In 1988, Lee Kuan Yew revealed that minister S Dhanabalan had been a possible candidate to succeed him as prime minister but then concluded that Singaporeans were not ready for an Indian prime minister.Several people had privately expressed the view that Lee Kuan Yew had in mind a certain person to be a future prime minister. The reason that Singaporeans were not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister did not pass the test of credibility.
I personally was sceptical of the reason. While 75 percent of the residents of Singapore were of Chinese origin, they had lived for several decades under the colonial rule of the British until self-government in 1959.
In April 1955, a non-Chinese lawyer, David Marshall, led the left-wing Labour Front to a narrow victory in Singapore's first Legislative Assembly elections. He formed a minority government and became Chief Minister.
Clearly, the majority race in Singapore had accepted a non-Chinese as the government leader three decades before Lee Kuan Yew expressed that astonishing opinion.
Furthermore, Singaporeans had for several decades been imbued with the concept of meritocracy and to select the best people “regardless of race, language and religion”.
Singaporeans had seen the success of this approach in building a harmonious society that achieved remarkable social and economic progress.
I held an immense respect for Lee Kuan Yew for his foresight and insight on international affairs and for his approach in running the government of Singapore. There were however a few matters that I differed from his views. This was one of them.
Goh Chok Tong succeeded Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister on 28 October 1990. He was later succeeded by Lee Hsien Loong (eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew) on 12 August 2004.
The question of the successor for Lee Hsien Loong came up in December 2017. Goh Chok Tong, who held the position of emeritus senior minister after retiring as prime minister, said that it was urgent for the leadership of the ruling party to identify the next prime minister to take over from Lee Hsien Loong before the end of 2018.
Many people among the general public were in favour of senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to take over this position.
An economist by profession, Tharman served in the private and public sectors for several decades, before entering political life in 2001.
He subsequently became the minister of education, minister of finance and deputy prime minister.
He had also served with distinction as Singapore’s representative in several international bodies, including the G20 Eminent Persons Group, the International Monetary Fund and in the United Nations.
The decision to select the next leader for Singapore was not taken by the people at large. It was decided in secret by the elected members of parliament from the ruling People’s Action Party.
In May 2018, the party decided on another Chinese, namely finance minister Heng Swee Keat.
In March 2019, Heng Swee Keat defended the party’s decision to select him, in favour of the more popular non-Chinese candidate, in a university forum. He said that the people would still prefer a Chinese to be the prime minister and made this statement “I can tell you that it is not easy because it triggers all the feelings about race, which are not obvious. But for an election, it becomes an issue.”
A few days after this assertion, 19,900 individuals responded to a viral Facebook poll and 92 percent voted for Tharman Shanmugaratnam to succeed Lee Hsien Loong and become the
next prime minister. This poll did not have any binding power.
A more scientifically based Blackbox survey commissioned by Yahoo Singapore found that 69 per cent of 897 respondents said they would prefer Tharman to become the prime minister.
The choice of the people, if these polls were to be believed, was clearly in favour of a nonChinese to take over as the next prime minister.
This issue of racial pre-requisite for the head of government came up for discussion in 2008, when Barack Obama became the first black person to be elected as President of the United States of America. Prior to his election, the office had always been held by a white person, who formed the majority race in America.
If America could elect a minority as the president, and one who came from a community had served as slaves in America, why can’t Singapore?
I recalled that Lee Hsien Loong gave a weak answer to his question. It was never debated actively anyway.
This question of the racial prerequisite came up again recently, in November 2022, when Rishi Sunak was elected by the ruling Conservative Party to be the prime minister in the United Kingdom. This was the first time that an Asian was elected to the top office in the UK.
The election of the prime minister was decided internally by the ruling party and not the country at large. (Singapore follows this practice).
If a former colonial power, who ran an empire that “the sun never sets” for two centuries, could accept a non-white, and one whose grandparents came from a former colony, to lead the country, why can’t Singapore.
This time, I did not see any active debate, so far.
Let me give an answer to the question – is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?
My answer is – the people have been ready for many decades. But the ruling People’s Action Party is not ready yet.
Tan Kin Lian
Retired chief executive of NTUC Income Coop