Positive reactions from Malaysians for Singapore's new President, Tharman

Malaysians were flooding social media with complimentary posts, some of which were tinged with a measure of envy.

Singapore's new Indian president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, waving at the crowd.
Malaysians were flooding social media with complimentary posts for Singapore's new President Tharman Shanmugaratnam. (Photo: Getty Images)


There is no denying that now-President Tharman Shanmugaratnam's landslide victory in Singapore's most recent election is a welcome and popular one.

Indeed, the former deputy prime minister's win was met with congratulatory messages from various world leaders, former colleagues and ordinary Singaporeans almost as soon as the results were announced on 1 September.

But the significance of the win was also not lost on Malaysians.

Many, in fact, got in on the action, flooding social media with complimentary posts, some of which were tinged with a measure of envy.

For instance, a few commentators pointed to political differences between Malaysia and Singapore, and the latter's ability to elect an ethnic minority as head of state as one reason for the island republic pulling ahead of its northern neighbour economically.

Others, meanwhile, noted that Tharman isn't the first ethnic Indian to be made president, and that the role has previously been held by Malays and a Eurasian in addition to Chinese, who make up the majority of Singapore's 3.55 million citizens.

Still, some commentators chose to express more nuanced views, focusing mainly on how Tharman should really have been in line to be Singapore's prime minister.

There were even opinions aplenty in the run-up to election day, with, most notably, former Malaysian health minister Khairy Jamaluddin mentioning on his popular podcast Keluar Sekejap how the role of Singapore's president is no longer merely ceremonial and now comes with unique discretionary powers.

"The president has the power to be the custodian, safeguarding Singapore's monetary reserves, and is also the custodian of public service impartiality," Khairy said, with his Keluar Sekejap co-host Shahril Hamdan chiming in about how, in certain respects, Singapore has managed to address race relations somewhat better than Malaysia.

Politics at home and abroad

For some Malaysians living across the Causeway, in any case, one major difference has been how campaigns for the polls were run, with next-to-no fanning of racial flames, despite Tharman's ethnicity and the other two candidates, Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian, being Chinese.

Nevash Nair, a former journalist who moved to Singapore in 2017 and now runs a sports performance and coaching centre, says this would be hard to imagine in Malaysia.

"Despite occasional lapses in rhetoric, the recent elections featured candidates who predominantly focused their campaigns on policy issues, nation-building, accountability and managing national reserves.

"That stands in stark contrast to (how) Malaysian elections (are conducted), where character assassination, corruption allegations, unsubstantiated claims, and the 3R factors (race, religion, and royalty) frequently dominate," he said.

As a Malaysian, Nair added that it was also difficult to envision a scenario where an ethnic minority candidate could rise to a rank of considerable influence.

"In my opinion, it is unlikely that a minority candidate will become deputy prime minister, defence minister, or home minister in Malaysia in the foreseeable future," he says.

Jason Hoe, a business development manager on the island, meanwhile, says the election was a refreshing experience and that the campaign period generated a lot of interest among Malaysians in Singapore.

However, he noted that comments by some Malaysians in the wake of Tharman's election victory, specifically in regard to how a non-Malay candidate would not be able to become head of state in Malaysia, were inaccurate as the situation has no direct parallels.

"We do not have presidents in Malaysia. So, the role of a president is unique in Singapore's context," he said.

Apples and oranges

Associate Professor Dr Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore concurs somewhat with the point made by Hoe, adding that while the comments of certain Malaysian social media users are understandable, they are "not grounded in reality".

The situation is one of "apples and oranges", the political science professor said, due to Malaysia and Singapore's different political systems and handling of inter-ethnic relations.

"In Malaysia, affirmative action for the majority is embedded within the country's constitution. You also have the royalty to safeguard the Malays' position as well as politicians professing Malaysia to be a Muslim country and so on," explained Dr Bilveer.

That, he said, is not the case in Singapore, which is a republic without a monarch.

Dr Bilveer also stressed that the recent election had been for Singapore's head of state, not the government or prime minister.

"By tradition, most of our heads of state have been minorities. Other than three ethnic Chinese or Chinese Peranakans, the rest have been Eurasian, Malay and Indian," he says.

Dr Bilveer further clarified that the presidency and other key government positions have seen minorities appointed both on the basis of meritocracy and to ensure that all Singaporeans had a stake in decision-making and were represented in government.

For the record, too, Tharman has always been a popular political figure, and as deputy prime minister from 2011 to 2019, was at one time even considered by many in Singapore to be a possible successor to current prime minister Lee Hsien-Loong. As such, it was perhaps a foregone conclusion that he would win the 2023 presidential elections.

Even so, Dr Bilveer said that while victory was expected, the large win margin of over 70 per cent was a surprise. And more to the point, having been given the mandate, it will be up to Tharman to now show that the votes are not merely for him, but, as promised, for Singapore's future.

Said Dr Bilveer, "Holding office is interesting, you have rules and legislation governing what an office-holder can do. But in our Asian culture, what makes the office more powerful is the individual, like what Lee Kuan Yew (Singaporean prime minister from 1959 to 1990) and Dr Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysian prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and 2018 to 2020) did during their prime ministerships.

"In Tharman's case as elected president, it will be down to his influence and ability to persuade people."

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