Is Singapore Ready for an Indian PM?

The UK is ready for one, so Singapore should be ready for a prime minister who is Indian, Malay, or any other ethnic and religious minority.

By: Toh Han Shih

There is rising buzz in the UK over whether Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak might succeed Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister, with speculation making its appearance in media from the Herald of Scotland to the London Evening Standard, and with a September Ipsos MORI survey finding that the British rated Sunak better than Johnson or Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, in various categories.

Sunak was born 40 years ago in England to Hindu parents who emigrated from Africa. He has academic credentials normally associated with the British elite. He was head boy at Winchester College, a prestigious boarding school in England, obtained a First Class Honors degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University and gained a Master’s in Business Administration from Stanford University as a Fulbright scholar. He polished his business cred at Goldman Sachs and later, and Catamaran Ventures, an investment firm owned by his father-in-law, N R Narayana Murthy, the Indian billionaire who founded Indian technology giant Infosys.

With such an impressive track record, the late Lee Kuan Yew, when he was Singapore Prime Minister, would have welcomed Sunak into Singapore’s Cabinet. But would Singapore’s founding father, if he were alive today, accept someone like Sunak as Prime Minister? In 1988, Lee said he had considered a Singapore Indian minister, S Dhanabalan, a potential prime minister but decided Singapore wasn’t ready. In an interview on BBC HARDtalk on Feb 23, 2017, Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said he didn’t think Singapore was ready for a premier who wasn’t from his country’s majority Chinese race, but expressed the hope that it would happen in future. The irony is that Singapore already had an ethnic minority chief minister in the 1950s, a Jew named David Marshall.

My favorite for a Singapore Indian Prime Minister is Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He speaks eloquently and exudes statesman-like charisma. I admire him for saying in 2015 that the opposition could play a positive role. He has international stature, being a trustee of the World Economic Forum and chair of the G20 Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance.

One possible advantage of a non-Chinese Prime Minister for Singapore is he or she could deal well with Beijing without the baggage of being a Chinese leader of the only Chinese-majority country outside China. Richard Nixon, when he was US President in the 1970s, was able to normalize US relations with China because he had a previous reputation as a fierce anti-communist and thus couldn’t be accused of being soft on Red China. Likewise, a non-Chinese Singaporean Prime Minister could cultivate extremely friendly ties with China without being accused of favoritism on grounds of common ethnicity and language, yet maintain good relations with the US. Being able to navigate the tensions between these two superpowers is a tricky but important task.

Britain today is very different from the days of the British Raj, when the British rulers of India practiced institutional and blatant racism towards their colonial subjects. If the UK can accept a descendant of its imperial subjects as its leader, how much more should Singapore, also a former British colony, accept a non-Chinese leader.

While there may still be pockets of racism among the majority white population in Britain, the country has come a long way since 1968 when a white politician, Enoch Powell, made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech against non-white immigrants from parts of the former British empire. The late Powell, who was then British shadow defense secretary, said: “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood,” a statement widely regarded as a hint at possible bloody racial riots. Shortly afterwards, Edward Heath, then leader of the opposition Conservative Party, sacked Powell from his shadow Cabinet and told Powell he regarded his speech as racialist.

Given the Singapore government’s strong desire to maintain racial and religious harmony, if any politician of any party were to make a similar speech, he would be punished and silenced by the Home Affairs and Law Minister.

The question of whether Singapore will have a minority Prime Minister is pertinent in light of a recent incident between Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and a netizen called Nubela Goh, who recently posted on Shanmugam’s Facebook calling the Indian minister a “black man in a white shirt.” On Dec 11, Shanmugam posted on his Facebook saying Goh had apologized and explained there was no racist intent in his statement.

While this matter has been resolved, the ethos of Singapore’s pledge — “regardless of race, language or religion” — would be better fulfilled if it is demonstrated that a minority member could be Prime Minister.

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. A version of this appeared in The Independent, a Singapore-based website.