The curious case of a politician who is so wildly popular


By Augustine Low

Tharman Shanmugaratnam is a one-of-a-kind politician. He has more ardent fans than any other. Netizens have long clamoured for him to be Prime Minister. Even critics of the PAP have heaped praise on him.

Yet Tharman never sought adulation. On the contrary he seemed discomfited by it and has done his best to deflect attention, protesting “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.”

What is it about Tharman that makes him so well-liked and wildly popular? It could be the sum of different parts in the man. Ironically the more he tried to shore up his imperfections, the more he connected with people.

He revealed that he was “completely disinterested” in studies and was aimless as a youth. “Studying medicine would have required time and academic effort, and I did not have that at the age of 17 0r 18 . . . I never had a job in mind, no ambition in terms of career.”

Tharman went on to major in Economics at Cambridge and Public Administration at Harvard. And the chap who hated studying became of all things the Education Minister!

As an ACS boy, Tharman spent much of his time indulging in sports – playing hockey, cricket, football, volleyball, rugby, sepak takraw. In later years he even played in the premier hockey league for Singapore Cricket Club and Singapore Recreation Club. The once sports-crazy politician gave this bit of advice on Facebook after Joseph Schooling won an Olympic gold medal: Discover something we each can be good at. Persevere and never give up. Then pass the passion on to the next generation.

There is also the rebel in him. Tharman has said that he was once “a dissident, a government critic.” He even got into trouble with the law. As a director at MAS 25 years ago, he was charged along with four others under the Official Secrets Act for illegal disclosure of sensitive or classified information. He was eventually convicted of a lesser charge of negligence and fined $1,500.

When cultural icon David Bowie died, Tharman posted the lyrics of the classic hit Space Oddity on Facebook and called Bowie a “musical genius.” It seems that his love for music goes hand-in-hand with a passion for poetry. Tharman penned four poems for a 1978 anthology called but we have no legends. He co-edited the book with two friends, all then in National Service and part of the Young Writers’ Circle at the National Library.

How cool is that – a poet and a David Bowie fan who became a Deputy Prime Minister?

The supremely smart and brainy side of Tharman is most apparent to people. He has a sterling record as Finance Minister and is the first Asian to chair the G-30 – a prestigious global body of top financial experts.  He has also been named Finance Minister of the Year by Euromoney magazine.

For someone who is not attention-seeking or rhetoric-driven, who is in fact  diffident at times, he actually has a great common touch and rapport with citizens. In the 2015 general election, Tharman outperformed all others, securing 79.3% of the votes for Jurong GRC.

Given his unique set of characteristics, his past as a rebel, his artistic bent, his refusal to airbrush his imperfections and struggles, it is a wonder that Tharman ended up as a man in white. He is not cast in the mould of a PAP politician.

Furthermore, we have been told by the ruling party that race and ethnic considerations will always be in the minds of voters when they cast their ballots. As a non-Chinese, he is supposed to be disadvantaged, although polling results have not borne that out.

In fact there are a surprising number of people who still harbour hopes of Tharman being Prime Minister. It may be wishful thinking. But it just goes to show that Singaporeans are not looking for sound and fury in their leader, for someone who is ever generous with promises. Rather, Singaporeans are dying for someone who is smart yet straight talking and sincere, and whose imperfections make him all the more human and relatable.


  1. He won’t take the job not because he doesn’t want it…… he is a smart , intelligent, intellectual speak eloquently…but again You don’t volunteer to be a captain of a sinking ship……

    • Exactly,
      the Guy is super smart.
      Why would a smart guy
      gets himself to look after a very sick country?
      And why is Sin a sick society?
      Despite a Prime Minister, two Deputy Prime Ministers and Many Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Office; what has being achieved in the Last Two Decades with calibre like Tharman who was Finance Minister, Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister all these years.
      Many Sin Rulers do get over-rated by the 70% PAP Adulators.

  2. He won’t take the job not because he doesn’t want it…… he is a smart , intelligent, intellectual speak eloquently…but again You don’t volunteer to be a captain of a sinking ship……

  3. You never know what’s behind all his Mr nice guy look in front. I regard him as just another yes man since I have not seen him speaking out aggressively for Singaporeans till now. His salary is still far more important and will be his main priority against any other issues that his voters might have.

  4. When the world recognize and respect Tharman Shamugaratnum in our tiny red dot nation to be the IMF Chief, that’s all u need. PERIOD.
    I never fail to catch my most respected Minister delivering his budget day speech every year.. admire his precise and emphatic way of delivering his portfolio.
    This has to be the next Prime Minister we want for Singapore!!!
    And for the record, I’m a Chinese. It’s not abt race. Singapore is a meritocracy society.
    As our founding father LKY always realistically say, the honest truth is always not pleasing and sometimes brutal.
    When our PM says “Singapore is not ready for Indian PM”, that is a racist comment.

  5. Is this article a joke? When a complete retard knows that Tin Peiling and Sitoh possess more intellect than this freaking moron who’s nothing but a complete embarrassment to his country! You may hate K Shanmugam and Teo Chee Hean but you can’t accuse them of being intellectually impotent. But Tharman is nothing but a clownish fool.

  6. If Mr Shanmugaratnam become the PM he would be too good and too popular with every citizen that he would outshine everyone. There is no barrier with regard to race or colour. We have come that far as a people not to allow race, colour or religion to influence our choice as long as we have the best person to lead us. Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam is that person.

  7. Obama became the first black US President, and US is supposed to be more racist than Singapore. Why can’t we have an Indian PM for a change?!

    • honestly think that who’s the next pm should depend on cappability not race (eg minorities just to make sg less racist)

  8. Always the same few people spreading divisive , anti leader , anti establishment news and comment.

    Purposely make use of DPM to seed poisonous idea into people brain to divide people.

    Either there is foreign hand at play or this people are sick.

  9. Tharman conducts himself much better than all the other clowns on the PAP bench and has earned his stripes as a competent policy maker but it is misleading (if not fake news) to describe him as being ‘wildly popular’. The sun is shining brightly today and it is 32°C so stop being delusional. He is a PAP man at heart.

  10. Because he is not competing for the position
    To compete, you must be really be loyal, wayang the right way.. and so exhibit the behaviour which actually only the 30% condemns.

  11. He is an amazingly humble man who has a genuine desire to do good for the people that he comes across in his constituency and beyond. Someone who is superbly articulate, amazingly adept at handling situations and people and absolutely unpretentious. I am very disappointed as to how he has been so quickly sidestepped as a potential Prime Minister in waiting by sudden contenders who were not even on the horizon a few years ago. It shows how quickly things can change in Singapore. Yes… Obama can become President for 2 Terms in the United States but Tharman cannot be PM in Singapore 🙁

  12. After watching Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s interview by Stephen Sackur during the 45th St. Gallen Symposium, I was most impressed. Tharman was knowledgeable, prepared, intelligent and was able to hold off Stephen’s tough and aggressive questionings. In addition, he has a good personality, humble yet forceful in his answers and had a great sense of humor. He commands the respects from the audience.

  13. I thought TS was destined to be PM first time I heard him speak, & shocked to hear later “Spore is not ready for an Indian PM.” Who dares to start a petition for TS to be PM? He might accept he has overwhelming response. If only a couple of thousands sign the petition, then we can talk till dooms day & it will be same as usual.

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