Opinion: Singapore's Obama Moment With Indian-Origin Tharman Shanmugartnam

When Tharman Shanmugaratnam, former senior minister in the Prime Minister's Office, won the presidential elections with a landslide victory of 70.4%, people of all races and persuasions celebrated jubilantly. The magnificent win means he can do so much more than being relegated as senior minister, which is a rather perfunctory role in the ruling party's cabinet. The elected Presidency, though largely a ceremonial role, has the mandate and the legitimacy to lead from the front. Even though he is restricted from weighing in on policy matters, he can use his influence to set sail in a new direction.

In his new role, Tharman has promised to be a president for all and can play a vital role in easing inter-racial tensions that surfaced during the pandemic. His win comes on the back of a major anti-free trade debate in parliament; more specifically, there was a push to review the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) signed with India. This motion was filed by Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) in parliament in September 2021. 

He and his party colleague, Hazel Poa, called for the trade agreement to be abolished. They argued that many cushy Singaporean jobs had been lost to Indian professionals since the CECA was signed in 2005 and that Singapore as an island county with limited space had run out of room for Indian professionals. The move by the two opposition MPs was seen by many political watchers as a rise in nativist agenda that targeted the expatriate Indian community in Singapore. Social media was rife with hate speech, which put the Indian community at risk of communal violence and attacks when the virulent Covid Delta variant hit our shores.

Some political analysts in Singapore were expecting Tharman to win by a whisker largely because of how Indians are perceived based on ground sentiments and the rise of the nativist agenda in the political consciousness. Besides, two other presidential contestants, Tan Cheng Bok and Tan Jee Say, who contested in the presidential elections in 2011, endorsed Tan Kin Lian - who had also contested that year - as their choice for this election. The three Tans received a combined vote share of 65% in 2011. With endorsements from major politicians, Tan Kin Lian looked like he was the David taking on the Goliath. So, Tharman's win is huge, as if Singapore has hit the reset button on race relations and meritocracy.

Singapore has put aside differences, whether real or imagined, to put the best man forward. Tharman said his win is the confidence that the people have shown in Singapore. In a media report, BBC said Tharman could have been much more to Singapore as a Prime Minister. I have no doubt that Singapore could have benefited immensely with Tharman as our man-in-charge, especially in a rapidly changing global economy. I also think, however, that there are other technocrats in the government that can do that job.

Tharman's exit from partisan politics is definitely a loss for the ruling party, but not for Singapore. Tharman can be much more as Head of State; he is seen as a unifying figure to bring the multi-faceted, multi-racial cosmopolitan city-state to another level of political consciousness.

Singapore's economic success is based on trade, and it started with the Chola Empire from India establishing maritime routes to Southeast Asia as early as 1000 AD. The Cholas with their excellent shipbuilding skills built vessels for their long voyage and forged new ties with Southeast Asia. Those trade ties with India have endured the test of time. The Indian partnership with Southeast Asia still exists today and it is reassuring that Singapore is still meritocratic and believes firmly in preserving its multi-racial fabric and ethos.

We are putting up our best man to be the face of Singapore at a time of global economic uncertainty, deteriorating trade relations with China and the West, tense India-China relations and an ongoing maritime dispute in the South China Sea. Tharman, when asked about the lack of a social safety net for Singapore during a media interview, quipped: "We have a trampoline instead of a safety net." 

He said Singaporeans who have fallen off the economic cliff could just bounce back with comprehensive social and welfare programmes that he has put in place. The same Tharman who has shown prowess in policy matters has also shown Singapore that we can have our own trampoline effect with race relations. By extension, if he applies himself, he can be the beacon and help ease geo-political tensions in this region.

Tharman is at ease with world leaders and has cultivated good relations with his Indian counterparts and with Beijing as well. He has a way of navigating through thorny issues. Singapore has elected her favourite son to represent her on the world stage. Tharman is the Prime Minister we never had. He is well positioned to act as brand ambassador and perhaps use his influence to improve diplomatic and trade relations with our neighbours in the ASEAN, China, India and the West. Maybe we will witness his trampoline effect on trade and diplomacy as well.

Singapore hasn't seen anyone enjoy this kind of popularity in a long time. Finally, we have someone at the top with the same stature and respect as our founding fathers. With a new Prime-Minister-In[1]Waiting, Lawrence Wong, standing by to take over the reins from PM Lee Hsien Loong, we may just end up seeing the new PM as part of the President's office at Istana, instead. Meritocracy in Singapore has an uncanny way of showing up. Now, it is in the form of Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

(Kumaran Pillai is a Jefferson Fellow with the East-West Centre, Washington DC and the publisher of The Independent Singapore)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.