Tommy Koh cheers Rishi Sunak as UK's first PM of Indian descent, ex-NMP Calvin Cheng says race still matters

Another assessment of the moment was provided by retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.

Matthias Ang | October 25, 2022, 05:37 PM

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak is poised to become the first person of Asian heritage to serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom — an event described by Singapore's ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh as one of many "miracles" he has seen in his life.

In a Facebook post put up on Oct. 24, about an hour after the news broke, Koh wrote that he did not think the UK would be ready for an Indian Prime Minister before Singapore.

He also called on Singaporeans to reflect on the "irony" of such an event.

Bilahari Kausikan: Historic moment that shouldn't be romanticised

Koh's post drew a range of reactions in the comments.

Actor Lim Yu Beng said that he "wholeheartedly" agreed with Koh.

Source: Screenshot via Tommy Koh/Facebook

Meanwhile, retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan struck a cautious note, saying that while such a moment was "historic" and that Sunak should be given well-wishes, the event should not be romanticised given the circumstances in which he became prime minister.

Bilahari pointed out that instead of the entire nation or even the whole Tory party, Sunak was chosen by a "small group" of party members who had, only a few months ago, rejected him in favour of a "white fool", in reference to former prime minister Liz Truss.

In addition, the reason why he was chosen this time was because the Tories had been desperate to avoid a general election and had already tried every other alternative.

In response, Koh acknowledged that while this was true, Sunak had been chosen by the people's representatives in parliament.

Source: Screenshot via Tommy Koh/Facebook

Calvin Cheng: Koh is wrong, race is still a factor

There were also people who disagreed with Koh's post, with the most prominent of these being former nominated member of parliament (NMP) Calvin Cheng.

In his Facebook post on Oct. 25, Cheng said that Koh had read the situation in the UK "wrongly" and that "race matters" in the UK.

According to Cheng, Sunak had been chosen as PM only by Tory MPs, not by the greater UK electorate, and this was after he "lost the first time" against Truss.

During the previous contest, Truss beat Sunak in a ballot of Conservative party members by 81,326 votes to 60,399 — a 57-43 margin - to succeed Boris Johnson.

Cheng asserted that Tory MPs had already chosen Sunak, as Sunak led Truss with 137 votes to 113 votes in the final parliamentary round of the previous contest. He said,

"I believe that Sunak is the best choice. So too did the Tory MPs the first time. But when the vote went to the grassroot(s) Conservative party members, they voted in the least charismatic, most awkward and clueless WHITE woman Liz Truss."

Cheng also referenced a phone call made to British media outlet LBC in which the caller claimed to be the "average Tory voter" and said Sunak was not British.

In highlighting the racist nature of the call, Cheng added:

"He said that just like he as a white man could not be accepted as the PM of Pakistan even if he held a Pakistani passport, Sunak cannot be accepted as the PM of the UK."

Cheng then said while such a view might be dismissed as a minority, people of South Asian heritage in the UK often have had their "Britishness" and "Englishness" questioned.

Cheng added:

"I think Sunak is going to struggle IF he leads the Conservative Party in the next GE. Boris Johnson won a landslide because he managed to turn the old Labour white working class to him - the so-called Red Wall Tories.

Many of these are also the racist, xenophobic Little Englanders who voted for Brexit.

The human beings in this world who are cosmopolitan and race-blind, are in the minority."

Cheng concluded that if Sunak leads the Tory party to victory at the next general election, then Singaporeans and the ruling People's Action Party would need to, in Koh's words, "reflect".

"Until then, it is wise to accept that the Sunaks and the Obamas have to overcome racism by the majority, to lead a country that they are in a minority in," Cheng wrote.

Cheng subsequently wrote the same text as a comment on Koh's post, without the final two sentences of his original post.

Related stories:

Top left photo by Sulaiman Daud, right photo by Calvin Cheng