SINGAPORE – A Tharman Presidency is a "very, very positive sign" for Singapore, said Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Co-ordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Forbes conference on Monday (11 September).
In an "In Conversation" session at the ongoing Forbes Global CEO Conference, Heng was asked by moderator Justin Doebele, Forbes Asia's Editor and Vice President – Content, if the recent Singapore President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam's landslide victory of over 70 per cent of the eligible votes, showed that Singaporeans are ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
Now in its 21st year, the conference "convenes CEOs, tycoons, entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders to discuss key issues of global concern and to build new partnerships". This year's edition, themed "Sea Change" runs till Tuesday at the Shangri-La Singapore.
Doebele asked, "Could we perhaps see this Presidential election as showing that Singapore is now ready, perhaps with the appropriate candidate, that there might be a Prime Minister (PM) who is a non-Chinese?"
"I will see it as a very positive sign that the fact that he is an Indian did not stop people from electing the best person," said Heng.
Heng had said some in Singapore "not ready"
It was Heng, who in March 2019, said in a forum at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) that while younger Singaporeans were increasingly comfortable with the idea of having a minority-race PM, he believed that the older generation were still resistant and unable to accept the notion.
The former Finance Minister was then next in line to succeed PM Lee Hsien Loong. Heng "stepped aside" in April 2021 and currently, DPM and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong is the PM-designate.
At the forum, Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, who is from NTU's School of Social Sciences, had pointed out that Tharman was a popular choice to take on the top job, based on his constituency's elections results. Tharman helmed the Jurong GRC since 2001.
A survey conducted by market research consultancy Blackbox in 2016, which was commissioned by Yahoo News Singapore, also found that Tharman was the top choice among Singaporeans to succeed PM Lee, with 69 per cent of almost 900 respondents choosing him.
According to The Straits Times, Heng said, "My own experience in walking the ground, in working with different people from all walks of life, is that the views – if you go by age and by life experience – would be very different.
“I will say that it is a very positive sign that the young people will be quite comfortable, precisely because our policy of regardless of race, language, religion has been an emphasis in our system for so long. So that is why our young people grow up in a very different way and therefore you are quite ready.
“I do think that at the right time, when enough people think that way, we would have, we may have, a minority who becomes the leader of the country."
Singapore society maturing
At the Forbes conversation, Heng added, "It is certainly a very, very positive sign. Will we ever have a non-Chinese as Prime Minister? I would say it will come one day. It will come one day because the Singapore society is growing, maturing... As to when that day will be, I can't tell. None of us can predict the future."
Still, "I see that as a very important aspect of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy... to build a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural society", Heng added.
Heng's session also discussed in significant detail the late Lee Kuan Yew's legacies and lessons learnt.
To a question on the China-US relationship and what Lee would have done or dealt with rising tensions, Heng said, "I'm not Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I don't think I have his amazing intellect."
I will see it as a very positive sign that the fact that he (President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam) is an Indian did not stop people from electing the best person.Heng Swee Keat
Heng then shared what happened at a Shangri-La Dialogue in 1999 in Singapore.
"Some of you will recall that the American plane dropped a bomb in Belgrade and it hit the Chinese embassy. There was a huge issue... Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was in Singapore and the Chinese Foreign Minister was in Singapore, and both had asked to see him," Heng said. "Everybody was nervous. What will Mr Lee say to them, where it would create more fireworks and so on. I was present in both meetings. All I can say is that if the Chinese and Americans have shared notes about what Mr Lee said to them, they will realise that Mr Lee said exactly the same thing to both of them, but with a slightly different angle.
Lee had asked both parties to focus and think about their respective long-term strategic interest.
Money laundering in Singapore
Doebele also brought up the recent S$1.8 billion money laundering case. "Singapore prides itself on being a hub for financial services. What are what are some of the takeaways and what are some of the lessons that have been learned, based on your great experience in the financial services industry?" he asked.
Heng outlined the need to use finances to create a better life for people. "I think our ability to channel finances into productive uses to support the real economy, to create a better life for people, is critically important... But how we channel finance into productive purposes is critical."
"I think it's important for us to keep the integrity in finance and keep its ability to function effectively. So, money laundering, counter-terrorism financing are areas for which we have been very, very vigilant from very early on. We want Singapore to be a financial centre that people can trust, that it is the centre for channeling capital to productive uses."