Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivers a speech at the Singapore Management University on Sept. 22, 2022. Credit - Singapore Press via AP Images
Since he entered Singaporean politics just over two decades ago, Tharman Shanmugaratnam has shied away from persistent calls by the public that he should be the Southeast Asian country’s next Prime Minister. An extremely popular lawmaker who has risen the ranks of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and is even liked among members of the opposition, Tharman has insisted he’s not right for the top job. He even likened his governing skills to soccer, saying he is better as a team player who can provide assists than as the star who scores the goals. “I enjoy,” he told Fareed Zakaria in 2015, “making the long passes. But I am not the striker.”
Now, however, it seems like Tharman, 66, is ready to hang up his boots altogether and take on the arguably more visible—albeit on the sidelines—role of mascot. On Thursday, Tharman, currently a Cabinet minister, announced his resignation from government and intention to run for President, a largely ceremonial role with a smattering of constitutional duties.
It’s a far cry from seeking the premiership—currently held by Lee Hsien Loong, who is the son of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister and who is expected to retire and handpick his successor before the country’s next general election in 2025—but it’s a move that helps sidestep for now the looming question of whether the Chinese-majority city-state (or its ruling party) of 6 million people that touts its multiracial, pluralistic society is ready or reluctant to elevate a racial minority to the head of government. (Tharman is ethnically Tamil, while all three of Singapore’s Prime Ministers since its founding have been of Chinese descent.)
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“If I am fortunate enough to be elected as president, I will represent the unity of Singaporeans, of all races and religions, social backgrounds and political leanings, at a time when views in the population are becoming more diverse,” Tharman wrote in his resignation letter to Lee on June 8. “I believe that I can now best serve Singapore not in politics, but in a different role that has to be above politics.”
While the veteran statesman is the first to throw his hat into the ring for the presidential election—which is set to take place sometime before September 13, when incumbent President Halimah Yacob’s term ends (Halimah announced last month that she would not be seeking re-election)—it will be very difficult for any other candidate to beat Tharman in the popular vote.
Tharman has enjoyed immense popularity in parliamentary elections, repeatedly earning from his constituency among the largest margins of victory at the polls in the country. And in 2016, an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans preferred him to succeed Lee as the next Prime Minister, according to a Yahoo News poll.
For his part, Tharman has long dismissed the possibility of becoming Prime Minister, saying he is not inclined for the position. Yet his sheer popularity has at times forced other PAP officials to confront the country’s delicate racial politics, with party leaders sometimes suggesting that the older generation of Singaporeans would not be comfortable with a non-Chinese Prime Minister while government critics have suggested that it’s the party itself that is uncomfortable with the notion. Meanwhile, Singapore has had multiple Presidents of minority backgrounds, including of Malay and Indian descent, since its independence from Malaysia in 1965.
Although candidates for President are not permitted to belong to a political party, and Tharman is also leaving the PAP, Prime Minister Lee effectively endorsed Tharman’s bid in a public response to his resignation, saying: “Your departure from the Cabinet and the Party will be a heavy loss.”
“We will miss your leadership, insightful views, and wise counsel. But I understand why you have decided to make this move and run for president. It is in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that you have shown all these years,” Lee added. “Your international stature and your experience in government and politics will also stand you in good stead as you represent the nation domestically and abroad.”
Who is Tharman Shanmugaratnam?
Tharman, a Singapore native, has an extensive academic background, obtaining degrees from the London School of Economics, the University of Cambridge, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He was chief economist of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS)—the country’s central bank—before making his political debut in November 2001 after being elected to represent the Jurong district.
Since then, Tharman has taken on various government roles, including handling the finance and education ministerial portfolios. In 2011, he was appointed as deputy Prime Minister and as MAS chairman. To embark on his presidential bid, he will be leaving his current duties as senior minister and coordinating minister for social policies as well as his positions as MAS chair, deputy chair of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, and chairman of the Economic Development Board’s International Advisory Council. Tharman said his resignation will take effect July 7.
Throughout his career, Tharman has also held important international appointments. He co-chairs the Global Commission on the Economics of Water and is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Group of 30, a global body of economic and financial leaders and academics. Tharman was also the first Asian chair of the International Monetary Fund’s policy forum and was believed to be on the shortlist to become the next IMF chief.
Tharman is known for his grassroots approach to politics and attention to social mobility, which has won the hearts of Singaporeans across political factions. In an interview with BBC Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur in Switzerland in 2015, Tharman described Singapore’s approach to social policies not as a safety net but rather a “trampoline”—a response that went viral.
Who else is in the running?
No one else has fielded their candidacy, yet, but Prime Minister Lee’s estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, said in March that he is considering running.
To be eligible to run for President, one must be a Singaporean citizen, not younger than 45 years old, and resident in the country for at least 10 years. Candidates also must satisfy the Presidential Elections Committee that they are of integrity, good character, and reputation; and they must convince the Committee that they have met specific public or private service requirements.
If anything, Tharman is seen as more than qualified. “He’s been the architect of a lot of key financial policies that created financial stability for Singapore,” Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, tells TIME. “The fact that he is good moving to the role of the presidency, which is largely a ceremonial role, it shows to a certain degree, the need of the PAP to have somebody strong in that position.”