Many Singaporeans got triggered over the weekend after Singapore finance minister Heng Swee Keat made comments reported by local media that the country was not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister (PM).
The past three ministers since Singapore gained independence in 1965 have been Chinese: Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong.
Singapore is also a majority-Chinese country and has famously emphasized peaceful relations between different races after racial riots in the country’s early years threatened stability in the city-state.
Minister Heng made these comments at a forum organized on Thursday by Nanyang Technological University when grilled by an assistant professor in public policy about the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) stance on having a non-Chinese prime minister.
“Is it Singapore who is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, or is it the PAP who is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?” said Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, as reported by TODAY.
To that, Minister Heng replied: “My own experience in walking the ground, in working with different people from all walks of life, is that the views — if you go by age and by life experience — would be very different.”
He further asked the room of young people if they were ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, to which many raised their hands, according to a report by The Straits Times.
The comments did not go down well by outspoken critics who have slammed the ruling party for alleged racism.
“If the PAP does not want a non-Chinese leader, that’s their prerogative, but they should not blame their racism on Singaporeans when history shows we are far more open-minded and tolerant than the PAP has ever given us credit for,” said academic Dr Thum Ping Tjin, who is also the managing director of news site New Naratif.
Most famously, deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was heavily wanted by Singaporeans as their next prime minister, according to a 2016 poll conducted by research firm Blackbox.
Mr Nicholas Yong, assistant news editor of Yahoo News Singapore, questioned in an opinion piece on Sunday why was the ruling party settling with alleged racial bias among older Singaporeans.
“Is this how a future PM demonstrates moral authority: by blithely throwing out a statement about the alleged racial bias of older Singaporeans, then doing nothing about it?” said Mr Yong.
Other critics questioned the lack of data behind the remarks by Minister Heng.
Mr Andrew Loh, founder of political blog publichouse.sg said: “Who are these ‘older Singaporeans’ that (Minister Heng) interacted with which apparently led him to such a belief?”
“What is the logic behind saying that we can’t have a minority PM?” questioned former nominated member of parliament Calvin Cheng.
Political author Sudhir Thomas Vakadeth pointed out that the Singapore populace has been very vocal in its support for an ethnic minority prime minister.
“All the available electoral and survey evidence points to the fact that Singaporeans are very comfortable with non-Chinese leaders,” he said.
Some Singaporeans have placed comments on Minister Heng’s Facebook page about the incident, more specifically on a post last Tuesday where he attended an Indian book launch.
However, Minister Heng has yet to respond to the online comments swirling around social media lately.
That is not stopping an online poll from being circulated on Facebook asking Singaporeans: who would they like as the new prime minister of Singapore?
Out of more than 13,000 votes cast, over 90 percent of voters preferred Mr Tharman over Mr Heng.
Guess the public has spoken.