Singapore’s world-class finance man

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By Tan Bah Bah

Our congratulations to Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the first Singapore politician to have won world recognition for his leadership as an outstanding finance minister and contributions to international finance. He has just accepted an invitation to head the International Monetary Fund’s steering committee for another year, that is, until March 22, 2015.

He was appointed chairman of the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) for three years in March 2011, and was the first Asian to be given the prestigious position.

The IMFC, the fund’s policy advisory committee, deliberates on principal policy issues and the international monetary and financial system. It has 24 members, comprising finance ministers and central bank governors. Tharman’s reappointment will ensure that all members’ views are taken into account, including on ongoing reforms.

Among those who have held the position were Youssef Boutros Ghali, Egypt’s former Minister of Finance, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, who had been Italy’s Economy and Finance Minister, andGordon Brown, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who chaired the committee for eight years until he became Prime Minister.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister has joined a very small and distinguished group of Singaporeans (other than Lee Kuan Yew) who have made an impact beyond the shores of this island.

Prof Tommy Koh, who is not a politician but a long-serving diplomat, was President of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea 1980–1982. From 1990 to 1992, he served as Chairman of the Main Committee of the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s second Deputy Prime Minister, was widely acknowledged as the architect of the island’s economic success. The Chinese government was astute enough to tap his expertise on his retirement. When the mainland was beginning to open up, Beijing turned to Dr Goh and made him Economic Adviser to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China on coastal development and Adviser on tourism.

The results of China’s Great Economic Leap forward are obvious to anyone. From a backward and outdated command economy, it adopted the open market system and is now the world’s second largest economy after that of the United States.

Dr Goh also won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his achievements in developing government services. The award, often regarded as Asia’s Nobel Prize, is an annual award established to perpetuate former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay’s example of integrity in government, courageous service to the people and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society. It is administered by the trustees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund based in New York City with the concurrence of the Philippine government.

Former National Development Minister Lim Kim San was also a deserving recipient of the award  – for his community service which was that of building up Singapore’s much talked about public housing programme. Lim’s task was to provide decent housing for more than 400,000 Singaporeans living in ramshackle conditions. He volunteered for the job and was not paid for three years. He achieved his goal and the HDB story became a model for the developing world.

Dr Goh and Lim were the political giants of their generation.  They had a sense of duty and clarity of what they ought to do. Never mind the rewards. They went about their jobs in a no-nonsense way.

Tharman has, I believe, that same ability to cut through the noise and clutter, see the main issues and get the job done. But he has to operate in a totally different environment from what the earlier Singapore and other leaders were used to. It is a brave new world of instant communication, billion argumentative expert bloggers, the Internet and Google.

Perhaps he would have won international respect anyway should he have remained at the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He served in the MAS in various capacities until he became its Chairman from 2001. He already has had a role in helping to chart out Singapore’s monetary directions.

To add on such seriously demanding international responsibilities to his plate and in a fairly quiet manner seems typical of Tharman who, I now see, is a shrewd political catch for the ruling People’s Action Party.

He has helped Singapore punch above its weight. When you are a small country, you can easily be taken for granted or be swallowed by the international financial system. I have been to the headquarters of the World Bank-IMF in Washington, DC. It has a cavernous lobby into which you enter and can lose your  way. Tharman’s appointment has made sure the Singapore voice will not be lost and will be heard.