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Saturday April 27, 2013

Tharman in the spotlight

Singapore’s Second Deputy Prime Minister gives a polished performance in an extensive interview with the media.

THIS month, the spotlight in Singapore – quite deservedly – falls on Second Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmu­garatnam.

For two hours, Tharman, who joined the Cabinet only nine years ago, gave a polished performance befitting his title as a possible or potential prime minister.

He spoke about the gradual shift of ruling party’s ideology – from centre to centre left – to a new emphasis on social objectives, and more proposed taxation on wealth.

Other subjects covered were wide-ranging. The tone was firmer than the generalities and hedging that the public has been hearing from some leading politicians.

At the end of the interview conducted with The Straits Times, serious-minded Singaporeans can feel a bit better about succession choices.

Not enough capable Singaporeans are attracted by politics.

Many people have often wondered who will immediately take over if something untoward happens to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has never made public its plan for crisis succession for prime ministers in such an event. A plausible explanation is that it wishes to avoid heated rivalry.

Presumably, it would be one of the two deputy prime ministers: First DPM Teo Chee Hean, 59, and Second DPM Tharman, 56, who is also Finance Minister). By comparison, PM Lee is 61.

On paper, Teo, who acts as PM when Lee is abroad, comes across as first among equals, but that could not be the full story.

An ex-naval commander, he is now Home Affairs Minister but has rarely figured in the public mind as an automatic choice.

Some major points Tharman covered included the following:

> Foreign workers – “Keep the ratio of foreigners in the workforce to about one-third over the long term.” (No mention if it includes permanent residents).

> Politics – It is in Singapore’s interest to have a dominant party and the PAP wants to remain that dominant party.

> Winning back votes – “The PAP today is quite different from five years ago and almost unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago. You can see that the PAP today is quite different from five years ago ... Still a lot of work to do.”

> Asset taxes to rise – Two moves were made in the last three years and this year. I don’t think that’s the final step.

More interesting was his reference to ideology, something that Lee Kuan Yew had long shunned.

“When I first entered politics about 11 years ago, I would say that the weight of (Cabinet) thinking was centrist but there were two flanks on either side of it,” he said.

“There were some (in the Cabinet) who were a little right-of-centre, and there were some a little left-of-centre. Now I would say the weight of thinking is left-of-centre.

“You still get diversity of views in Cabinet, but the centre of gravity is left-of-centre.”

Not everyone agrees that the Cabinet during the Lee Kuan Yew era was “centrist”.

Many saw it as right-wing, conservative in nature, which differed from its early constitutional definition of itself as a “democratic socialist” party.

I remember during early days of reporting, someone asked Kuan Yew whether it was time – in view of so little welfarism – to drop the word “socialist” from the PAP constitution, but Kuan Yew firmly turned it down.

He thought it justified it because public housing, healthcare and education were subsidised.

But I suspected it was more to preserve the PAP support base.

For a long time, the PAP was a member of the Socialist Interna­tional.

In practice, however, it was somewhat different from other socialist governments.

At most, it was a practical form of socialism.

Blogger Abhisit wrote that Kuan Yew was once (in 1995) so annoyed when he was addressed as “Comrade” that he threatened to detain anyone else calling him that under the Emergency Regulations for being a communist sympathiser.

In a way, Tharman’s long interview rekindled talk about potential leaders.

Officially, prime ministers are elected by an informal gathering of ministerial peers.

The official position is that PM Lee will lead for another 10 – possibly 20 years – which is not given too much public credence.

This was aimed at stifling unhealthy speculation.

So far, the decision of who will be prime minister has entirely been an internal party matter.

But with the changed political environment, it would be irrational to exclude public viewpoints.

Last week, Tharman, whose chances are considered slim because of his race, has emerged as the most promising minister.

Many elderly Singaporeans in this predominantly Chinese city feel that as an ethnic Indian, he may find acceptance tough. It is something Tharman seems to agree with.

Asked in the interview about a non-Chinese prime minister, Thar­man replied: “My own sense is if you talk about in 20 years, I’d say entirely possible. I’d find it very odd if we only have Chinese prime ministers forever … I have no aspirations by the way to be prime minister! I enjoy being part of the team, contributing as much as I can.”

However, after nearly half a century of independence, the younger generation of Singaporeans are generally less influenced by a person’s race when judging qualities for leadership.

Besides, with an ambition of becoming a world-class city, race has become even less of a leadership factor today than 40 years ago.

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