By Augustine Low
Tharman Shanmugaratnam has been in the news this past week. He was singled out by Tan Cheng Bock as an exception to the rule in the current leadership – “he’s got the charisma to convince me that I want to go along with him”. Tharman also went on to deliver the Singapore Budget with his usual aplomb, with very little to fault even for detractors.
Two factors make Tharman out to be a rarity as a politician.
Firstly, he has the knack to combine pragmatism with vision and imagination. As Finance Minister, he has done an outstanding job with his firm grasp of economic fundamentals – tweaking a policy here and there, conjuring a fresh one to effectively tackle a new challenge.
Tharman also has a sound reputation on the global stage, with the International Monetary Fund holding him in extremely high regard.
The second factor which distinguishes Tharman is his honesty. This makes him likeable as a person, and trustworthy as a politician.
But honesty in a politician can be a liability. I do not mean to imply that politicians have to be liars and dishonest people. But the job requires them to defend positions that they may not personally endorse, make promises that are hard to deliver, and stretch the truth to make a point.
In short, politicians often have to employ less than full candour, resorting to what analysts term “ambiguity and flexibility in their principles” to address the various competing demands of the job.
In a landmark book on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, researcher Hervey Cleckley theorised that people with the core attributes of psychopathy make successful politicians. They possess what are known as non-violent psychopathic attributes – are egocentric, manipulative, unconstrained by remorse, and willing to do or say anything to accomplish their goals.
Where such attributes are concerned, Tharman falls short. I recall the occasion in Parliament when Tharman was grilled by MPs on the reasons for the sudden departure of CEO-designate Chip Goodyear from Temasek Holdings. Tharman looked pained, clearly discomfited with having to be evasive, and literally cringed when he had to end the debate by saying it “serves no strategic purpose” for the public to know.
Tharman has the demeanour of someone who finds it hard (even painful) to employ less than full candour, to resort to ambiguity, to compromise on principles, and heaven forbid, to lie through his teeth.
His candour is a credit to him as far as Singaporeans as concerned.
But can he be counted on by his party to compromise on principles, to do a hatchet job, to bring down an opponent by foul means if necessary?
This is where I fear that candour and lack of ruthlessness is to his discredit as a politician. But let’s see what the Auditor General’s Office finds in the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council’s accounts and if Tharman lends his integrity to the issue, which has taken on a clearly ugly political undertone.