Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tharman Shanmugaratnam has come out to say that being Prime Minister is not for him. This happened when reporters asked him about a survey where nearly 70 per cent of Singaporeans wanted him to be the next PM.
But aside from saying "not me" thrice, DPM Tharman also touched upon how leadership in Singapore's Cabinet works and how despite not being PM, individuals like Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam were in "a league of their own" and made immense contributions to Singapore.
Here's the full transcript of the exchange between reporters and him:
Q: Moving on, there’s a recent survey done which shows that almost 70 per cent of Singaporeans support you being the next PM, and with 55 per cent saying you’re the first choice out of 8 Cabinet ministers. What do you have to say about these results?
DPM Tharman: Well let me say a few things. The first thing we must recognise when we think about leadership in Singapore is that we operate as a team in Cabinet, not as a group of individuals. It may sound commonplace but it isn’t commonplace.
Actually it’s a very distinctive political culture that we have in Cabinet, and you have to look around the world to see how distinctive it is. No one is in this for himself or herself.
No one is out to outdo someone else in Cabinet, or worse still to undermine someone else in Cabinet because he or she could be a competitor to them.
Everyone is in this as a member of the team. It’s a culture that we’ve built up over time that we absolutely must keep for the future. This team culture in Cabinet.
I see it in the fourth generation of leaders. Some of them came in in the 2011 elections, some came in last year. But they work very closely together. I’ve seen how they work together, and I’ve seen them building up trust with each other. They have this team culture.
Whoever’s the next Prime Minister will be part of this team culture. He or she would be first amongst equals, first among equals in a team.
That’s the first point I want to make. We’ve got to recognise that we have a different culture in Singapore – it’s a team culture. And whoever’s the Prime Minister will be first amongst equals, and that certainly applies to the fourth generation of leaders.
The second point I’ll make is that when we talk about succession in Singapore, we’re not talking about an immediate issue. We’re not talking about succession within this term of government. We’re lucky. The Prime Minister is healthy; even after that small scare recently, the doctors have given him a clean bill of health.
He’s still on top of the challenges that Singapore faces – everything from defence to economic policy to social policy – and he’s extremely highly regarded, not just domestically but internationally. We don’t get invited to the G20 Summit year after year if the leaders of the major nations don’t want our Prime Minister at the table. So he’s in top form, and there’s no urgency to see succession in this term of government.
That’s why we’re focused on the fourth generation of leaders, building them up and enabling them to take over during the next term of government. And one of them will emerge as first amongst equals.
Just to be absolutely clear, because I know of this talk that’s going around, I’m not the man for PM. I say that categorically. It’s not me. I know myself, I know what I can do, and it’s not me. I’m good at policymaking, I’m good at advising my younger colleagues, and at supporting the Prime Minister, not at being the Prime Minister. That’s not me.
Just think back to our early years, when we had people like Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Rajaratnam. Their contributions to Singapore were immense, and till today they are in a league of their own, but even they would not have been ideal as a Prime Minister.
Dr Goh, a remarkable person. Singapore would be much poorer and much less secure if not for him. He debated with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, disagreed with him on some things. But he did not have the temperament to be Prime Minister and did not want to be.
Mr Rajaratnam, a man of ideas, passionate about what he believed in and an extremely good Foreign Minister. But he wasn’t cut out to be Prime Minister, he knew it, and no one regards him the lesser because he wasn’t Prime Minister.
I mention them as illustration. I myself and no one in future is going to come close to Dr Goh and Rajaratnam’s contributions to Singapore, but even they would not have been ideal as Prime Minister.
We each find a way to contribute to Singapore, that matches our strengths, and we each contribute to a strong team. That’s the way we operate in Singapore – each contributes to a strong team, do what we can in a way that matches our strengths. And one amongst the fourth generation is I’m confident capable of emerging as the first amongst equals.
Q: DPM, given that it’s the fourth generation leadership that will pick one as the next PM. Is there a consensus among the fourth generation leadership that you are not in the running?
DPM Tharman: I think I’ve made myself extremely clear. We have a good team. We have a
strong team in the fourth generation – each with strengths and weaknesses but together I would say a strong team and they can count on some of us in the third generation to stay around and support them - that too is important.
And I can tell you from my working with them, from my observing them, that there are a few of them with that potential to become the first amongst equals during the next term of Government. I am sure of that.
Q: Is your age a concern? If it was 10 years ago…
DPM Tharman: I’m quite clear about this. I know who I am and I know what I’m capable of doing and I know how I am best able to serve Singapore.
Q: DPM, what’s your take on the idea of transition PM, which eases to…
DPM Tharman: There are many twirls in this top that goes around. I’ve expressed myself quite clearly and categorically. I know who I am and I know how I want to serve. And I’m confident of the fourth generation leaders.
One of them is going to emerge as the leader who can take us forward, and he or she will be first amongst equals.
Q: Has this list of potential PMs narrowed down for you over the last couple of years?
DPM Tharman: We all have our sense as to who has the potential to be the first amongst
equals and it doesn’t lessen the contributions of the others. Who thinks lowly of Raja and Goh Keng Swee? They were towering figures, but not everyone is suited to be the Prime Minister.
The whole idea is build a team, build a strong team to take Singapore forward and I’m confident of that in the fourth generation. I’ve watched them; I know them well.
Some I’ve known for a long time like Swee Keat; some others over the last six years. I’ve confidence in them and some of us in the third generation would be around to support them.