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Singapore — Over the past few weeks, writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh has written a series of blog posts on the potential Prime Minister/s Singapore may have in the future, featuring insights on ministers Heng Swee Keat, Ong Ye Kung and Chan Chun Sing, Tharman Shanmugaratnam and K Shanmugam.
Those interested in the country’s political future should head here for the full series.
The last piece, published on Wednesday (Jan 6), was about Education Minister Lawrence Wong and Workers’ Party (WP) leader Pritam Singh.
Mr Vadaketh may have saved the best for last, with his piece on Mr Wong and Mr Singh being the most hopeful in the series.
The writer said that he and Mr Wong, who was thrust into the spotlight as co-chairman of the Multi-Ministry Task Force on Covid-19 and, by and large, is believed to have performed very well, to the point that buzz began to circulate about his being a future Prime Minister, first met as fellow students in 2003 at the Harvard Kennedy School in the United States. They remained casual acquaintances who shared classes and met on social occasions.
But Mr Vadaketh made it a point to tell two stories about the Education Minster: The first is from the 2013 Singapore Writers Festival, where Mr Wong publicly commended the writer for his book, Floating On A Malayan Breeze: Travels In Malaysia And Singapore, even after the National Arts Council had said it would not support it.
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More importantly, Mr Wong made his remarks in front of the person who had made the decision not to support Mr Vadaketh’s book.
“Some senior civil servants and politicians had long told me that in Singapore exists the same resistance to change one finds in any old successful bureaucracy — with some progressives at the top frustrated that those below them aren’t moving as fast as they might like. That moment in 2013 was, perhaps, my first direct experience of that,” wrote Mr Vadaketh.
The second anecdote the writer mentioned that showed Mr Wong’s character was from a party over a year ago.
When asked what he does for a living, Mr Wong simply answered: “I work in government.”
However, the importance of his work came to light during the course of the conversation.
“I think the American finally realised that he was speaking with one of the most politically powerful people in Singapore. But Lawrence’s first answer was indicative of his unassuming nature.”
Remarking on the leadership within the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), the writer added: “The old wise men at the top have less control. Not only are the 3,000-odd voting cadres themselves more influential in the process — not as malleable and obedient as before — but arguably so is the PAP’s supporting cast, including the mainstream media.
“That is the first reason why Lawrence’s re-emergence as a potential future prime minister gives me hope in Singapore’s political evolution. The second has to do with leadership styles, what one friend has called Singapore’s preference for heroic leadership models versus team leadership ones.”
As for Mr Singh, the writer believes that, like Mr Wong, he is a team player who employs “a more collaborative, consensual style” suited to the country’s diversity, rather than a more authoritarian leader.
The writer credits the WP for a “seamless leadership transition” from Mr Low Thia Khiang to Mr Singh, representing “both an ethnocultural and generational shift”.
He notes that Mr Singh enjoys support from Chinese Singaporeans, and his rise within the party may be seen as a “rebuke to the PAP’s sidelining of Tharman”.
“While the PAP doesn’t even have the confidence to appoint Tharman, a Tamil from the dominant South Asian ethnic group, the WP has anointed, as one friend jokes, a ‘minority within a minority within a minority’.
“Pritam is a South Asian (minority in Singapore) who belongs to the Sikh faith (minority among South Asians) but does not wear a turban (minority among Sikh leaders, if not all Sikhs.)”
Moreover, Mr Vadaketh noted how well Mr Singh handled recent controversies, including the brownface incident of 2019, as well as for standing by now Sengkang GRC Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan, when two police reports were filed against her for remarks she made online.
He also praised Mr Singh for his response to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s comments on free riders in Parliament last year.
“He responded with clarity, guile and gusto to Lee Hsien Loong’s awful characterisation of a segment of opposition voters as ‘free riders’. Pritam expertly managed to lure Lee into misappropriating a basic microeconomics concept,” wrote Mr Vadaketh. “Not since JBJ (Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam), I think, has an opposition politician managed to get under Lee’s skin like that,” he added.
This was the incident that made the writer sit up and take notice of the WP leader, thinking that he is “finally coming into his own”.
“For the first time in our history,” he wrote, “Singaporeans actually feel there is a real credible alternative to the PAP in the making. Everything from the party’s electoral machinery to Pritam’s growing assertiveness in parliament inspire confidence.
“Even if the PAP remains in power for a long time more, the presence of a viable backup will boost Singapore’s political resilience.
“This is something to cheer.” /TISG
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