COMMENT: Tharman debate and the race rut Singapore is drifting into

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. (Yahoo Singapore file photo)

From a limp economy to a listless society to a government with its back to the wall, Singapore is at a very painful point in its transition to a nation that must come to grips with the distressing effects of disruptive technology.

Swept into this developing perfect storm is Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the smart and affable Deputy Prime Minister caught in a polarising debate revolving round meritocracy and race.

It is an irritation that the country can do without. The issue is one of why Tharman cannot be the next PM, especially when a successor is not in sight.

The DPM’s categorical remark that he doesn’t want to be PM is an attempt to take race out of the equation as public momentum builds up on an unclear political succession.

He also doesn’t want to be a stumbling block for the fourth-generation leaders as they take over the mantle of leadership.

The government keeps pressing the point that Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM. But public sentiments, as reflected in a survey commissioned by Yahoo Singapore and conducted by Blackbox Research, point to another direction.

This issue of the race of the PM is not new. Lee Kuan Yew had talked about it often, even declaring that S Dhanabalan was PM material but didn’t qualify because he did not belong to the majority race.

But today, public criticism has gotten louder mainly because of the government’s strategic error in wanting to change the Constitution to make sure a minority candidate can become the President one day.

This runs counter to its stand on a non-Chinese PM. The race criterion for the President does not apply while that for the PM continues to exist.

How can that contradiction be explained? And what about the government’s often-touted meritocracy argument? It has often been argued that Singapore is a place for talent, a place where talent can rise to the top without glass ceilings like race, gender or family connections.

Tharman’s “I’m not the man for PM” remark comes at a time when race has even seeped into the psyche of our young.

A recent TV programme called “Regardless Of Race” must have shocked those who had watched it.

The most disturbing part of the one-hour segment was the one where the host asks some primary school students a few point-blank questions. The answers are revealing.

What race does your best friend belong to?

Four of the five students said their best friends came from their race.

Do you talk about other races at home?

No.

Do people joke about your race?

People say my culture is bad.

How do you feel when they say that?

I feel like… why I am in this culture.

These students are going to carry all the prejudices and racial stereotypes with them as they grow up to become full-fledged citizens of Singapore.

The Tharman debate has to be seen through the lenses of these young and innocent minds. Our future leaders are already seeing their classmates and acquaintances through race. Even more frightening is what is happening at home where race is not even talked about.

This is not the Singapore that people of my generation grew up in. We had friends from all races with games like football being the leveller. We looked forward to festivals not because of the holidays that came with them but to be able to enjoy the cakes and the camaraderie.

Two generations later, Singapore seems to be drifting into a race rut.

A lot of it is played out below the surface.

The issue comes out once in a while, like in the Tharman debate. It is now up to the PM to come out and convince the so-called naysayers that Singapore can have a non-Chinese as PM — whether Tharman or someone else.

Hiding behind statements like Singaporeans are not ready won’t cut it anymore.

Singapore has reached where it is because of leaders who took the bull by its horns and did what they thought was morally right.

The time has come for that type of leadership. And race is a good place to start.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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