Tharman says he 'paid the price' as an activist, but his 'activism hasn't reduced', encourages activists to 'never stop'

Tharman also urged Singaporeans to go further to develop a deeply multicultural society, "where race eventually does not matter".

Tan Min-Wei | August 19, 2023, 10:00 PM

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Presidential hopeful Tharman Shanmugaratnam and his wife Jane Ittogi spoke at social mobility NGO Access Singapore's event on Aug. 19, 2023, touching on a wide variety of issues, including social mobility, race, activism and Singapore's presidency.

When a young climate activist pointed out during the question-and-answer session that many people do not participate in advocacy because of fear of being "persecuted" or "blacklisted", Tharman pointed out that he, too, was an activist when he was young and that he still holds on to the "same idealism".

"I paid the price for it along the way. It hasn't reduced my activism. It had, at times, required some creativity. But stick to what you believe in."

Habits of the heart and respect for everyone

During his impromptu speech about social mobility, Tharman said that when he was growing up, while there were differences in social class, there was a feeling of "sameness" between all segments of society as everybody's social circumstances improved together, leading to a sense of solidarity.

But now, in Singapore, as he observed, there was less of this "sense of sameness" as the successful raised their children in a different way from those who were less successful.

For the next 20 to 30 years, he believes that a key national project for Singapore would be to learn "habits of the heart", with a greater focus on respect for everyone, regardless of social circumstance, ability, or political views.

Tharman said this would be vital to keep Singapore's social mobility going.

Tharman emphasised that he and his wife had been involved in that process on the ground for a long time, and while it may at times seem like "never-ending work", he said that progress had been made.

Perceived negative consequences for activism in Singapore

During the question-and-answer session, multiple young people who attended the event asked the couple several questions about Singapore's approach to education, diversity, stress, and climate change.

A climate activist approved Tharman's recognition of the need for climate change and invited him and Ittogi to join the SG Climate Rally, which she said would be held later in September this year.

She said that she felt it was important for the couple to attend as it would send "an important signal" when "an advocate for Singaporeans" actively engages with it.

The activist added, "Many people in Singapore don't exactly participate in advocacy because of the fear that they will be blacklisted in different ways or even persecuted or investigated".

Tharman "paid the price" as an activist, but it didn't stop him

Tharman commented on the perceived negative consequences of advocacy in Singapore, saying that he had “started life as a student activist” and “paid the price for it along the way”.

He said advocacy is "an art" and, at times, “required some creativity”.

Tharman explained that he learned what one advocated for had to be something that could eventually be achieved.

“You can only achieve it by nudging, pushing, getting rules changed, bringing more people on board, persuading others.”

He said persuading others was always essential, so tactics and how one went about things mattered.

Ultimately, he encouraged the audience to never stop “being an activist”, especially on big issues of the day, such as climate change and social issues.

S'pore needs to do more against racism even though the sharpest elements have been overcome: Tharman

When asked a question about racism and his experience, Tharman said that it was remarkable that Singapore was such a peaceful society given its multi-racial and multi-religious nature, but that Singapore had to go further.

Speaking about his experience of racism, he said it was different in the "old days" when race was always "in the air", and that it was much better now.

But he also spoke about the racism that he had encountered as a young person in Singapore, about how people would not sit next to him on buses, or that buses would commonly ignore him if he was the only one at a bus stop, saying, "he sort of knew why".

"Never think that growing up as a minority is the same as growing up as a majority in Singapore. It isn't."

This was particularly true for those who were broadly in the lower rungs of society.

He also cautioned successful members of racial communities that they had to be aware that they did not feel the impact of racism as much as the less successful members of their community.

He emphasised that Singapore was not unique in encountering racism, recounting how he was hit in the head with a stone while visiting an English city as a student and that Singapore did well by international standards.

Tharman said that Singapore had managed to "overcome some of the sharpest elements of racial tension in Singapore very successfully", but he urged the audience to go further to develop a deeply multicultural society "where race eventually does not matter".

President is the international representative of Singapore

Tharman spoke about the importance of the president's traditional role as head of state and international representative of Singapore, distinct from the discretionary executive powers given by the constitution.

He explained that Singapore is now moving into a more challenging terrain at home and abroad.

Tharman thinks the President is more important in an increasingly dangerous global environment

For the international environment, Tharman characterised it as becoming "more dangerous".

He noted not just the increasing tension between global superpowers, the United States and China, but also the gradual unravelling of 40 years of globalisation and the international norms that had sustained it.

"We cannot underestimate how much of a loss it will be to Singapore, if we are treated just as a small country.

We have held our own, since we started in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's days, we've held our own.

But it's going to get very difficult in the future."

For this new terrain, the role of the president would be a very important institution for Singapore.

That traditional role of the President "becomes more important" if the person occupying the office has the "background experience and international standing to fly the Singaporean flag high" during international debates and collaboration.

Shifting domestic balance

Tharman pointed out that it was not just the global environment but Singapore itself where the terrain was changing.

As time passes, society shifts as people have more diverse views than before, Tharman explained.

"Our politics is going to change, inevitably."

Saying that he had spoken about the role of the opposition after each of the previous three general elections, he also said that he believed that Singapore needed a healthy, contested democracy and that the balance between the governing party, "the PAP today", and the opposition, will continue to shift.

So with these two considerations, the role of the presidency becomes more important, not just symbolically, but by supporting initiatives on the ground.

These initiatives on the ground would greatly reduce differences and create a sense of solidarity, Tharman believes.

He also said that he did not wish to elaborate on the discretionary powers given to the presidency by the constitution, and his experience in dealing with the reserves, finance matters or the integrity of the public service, that aspect of his persona was well known.

For him, it was more critical to focus on the presidency's traditional role of representing the country and acting as a unifying figure to help create a culture of respect between citizens.

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Top image via Mothership