The politics of shirtlessness

Tharman poetry

You were expecting someone else, weren’t you?

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is having a moment here in Singapore. His campaign speeches went down very well in the run-up to the recent election, and now the voting is out of the way and speculation suggests that this could well be Lee Hsien Loong’s last term in office, people are beginning to realise that they could do worse – oh so much worse – than to make Tharman our new non-Lee PM.

Conventional wisdom has it that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM (partly due to good old fashioned racism, partly due to the treatment given to Chinese Malaysians across the Johor Strait).

In the absence of any Chinese candidates with the power to match Tharman’s mass appeal, however, this could well be set to change:

Chinese-ness has for years been positioned as desirable, a criteria for success and power. Lee Kuan Yew has been described as a Chinese supremacist who believed that certain “Chinese” traits were crucial to Singapore’s success. Under the government’s CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) system of classifying everyone into neat racial categories, Singapore is an incredibly race conscious country.

Yet this might not be giving Singaporeans enough credit. As voters, Singaporeans are more than capable of discerning who is or isn’t able to represent their best interests, regardless of the individual’s race. When push comes to shove, what really matters is the person’s ability to prove that he or she is a worthy representative and leader, and that’s a challenge for Chinese and non-Chinese politicians alike.

It is therefore strange that comments that Singapore is “not ready” for a non-Chinese prime minister is thus accepted as a reasonable political statement, and not some sort of ahistorical concern trolling.

Even if Singaporeans are voting along racial lines or according to racist assumptions, then what is needed is not a ruling out of a non-Chinese leader, but to tackle head on the skewed value judgements and uneven playing fields faced by different racial groups, and to find the common ground and common concerns that Singaporeans have for their country. A prime minister, after all, represents the entire nation, not just the majority.

Lee Kuan Yew himself said in 1965 that “[t]his is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation.” Singaporeans have been reminded of this often this year, the year of the nation’s Golden Jubilee as well as the year of his death. If this is indeed the vision of Singapore that we want to live up to, then there is no reason to doubt our readiness for a non-Chinese prime minister.

However, despite his gift for rhetoric, Tharman has always been more of a backroom technocrat than a populist politician – a sort of Mycroft Holmes type. I have met him in real life, and can attest that he is sufficiently brainy to frighten a seen-it-all old grifter like me (I’m not name-dropping here – Singapore is so small that you run into everyone sooner or later).

This understated charisma plays rather well with the electorate – much like Angela Merkel, he impresses everyone by seldom doing anything particularly impressive. He’s calm, responsible and unashamedly elitist, and that’s something that the calm, responsible and unashamedly elitist citizens of Singapore can get behind.

However, it would appear that he also has hidden depths.

The photo at the top of the page did the rounds on the internet on election day, following an article published on Mothership.sg by high-profile domesticated intellectual Tan Tarn How, revealing Tharman’s brief, youthful career as a shirtless poet:

Tharman penned four poems for a 1978 collection called but we have no legends. He co-edited the book with KC Chew and Yeoh Lam Keong, all then in National Service and part of the Young Writers’ Circle at the National Library.

KC Chew, who also had poems in the collection, was detained during the alleged Marxist conspiracy in 1987. He is one of Asia’s most successful fund-raisers and is current chairman of arts centre The Substation.

Fellow contributor Yeoh Lam Keong, who was later Tharman’s classmate at the London School of Economics, was the former chief economist at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation and is now an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Interestingly they crossed intellectual swords earlier this week.

As an economics undergraduate in the London School of Economics, Tharman also sent his verse to the University of Singapore Students Union publication “Singapore Undergraduate”. A then-editor of the magazine told me that he was so impressed by a poem of the future Deputy PM that he placed it on the back cover of one issue.

“He was a very good poet. Not sure how much poetry he’s written recently,” Chew said. The book is unfortunately out of print, though available at the National Library and the NUS library.

It may be pure coincidence that this came out at election time. On the other hand, Tan Tarn How, for all his artistic background, is extremely well connected, and Mothership.sg operates under licence from the government and is apparently linked to if not directly funded by PAP interests.

However, if this is an attempt to make Tharman appear more personable to voters, it seems to have backfired. I thought it was rather sweet, but such members of the Singaporean electorate as I have been able to discuss it with have tended to reply with a moue of disapproval.

More on the Tharman For PM campaign as and when I get it.

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One thought on “The politics of shirtlessness

  1. Pingback: Da Man | hardmoshi ~

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