A recent spate of unsavoury race-related incidents in Singapore has got Singaporeans talking about the issue.
To that end, a forum on the topic of “Race & Racism in Singapore” was organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
It included a Q&A session with Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who was asked the perennial question — why can’t someone who’s not Chinese be Singapore’s Prime Minister (PM)?
He answered that he’d welcome a minority PM, but surveys show that Singaporeans are more comfortable with someone from their own race in the job.
MS News attended the IPS-RSIS Forum on Race and Racism in Singapore on Friday (25 Jun), where Mr Wong sat down with RSIS senior fellow Shashi Jayakumar for a Q&A session.
Among the various questions Dr Jayakumar took from the audience, 1 in particular was an issue that’s been brought up time and again.
So he took the chance to ask Mr Wong point blank:
Why can’t an individual from a minority race be PM? Doesn’t this run against the grain of meritocracy as we understand it?
Lest we forget, this issue has been brought up a few times, with a similar question posed to Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in 2019, when he was still expected to become PM.
At the time, he replied that the older generation of Singaporeans aren’t ready for a non-Chinese PM — a reply that ended up being the basis of a police report.
More recently, at an IPS panel discussion in Jan, Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary said it’s up to Singaporeans to decide whether they want a non-Chinese PM or not.
Now that it was Mr Wong’s turn to answer this question, he again deferred to the Singapore public’s mindset.
Mr Wong pointed out that surveys done by IPS have shown that a “significant proportion” of Singaporeans are “more comfortable” with a PM of their own race.
Indeed, a Channel NewsAsia-IPS survey on race relations released in 2016 reported that the majority of respondents preferred those of the same race for many roles.
That includes as a spouse, to help manage businesses, and as a PM. Read a summary of the findings here.
Mr Wong said this cuts across Singaporeans of different ethnic groups.
However, going by the 2016 results, the difference was stark especially for the Chinese that were polled.
98% of Chinese deemed it acceptable for a Singaporean Chinese to be PM, compared with 53% for a Singaporean Malay and 60% for a Singaporean Indian.
Mr Wong said he hoped things were different, adding,
I wish it were not so, but the survey results are as they are.
Mr Wong also laid out what he thinks is necessary for any politician in Singapore who wishes to be PM.
That person has to “connect with voters” and “mobilise Singaporeans”, he said.
And very obviously, the person also must lead their party to win elections.
This applies to anybody, regardless of their race, he added.
Thus, as a politician who has to win votes, anyone who wants to be PM should be aware that the aforementioned attitudes exist among Singaporeans, Mr Wong said.
So he’s not saying that an individual can’t be PM,
… but these are the realities on the ground.
Anyone who aspires to be a PM must consider these realities.
However, although these attitudes exist, Mr Wong said he doesn’t agree with them.
That’s why he said that we shouldn’t accept these attitudes.
Instead of just saying, “Fine, so be it,” Singaporeans should “work very hard” to change these attitudes.
In fact, Mr Wong is very positive towards the possibility of Singapore having a minority PM.
He told the forum that he “certainly would look forward” to the day when we have one, adding,
I would welcome that.
Kudos to Mr Wong for his progressive attitude towards Singapore having a minority PM.
That’s considering that Mr Wong himself is regarded as 1 of the prime candidates to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — none of whom are minorities, incidentally.
Having a minority PM, or even for that matter a female PM, would indeed be momentous for Singapore, and go some way towards giving minorities more of a sense of belonging.
Whether we can see that in the near future might be down to Singaporeans themselves, and how we show our support for it.
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