Can a non-Chinese ever become Singapore leader?

September 15, 2015 09:50
An ethnic Tamil politician, Tharman Shanmugaratnam  has served as finance minister since 2007 and as deputy prime minister since 2011. Photo: Bloomberg

Singaporeans delivered a resounding victory to the ruling People's Action Party, which grabbed nearly 70 percent of the vote last Friday.

But as the PAP settles down to another five years in power, the guessing game of who will succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon has begun.

One name that keeps cropping up is that of Tharman Shanmugaratnam, an ethnic Tamil politician who has served as finance minister since 2007 and as deputy prime minister since 2011.

However, it seems highly unlikely that a non-Chinese will occupy the country's top job.

All three of Singapore's prime ministers to date have been of Chinese origin and, in a country where three-quarters of the residents are ethnic Chinese, it would be hard to break that tradition, according to Reuters.

Just one in 10 Singaporeans can, like Shanmugaratnam, trace their roots back to South Asia, the news agency notes.

Lee, 63, has hinted that he may step down by 2020. But PAP officials declined to comment on who his successor might be.

Lee has said that the chances of a non-Chinese becoming prime minister are better for the new generation of leaders but a lack of Mandarin, widely spoken in the island state, could be a problem.

However, for some Singaporeans, the idea is as far-fetched as a non-Malay prime minister in Malaysia or an Indonesian from outside the political heartland of Java becoming president.

Even Shanmugaratnam, 58, has said he is not keen on the prime minister's job, though he expects Singapore to have a leader from one of its minority ethnic groups at some point.

Still, his performance in the election was so impressive that even some members of the opposition camp openly longed for him to lead a grand coalition of parties.

"People would like to see Tharman around to set the tone for a new PAP leadership," said Catherine Lim, a political commentator and critic of Lee Kuan Yew.

"It's time now for a completely different one, and the only person whom I can think of to set that tone convincingly and who can appeal to Singaporeans across ethnic groups would be Mr. Tharman," she said.

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