We next analyze Tharman’s response to being the next PM of choice in a survey. One that had Singaporeans across all social strata eating out of his hand. One that serves only to re-confirm why their overwhelming choice (55% vs Teo CH’s 17%) is not misplaced.
Just to be absolutely clear, because I know there’s this talk 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 policy-making, good at advising my younger colleagues and supporting the PM, not being the PM. That’s not my ambition and that’s not me.
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. We each find a way to contribute to Singapore, that matches our strengths, and we each contribute to a strong team. (28 Sep 2016)
A proven leader, an intellectual respected and recognized internationally, not just domestically, speaking such humble words. A rarity, indeed.
Now, we analyze not to ascribe negative implications but to try to uncover, to understand better the possible truths behind the beauty of his utterance.
In search of higher honour
Perhaps, Tharman is wise to these words, “But when you are invited (to a wedding feast), take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.”
He knows that the Blackbox survey outcome is inviting. But it is not the official ‘invitation’ – not yet.
Teasing out peer support
Perhaps, he takes a leaf from Dr Mahathir’s masterful performance at the UMNO 22/06/02 AGM. For those not familiar, read this or watch this. Not as dramatic, but the desired effect of such public an announcement (his ‘I’m not the man for PM’ vs Dr M’s ‘I’m resigning all party posts, as PM etc’) cannot but serve to create some needed theatre, the more to deepen the favourable impression.
Ruling himself out, Tharman positions himself to gain from creating the conditions whereby if he is ‘forced to be‘ PM (his words on 4 Jul 2015 broadcast to an international audience, no less), then those who ‘force’ his change of mind (similar to Mahathir being pleaded to rescind his decision) will have to back that up to support him loyally. Brilliant!
Disarming the competitors, charming the market
Perhaps, Tharman knows, sees, senses subtleties within the cabinet. Or who knows what’s whispered behind closed doors? Who can vouch for the cabinet members’ absence of secret ambitions? As the clock goes tick-tock-tick-tock; it can only encourage outsize ambitions or narcissistic ones in disguise, no?
How better to disarm potential competitors to the crown while charming the populace than to so publicly volunteer one’s disinterest to be ‘first among equals’. All the more potent a maneuver when none from the crop of mostly GRC-parachuted paper generals appears to be his equal.
Consider the polled ‘first choice ‘ paper general to be PM (9% vs Tharman’s 55%); he’s helmed 4 ministries since May 2011, namely; Community Development, Youth & Sports, Defence (2nd minister), Social and Family Development, sec-gen of NTUC & minister in PMO i.e. merely 17, 19, 20, 12 and 13 months respectively in each post – what has he got to show for pocketing >3X his previous Army Chief salary during those tenures? No surprise that pmo.gov.sg displays only his CV of appointments, but nothing on quantifiable achievements.
Dispelling suspicions, maintaining the peace
Perhaps, as the far-and-away favourite, keeping quiet is not an option for Tharman. It raises too many suspicions, emotions among colleagues.
So, in the Singapore context, it isn’t too far-fetched to think that someone has to plant (assign) both the reporter and the particular questions for Tharman to, well, clear the air.
Isn’t it curious that, when his boss isn’t the issue, he took pains to remark, “he’s extremely highly regarded, not just domestically but internationally.”
Creating higher entry barrier for Opposition
Perhaps, by weaving ‘team culture’ into his explanation, Tharman deliberately condenses the PAP history, stories, heroic figures (Goh Keng Swee & Rajaratnam) and values and beliefs in the best possible light. The unspoken goal: to further exaggerate and entrench the cultural elements (4 of the 6 identified by Deal and Kennedy, 1982) of the better characteristics of PAP’S leadership model in the minds of citizens.
Against the backdrop of his approval ratings, his intonation of PAP ‘team culture’ raises the bar for the Opposition in the minds of his audience.
And so, perhaps, the truth…
Beyond his expressed disinterest to the Premiership, the subtle possibilities of his smooth-spoken, carefully-weaved words are many. In short: Here is a man gifted and politically deft; skills he can deploy and employ to either prioritize his own, his party’s or the nation’s interests. The question is, “What is the man’s true intent?”
Let’s be reminded that it was Tharman who announced in Apr 2013, that the cabinet is now more left-of-centre, “focused on upgrading the lives and improving the lives of lower-income Singaporeans and older folk too“. Trumpeting such a fundamental change by the PAP cannot be accidental but planned. And only someone in the vanguard of the change in thinking could be the appointed herald. Just how radical a change? Look no further than Apr 2007; Balakrishnan sarcastically asking ‘Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?’, reacting to an MP’s plead for a few dollars more for the poor,.
But singing the praises of PAP’s leadership change process, Tharman also calls it ‘succession‘. Succession happens only in Communist China, Cuba and North Korea. Does that hint of his covert ideological bent to perpetuate the dominance of the PAP’s rule?
Is he playing his ‘joker’ card in a very well-hidden, complex and conv0luted intra-party game to commandeer the left-of-centre thinking a little further left so as to serve, to truly serve our low-income and elderly? And while he’s at it, to repair the extensive and substantive damage done by the GDP-growth-at-all-cost-cum-FT-policies and also lighten our high housing/cost-of-living and citizens’ over-taxed burdens?
Hence, the truth is that in Tharman holds both the hope of we-the-citizens for a re-imagined, gentler, kinder Singapore and the nightmare of the worst of the PAP’s insatiable desire for political dominance to carry on their cold, calculating GDP-growth-at-all-cost and ‘Singapore is for everybody’ policies to the detriment of we-the-citizens’ unity as a nation.
For now, both truths are only possibilities. Which will prevail. Only Tharman knows. While we can only hope.
But while we hope, let the preferred PM-to-be know that we are stuffed with DNA from our parents and grandparents who conquered the odds to build the Singapore we now have. We got the verve, the spirit in us all to reshape our lives to be truer and closer to our pledge to “achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation” – not ‘for everyone’ or just ‘for rich citizens, rich foreigners’ but ‘for we-the-citzens’ who recite the Singapore Pledge from our hearts since Primary One.
We’ll rally around him.
Is Tharman up to the challenge?
Law Kim Hwee