Minister Shanmugam on Singapore having a non-Chinese PM
In an enthralling 23-minute long interview on BBC’s Hardtalk, the Minister for Law and Home Affairs spoke on a range of issues including the death penalty, world press freedom rankings, section 377A of the Penal Code, and the possibility of Singapore having a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
This topic surfaced when the eminent BBC Host Stephen Sackur drew attention to the fact that the “four leaders of independent Singapore in the modern era have all been ethnic Chinese”. He also suggested that it was “a great shame” that Minister Shanmugam may never be Prime Minister of Singapore due to his heritage.
An Indian or a Malay person can be Prime Minister of Singapore
The Minister started and ended his response to Mr Sackur’s question by making clear that his response did not refer to himself.
He stated that it was not accurate “to say an Indian cannot be a Prime Minister, or a Malay cannot be a Prime Minister.” He said it was entirely possible, and he would not rule it out.
Race does matter in politics
Turning the question around, he pointed to the fact that the United Kingdom had no non-white Prime Minister. On this point, he shared that multiples surveys have revealed that each race displays a “substantial preference for a person of their own race to be the Prime Minister”.
Although he did not cite a specific survey, one survey that did suggest this is the 2022 IPS survey which showed that, although an increasing number of Singaporeans are open to having non-Chinese as PM or president, there is still substantial in-group preference.
However, the Minister opined this is not an unbridgeable gap.
Confidence of the MPs necessary
In his view, a good Malay or Indian candidate can bridge the gap “as long as the MPs have the confidence that he can lead them into the General Elections and win the elections.”
Previous statements on the possibility of having a non-Chinese Prime Minister
In 2019, the former front-runner for the Prime Minister’s seat, Heng Swee Keat, reportedly stated that the older generation of Singaporens were not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
Older generation of Singaporeans not ready for non-Chinese PM: Heng Swee Keat https://t.co/kHCEI0vrJl pic.twitter.com/Brp1W5ipAY
— TODAY (@TODAYonline) March 29, 2019
However, in that same article, Minister Heng also said:
“I do think that at the right time, when enough people think that we may have a minority leader, a minority who becomes the leader of the country, that is something that we can all hope for.”
In 2020, in the midst of election hustlings, police reports were lodged against Minister Heng for his remarks. However, the AGC was of the view that no offence was made out.
Police confirm reports lodged against DPM Heng over response to question about non-Chinese Prime Minister, but AGC has advised no offence has been found https://t.co/zebBK3N9Lm pic.twitter.com/RWYHKMWgOC
— CNA (@ChannelNewsAsia) July 7, 2020
In January 2021, Janil Puthucheary, a Senior Minister of State, posited that it would be up to Singaporeans to decide if we are ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
“Race continues to matter, and surveys done by IPS themselves suggests that that is so. So well, I think I would fully subscribe to the idea that I wish it were not so.” https://t.co/QMlKEOoPpJ #SP2021Reset #Singapore
— Yahoo Singapore (@YahooSG) January 25, 2021
The full transcript of the said portion of the interview may be found below:-
Stephen Sackur: I suppose the biggest test of all of this – if I may say so – the biggest test of all of this will be what happens at the very top. Now, the current Prime Minister has just made it plain who his successor is going to be. It’s going to be Lawrence Wong, the current Finance Minister. That will mean that the four leaders of independent Singapore in the modern era have all been ethnic Chinese. You’re a very senior minister yourself. You’ve been in ministerial jobs for much more than a decade, you perhaps could have aspired to the top job. Isn’t it the reality that you, with your Indian heritage, are never going to be able to be Prime Minister of Singapore, and that is a great shame, is it not?
Minister: Leaving me aside, I don’t think it is accurate to say an Indian cannot be a Prime Minister, or a Malay cannot be a Prime Minister.
How many non-white Prime Ministers have there been in the United Kingdom? So, let’s get real. Race does matter in politics. Survey after survey shows that each race – whether it’s the Chinese, or the Malays, or the Indians – there is a substantial preference for a person of their own race to be the Prime Minister.
So, if a Malay or an Indian, starts with, if I remember my numbers right, about a 20% gap. But it’s not unbridgeable. A good candidate, in my view, a Malay or Indian candidate, can bridge it as long as the MPs have the confidence that he can lead them into the General Elections and win the elections. I think it’s entirely possible, so I would not rule it out. And I don’t refer to myself.
Top photo via K Shanmugam’s Facebook page
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