“Singapore’s Presidential Election: Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s Missed Opportunity”

“Singapore’s Presidential Election: Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s Missed Opportunity”

Singaporeans have elected Tharman Shanmugaratnam as their next president, securing a record 70.4% of the votes in the country’s first contested presidential election in over a decade. While Mr. Tharman’s victory was expected, many felt a sense of disappointment, considering his potential for a more significant role.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a former top minister, is highly regarded by Singaporeans for his intelligence, eloquence, and popularity. His decision to leave the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to run for president left many baffled, as the presidential role in Singapore is largely ceremonial and holds little power. It has often been likened to the British monarch in terms of its influence on public affairs.

“Singapore’s Presidential Election: Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s Missed Opportunity”

Ng Kok Song came in second behind Mr Tharman, with about 16% of the vote

Yet, Mr. Tharman’s impressive credentials extend beyond Singapore’s borders. He has held prominent positions at global institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), even being considered for the top role at the IMF. His popularity in Singapore, coupled with his gentlemanly image and statesmanlike demeanor, led many to believe he could be Singapore’s first non-Chinese prime minister, breaking the government’s racial policy that insists on a Chinese majority leader.

Despite his initial silence on the topic, Mr. Tharman eventually expressed his belief that Singapore was ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, disappointing some of his supporters. He also emphasized that he wouldn’t be a good fit for the prime minister role, which, combined with the PAP’s new leadership, may have indicated that he was on his way out of the party. Some speculate that the PAP encouraged him to run for president to guide the next generation of leaders.

Mr. Tharman’s victory as the first publicly elected non-Chinese president challenged racial assumptions in Singapore, as his competitors were both Chinese. This outcome undermined a key PAP racial policy, which previously ensured some elections were restricted to minority race candidates. His win is seen as a positive step for race relations in Singapore.

However, questions arose about the PAP’s influence in the election, as Mr. Tharman was widely perceived as the government-backed candidate. While he pledged to act independently, many doubted this commitment given his history as a loyal PAP member. Concerns also emerged about the election’s opaque and restrictive criteria, leading to accusations of government influence over the process.

Despite these concerns, the majority of Singaporeans viewed the election as legitimate, with only a small percentage choosing to spoil their ballots in protest. Mr. Tharman’s campaign promised “respect for all” and “respect for different views and political leanings.” However, it remains uncertain how he will achieve these promises within a system perceived as perpetuating the PAP’s power—a system he helped shape for decades.

Tessa Wong is an Asia Digital Reporter at BBC News.

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