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50 Years On, Is Singapore Ready for an Indian Prime Minister?

Some years ago, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously said Singapore was not ready for an Indian prime minister when he dropped S Dhanabalan from consideration for the job. Though Mr Lee’s words were racist and hurtful to some, as a young boy then, I mistakenly thought it made sense because if the PM is elected by the people, an Indian who couldn’t speak Chinese dialects would not be able to win elections.

30 years on, now that I understand politics and democracy much better, I realise how little relevance his words have, how we’ve all been misled by the old man.

First and most importantly, the people have no choice in the matter. Under our system, the PM isn’t directly elected by the people, unlike the US President. The PM is selected by Parliament, and traditionally the Secretary General of the party in power assumes the position. Which means the PM is really elected by PAP party cadres in their own CEC elections, though in practice it’s the party elders who determines the leaders. Does anyone seriously believe the PAP will lose the next General Election if it chooses a non-Chinese as their next secretary-general?

Second, this is politics. While no one seriously expects any challengers for the party leadership as long as the old man is still around, who’s to say that there won’t be a leadership tussle once his son retires? While some may view such leadership tussles negatively, I think it is important to have an open contest for the most important job in the country. I don’t think the system of the current PM nominating his anointed successor and grooming him for the job is at all healthy for Singapore. It’s too much patronage.

Third, if there is an open leadership race, I can think of a few Indians who could mount serious challenges. Shanmugam and Tharman are both powerful contenders. Both are highly respected, capable and powerful politicians. Who’s to say they can’t win if they made a bid for the PM post? If it really comes down to a slugfest, the winner will be whoever will do whatever it takes to get the necessary votes from the rest of the Cabinet when they hold their ballot to choose a new PM. I bet they could prevail against the likes of Chan Chun Sing or Tan Chuan Jin if push came to shove. Indeed, I see no reason for senior Cabinet figures to step aside meekly while junior politicians are groomed to take over. It goes against the order of nature.

Lastly, I don’t think the race of the PM matters very much to the people of Singapore any more. Everyone speaks English now, effectively. I think race matters very little in votes now. What people want from a PM goes way beyond race. They want to know, what kind of person is he? An uncompromising conservative bastard, full of pay-and-pay crap? Or is he an enlightened liberal who understands the times are changing? They will want to know, what will this PM do for me? Will he repeal 377A? Will he spend more on social services and less on defence? Will he continue to push Singapore on an endless treadmill? Or will he understand that there is more to life than KPI’s and GDP? Etc etc. For all these questions, it’s the man himself, much more than his race, which will win over Singaporeans.

2015 is a crucial juncture for both Singapore and PAP. For the former, it is a chance to build upon the results of the 2011 watershed election and and completely break the PAP dominance for good. For the PAP, it is a chance to elect a new leader and by extension a new PM, and to do so in a democratic fashion with open competition, regardless of race or patronage, rather than as a planned succession.

It is time to put the old man’s words to rest.

This commentary was first published on Political Writings.
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