as the next GE comes around in 2020, a date which current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has hinted as the time he would consider stepping down. If he does, the odds of Tharman Shanmugaratnam, currently deputy prime minister and finance minister, becoming the most powerful man in this seemingly small but influential country is a distinct possibility – even if it is a long shot.
For one, all of Singapore’s prime ministers to date have been of Chinese descent, in a counrty where 75% of its people are ethnic Chinese. Only 10% or less of Singaporeans are descended from South Asians. Tharman’s lack of Mandarin fluency (he has shown that he is capable of giving a few phrases in Mandarin) might also prove to be a weakness, since Mandarin is the most widely spoken vernacular language in the island.
Even more daunting are the mindsets of some Singaporeans, for whom the idea of having a non-Chinese prime minister is as alien as having a Chinese prime minister for Malaysia.
The late prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, has also weighed in on this debate with highly controversial views expressing that Singaporeans would need a long time to become accepting of a non-Chinese prime minister. He also listed 4 new generation of PAP leaders as the likely men to succeed his son Lee Hsien Loong for the job.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope for the possibility, as political commentators on both sides and even an opposition candidate from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Paul Tambyah, have openly voiced support for Tharman to take up the heavy responsibility of leading the Singapore nation. Tanbyah had called upon Tharman to lead an opposition coalition government during the hustlings of the recent election.
“People would like to see Tharman around to set the tone for a new PAP leadership,” said Ms Catherine Lim, author, long-time political commentator and critic of Lee Kuan Yew. “It’s time now for a completely different one, and the only person whom I can think of to set that tone convincingly and who can appeal to Singaporeans across ethnic groups would be Mr Tharman.”
Although Shanmugaratnam himself had said in July that he was not keen on the job, he did say that Singapore should expect to have a leader from one of the minority groups at some point in time.
Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University and a political commentator, said one obstacle for Shanmugaratnam is that he is seen as part of the prime minister’s generation, when perhaps ideally a new generation would be coming forward.
“However, if it is assessed that a transitional prime minister is needed while the fourth generation is ready to take over, then … Tharman is well-positioned to step up,” Tan said.