Race, religion matter when choosing next prime minister: PM Lee

HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur interviewed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore. Photo: Screenshot

Ethnic considerations are never absent when voters cast their ballots, and the race and religion of Singapore’s prime minister still matter to Singaporeans, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a wide-ranging interview with the BBC on Wednesday (1 March).

“It may be I’m wrong, but my sense is that Singaporean voters will look for a good man, a man who can resonate with them, a man they can identify with them,” said Lee, who was responding to a question from HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur on whether he still felt that Singapore was not ready for a non-Chinese PM.

Sackur then pointed out that polls conducted showed a majority of Singaporeans favoured Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as Lee’s successor.

Pressed on whether Tharman might be that “good man” Singaporeans are looking for, Lee responded, “Yes indeed, it could be somebody like him. But these are factors that voters take into consideration when they go into the ballot box, and when they identify with you. And I think there are very few countries where you can say race doesn’t count at all.”

Sackur’s initial question was in reference to Lee’s comments in 2008, made shortly after Barack Obama became the first black US president. Lee said then that Singapore was unlikely to have a non-Chinese PM any time soon.

Lee said on Wednesday, “In Singapore, it’s much better than before but race and religion count. And I think that makes it difficult, it’s not impossible, and I hope one day it will happen. If you ask whether it’ll happen tomorrow, I don’t think so.”

Moving beyond the Lees

PM Lee was asked about leadership succession in Singapore. Photo: Screenshot

Sackur also asked if it would be difficult for Singapore to move beyond the Lee family. He noted that Lee has been in power since 2004, while his late father, Lee Kuan Yew, led Singapore for more than three decades.

In response to Sackur, who also made reference to Lee’s health scare in 2015, the PM said, “Nobody is immortal. I will have to hand over as prime minister and there will have to be a successor.”

Alluding to the team of “younger ministers” he has assembled, Lee noted that the younger generation must choose a leader among themselves.

“I cannot pick that leader. They have to decide whom they’re going to work for. If I pick a leader and they don’t support him or they decide that they’re off to become…curator of the Victoria Albert Museum or something like that, then that’s the end of Singapore.”