Singapore, a multi-ethnic and diverse nation known for its political stability, prosperity, and efficient governance, witnessed a historic presidential election when Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a multi-generational Singaporean of Tamil ancestry, secured a landslide victory this week to become the ninth president-elect of the city-state.
Widely regarded as one of Singapore and Asia’s most influential and respected political leaders and economists, his election to the highest office marks a watershed moment in Singaporean politics. He secured an overwhelming 70.4 percent of the votes in a three-way race that involved two credible Singaporean Chinese contenders from the majority community. Tharman launched his presidential campaign with the slogan “Respect for All.” Chinese, Malays, and Indians constitute 74%, 13%, and 9% of the population, respectively.
Throughout his political career, Tharman has been known for championing racial harmony, social cohesion, and meritocracy, a message that resonated with Singaporeans. After winning the election, he noted how “race was not the only factor in the contest and believed that the results showed that Singaporeans want a non-partisan president.”
KV Rao, one of the city-state’s respected industry and community leaders, explained: “This mandate, above all, is an emphatic vote for merit. His win is a great way forward for Singapore and the world. Singaporeans have demonstrated beyond doubt that they stand for unity and not divisiveness.”
Born on February 25, 1957, in Singapore, Tharman is the son of a Chinese mother and a Tamil father, former Emeritus Professor K Shanmugaratnam, a medical scientist known as the “father of pathology in Singapore,” who founded the Singapore Cancer Registry. Educated at the LSE, Cambridge, and Harvard Kennedy School, he is married to Jane Yumiko Ittogi, a Singaporean lawyer of mixed Chinese Japanese ancestry. First elected MP in 2001 with the ruling People’s Action Party, he has been elected four times since.
Tharman is one of Singapore’s most seasoned politicians widely respected for an exemplary life in public service, improving social and economic policies for all citizens. He has been Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, advising the Prime Minister on Economic policies, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance, and Minister of Education. He also served as the Chairman of the Monetary Authority (MAS) of Singapore and Singapore’s GIC Board, one of the three investment entities that manage the country’s reserves.
Internationally, he has made his mark, too. He chairs the Group of Thirty, a global council of economic and financial leaders from the public and private sectors and academia and led the G20 Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance, which in October 2018 proposed reforms in development finance and the international monetary system to advance a new, cooperative international order. He earlier chaired the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) for four years; he was its first Asian chair.
Prof Kishore Mahbubani, one of Singapore’s leading diplomats and a global public intellectual, recently wrote on his LinkedIn Post that “it would help to have a President who is globally respected. Few Singaporeans are as highly respected in key capitals, especially Washington D.C. and Beijing, as Tharman is”.
He also noted: “Quite amazingly, for a deep and serious thinker, he also has a remarkable sense of humour. He always has a twinkle in his eye and a ready smile on his face. His big thoughts and good cheer will also help to lift our spirits, in good times and bad times.”
Following Tharman’s win, many in India are hopeful for what lies ahead for Singapore-India ties. The close relations and high regard in which he is held by Indian political and business leadership, including by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bode well for the future. Congratulating him, Mr Modi said: “I look forward to working closely with you to further strengthen the India-Singapore Strategic Partnership.”
“With the years of experience in public service and leadership, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam has, Indian industry looking to his presidency as an opportunity to foster an even closer relationship between the two nations. Together, we can provide an inclusive model for development to the world,” says Kris Gopalakrishnan, a Padma Bhushan awardee and the former CEO and Managing director of Infosys.
In Singapore, Tharman has worked throughout his career to uplift educational performance and social resilience in the Indian Singaporean community through chairing the Board of Trustees of the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA). Singapore’s President-elect instinctively understands India’s ethos and civilisational heritage. “He has a great love and respect for Indian culture, history, and the arts and actively supports their pursuit,” said Mr Rao, President of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS), where Tharman is on the Board of Advisors.
Speaking at the inaugural Arun Jaitley Memorial Lecture, at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in July 2022, he said: “Recently, listening to an outstanding musical performance called Triveni, named after Triveni Sangam, the mythical confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati, by three of India’s most accomplished classical musicians – Zakir Hussain, Kala Ramnath, and Jayanthi Kumaresh playing the Tabla, Violin and Veena, traditions of North and South, I realized it was not about their individual genius, it was about each of them listening to the other, teasing, co-creating, and co-empowering. It was a collective genius.”
Applying this idea to India as a nation, he explained, “India has no lack of individual top talents. But what it has to develop is that collective capability, co-empowerment, co-creation, and having a high degree of trust amongst each other. Co-empowerment and co-creation between the government and the private sector, between the centre and the states, and the panchayats at the district and village level, and across caste, class, faiths, white and blue collar, and gender. Develop this collective capability for the next 25 years. That is India’s promise. And if India succeeds, as I believe it will, it will not just uplift one-fifth of the world’s population, it will also be showing the way for many others.
As he assumes office, Singapore’s new President-elect will be closely watched in India. Tharman’s presidency presents an invaluable opportunity to further strengthen relations between the two nations. His stature, experience, maturity, and connection with India are expected to play a pivotal role in cementing the ties to promote greater cooperation for the benefit of Singapore, India, and the world.
(Preeti Dawra is a columnist, strategist, and a leading member of the Singapore-Indian diaspora)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.