• Last Update 2023-09-28 10:41:00

Tharman Shanmugaratnam: Singapore picks a president who could’ve been much more


Singaporeans have chosen Tharman Shanmugaratnam as their next president – but many would have let out a small sigh of disappointment as they did so.

On Friday, the former top minister won a record 70.4% of the votes, comfortably beating two other candidates in the country’s first contested presidential election in more than a decade.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam was always the clear front-runner. Urbane, well-spoken and intelligent, he is highly regarded by Singaporeans and consistently polls as one of the island’s most popular politicians. Which was why, when he announced several months ago he was quitting the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to run for president, many Singaporeans were baffled by what they viewed as a waste of his potential.

The role of president is a largely ceremonial one that holds little power, apart from having some say on the use of Singapore’s sizeable financial reserves. It has even less say in public affairs – the government, which has the power to remove the president, has made it clear the president cannot speak too freely and has likened the role to the British monarch.

It is a figurehead role that many see suitable for a pleasant, uncontroversial person to inhabit, as has been the case with past presidents. But Tharman Shanmugaratnam  is much more than that.

Besides helping to helm Singapore’s political leadership as finance minister and deputy prime minister, the former economist has also held top council positions at global institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At one point, he was even tipped to head the IMF.

Some Singaporeans thought that if he ever left the PAP, he would go on to make his mark in the international arena. Even more hoped he could be prime minister. A survey some years ago saw him poll as the first choice to become PM after incumbent Lee Hsien Loong steps down. In general elections, Mr Tharman’s constituency often scores the highest after Mr Lee’s.

Part of this popularity stems from the fact that as a long-time deputy, Mr Tharman’s reputation has been shielded from the slings and arrows of public criticism which Mr Lee has had to bear.

But the 66-year-old has also cultivated a gentlemanly image, and has refrained from engaging in personal attacks unlike some other politicians. This has played well with an electorate that likes its leaders genteel and statesmanlike. Many felt he had the chops and stature to become that almost mythical creature – the first non-Chinese prime minister of Singapore – and break a glass ceiling that the government has long insisted is concrete. Famous for their racial realpolitik, PAP leaders often reiterate that Singapore, a Chinese-majority country, is not ready to accept a minority PM.

Mr Tharman kept mum on this topic until last week when he said he felt Singapore was ready, sharpening the sting of disappointment among his supporters. But Mr Tharman has also insisted he would not be good at being PM and with the PAP’s new leadership waiting in the wings, it could be said he was already on his way out. One theory is the PAP wanted him to run for president to help shepherd the next generation of leaders. And so, he chose to run for president instead. Although Singapore has had non-Chinese presidents in the past, Mr Tharman is the first one voted in by the public.

His supporters could claim his victory as a win for representation and a repudiation of racism. In the lead-up to the election, some social media posts insisted that Singapore must have Chinese leaders. Mr Tharman’s two competitors were both Chinese. (BBC)

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