SINGAPORE: The 2023 Presidential Election was inaugurated on Tuesday (22 Aug), as three presidential candidates successfully submitted their nomination papers.
The trio of contenders includes Mr Ng Kok Song, the former GIC investment chief at 75; Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a former senior minister of the People’s Action Party (PAP) at 66; and Mr Tan Kin Lian, the former NTUC Income chief, also at 75.
The competing candidates have been actively expressing their viewpoints by engaging with the public on the streets and articulating their positions through media interviews, all in an effort to demonstrate who is most qualified to serve as Singapore’s President.
Additionally, the Singaporean media outlet CNA has undertaken a comprehensive series of interviews with the three candidates.
During an exclusive interview with CNA which was published on Thursday (24 Aug), Mr Tharman delved into his concept of “practical idealism” that guided his actions during his time in ministerial roles.
He expressed his intent to carry this philosophy into the presidency, a role he perceives as gaining even greater importance as the world navigates through what he referred to as “troubling times.”
Mr Tharman also discussed his collaborative approach with the leaders of the PAP’s 4th generation, and conveyed his confidence in establishing a relationship of trust with the next Prime Minister, enabling him to offer independent advice during this transitional phase.
Mr Tharman said, “I believe Lawrence not only has what it takes, but will be a leader for the times, with a very different style.”
He said Change is coming not just in the leadership. he highlighted a “healthy evolution” within society itself, characterized by its increasing complexity, the proliferation of diverse viewpoints, and a noticeable shift in the balance of power between the People’s Action Party and opposition parties.
“It’s critical that as this happens, it’s not just a transition with an uncertain end but a transition that leads to a strong centre – a centre of beliefs and aspirations that most people hold to,” he said.
“And the most important fundamental is that we’ve got to deepen our respect for ordinary Singaporeans.”
On 20 August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong affirmed that his “Succession plans are back on track” when he was delivering his 19th National Day Rally speech.
In April 2022, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong was announced as the leader of the ruling PAP’s fourth-generation team.
“Long and close relationship” with DPM Wong
Discussing his vision for executing his duties as President, Mr Tharman emphasized his “long and close relationship” with DPM Wong.
He said: “I have confidence that I’ll be able to have a relationship of trust with him where I can provide advice independently, and I think we will both take each other seriously.”
He added that as his conversations with Mr Wong will take place privately, thus preserving the core tenet of the President’s role as an independent entity distinct from the government.
Furthermore, Mr Tharman aspired to serve as a rational and influential international representative for Singapore.
“I come ready with a set of relationships and with some standing that can help Singapore never be regarded as too small, always be taken seriously.”
“Particularly with the new Prime Minister and leadership having to spend a lot of time on domestic challenges. I think that international role will be particularly useful,” he said.
Mr Tharman also underscored the paramount importance of his grassroots involvement, emphasizing that a significant portion of his time has been dedicated to direct engagement with the people.
Addressing his approach if elected President, Mr Tharman affirmed that he would remain faithful to his established style.
“I’m not going to change my style … I’m always just listening to people and just trying to feel what they feel … that can only be done through very personal interactions.”
“It’s not a different part of the brain … You’re the same person, but you’re playing different roles, and it is such a privilege to play those different roles, and find that actually they fit together. ”
Mr Tharman added that he would not have been as effective as a national policymaker if he had spent a lot of time on the ground.
Mr Tharman dismissed notion of being “overqualified” for Presidential role
Amid discussions surrounding Mr Tharman’s extensive background in policymaking and politics, the suggestion that he might be “overqualified” for the position of President has emerged.
However, Mr Tharman firmly disagrees with this perspective.
“All the experience that I’ve built up in government, in politics on the ground and internationally is going to be absolutely useful,” he said.
“This is not just going to be a ceremonial responsibility, it’s going to be an active responsibility, domestically, supporting initiatives on the ground.”
In addition to his notable role as a People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament for over 22 years and a Cabinet Minister for two decades, Mr Tharman has taken on a range of significant responsibilities.
Simultaneously, he held the position of Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) since 2011, only recently stepping down from this post in order to participate in the PE 2023 contest.
Mr Tharman’s influence extends beyond Singapore’s borders as well. He has played pivotal roles and led committees within prestigious international organizations such as the World Economic Forum, the International Monetary and Financial Committee, the United Nations, and the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, among others.
Singaporeans preferred Mr Tharman as the next PM
Since Mr Tharman’s announcement of intent to participate in the Presidential race in June of this year, numerous Singaporeans have opined that his exceptional qualifications and extensive experience position him as not just qualified but potentially “overqualified” for the President’s role.
They see him as a superior and preferred choice to become the next Prime Minister of Singapore, who can effectively guide the country through the current period of uncertainty and challenges it is facing.
A survey by market research consultancy Blackbox in 2016 showed that 69 per cent of respondents would support Mr Tharman as a candidate to be prime minister.
Regrettably, Mr Tharman has ruled out the possibility of assuming the role of PM at that time.
Mr Tharman denied change of heart after joining PAP, and remains steadfast on his “practical idealism”
The CNA’s interview provided a profound insight into Mr Tharman’s personal journey, including his modest upbringing, his formative experiences while studying in the UK, which played a pivotal role in shaping his concept of “practical idealism,” and his close relationship with his wife, Jane Yumiko Ittogi.
While many assume that Mr Tharman underwent a change of heart, prompting his transition to join the PAP and become an MP in 2001, he clarified that he has remained steadfast on a trajectory of “practical idealism,” even though his approaches have evolved over time.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, a period when Singapore was contending with significant poverty, Mr. Tharman recalls his deep concern about the prevailing inequality within the society.
His student activism revolved around raising awareness on these issues, both in Singapore and during his time in the UK. He actively interacted with diverse individuals, including British coal miners, to understand their lives and experiences.
As he concluded his university years, he reached the conclusion that socialist systems were not yielding optimal results.
“That’s been the core for me all along, through my years as a chief economist and as managing director at MAS and certainly in politics,” he said.
Mr Tharman claims he is more idealistic now than he was 20 or 30 years ago, explaining that this is because he recognises that a fair and progressive society can be achieved not just by the actions of the state but also by transforming lives on the ground.