6 things to know about Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who will run for president

6 things to know about Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who will run for president
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam taking a shot during the launch of the ActiveSG Hockey Academy on July 15, 2017.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

SINGAPORE — Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Thursday (June 8) he plans to resign from the People's Action Party (PAP) and step down from his posts as Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies on July 7 to run for president in the upcoming election.

Here are six things to know about the 66-year-old, who is stepping aside from politics after 22 years.

1. 'One of the best economic minds'

Before entering politics, Mr Tharman started his career at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in 1982 as an economist. He was later absorbed into the administrative service in the Education Ministry in 1995, but rejoined MAS in 1997. 

At a time when being a non-scholarship holder was seen as a disadvantage in the civil service, he managed to get the highest grade among his cohort, reported The Straits Times in 2004.

He received the Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 1999, and was appointed managing director of MAS in 2001. 

During his time at MAS, he also became a member of the committee chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to review the financial services sector.

He was widely acknowledged as one of the key architects of wide-ranging reforms that liberalised the financial sector and developed Singapore as a financial hub, and was later described as Singapore's financial czar after about nine years as finance minister. 

Those who worked with him called him "one of the best economic minds in Singapore".

Describing in previous interviews what the work entailed, he said it involved pulling together individuals of different backgrounds and perspectives into a team.

"It's not just a question of bright young administrative officials writing clever proposals trying to convince their ministers to implement it. It is a question of bouncing ideas off a whole range of people," he had said.

He had said previously that he felt his contrarian views were never curbed in the civil service, and after about 19 years in service, he morphed gradually into a PAP convert.

2. Joined politics to find new answers to Singapore's problems

In 2001, he was one of the "Super Seven" candidates in the general election, along with Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Mr Raymond Lim, Mr Cedric Foo and the late Balaji Sadasivan.

He was fielded in the newly created Jurong GRC, along with Madam Halimah Yacob — who was also making her electoral debut — as well as then labour chief Lim Boon Heng, Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon and Dr Ong Chit Chung.

They beat a team from the Singapore Democratic Party with 79.75 per cent of the vote, kick-starting his political career.

When asked why he entered politics, Mr Tharman said he wanted to help find solutions to the new challenges Singapore faced that would require not just adjusting policies and implementing them efficiently but fundamentally questioning a whole range of things being done.

Over the years, he served as the Minister for Education and Finance, and was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 2011.

He was also made Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies in 2015, and Senior Minister in 2019.

As Education Minister from 2003 to 2008, he advocated more flexibility and choice for students to try new subjects, and explore their diverse talents.

He began the dismantling of the streaming system, in place since the 1980s, by merging the EM1 and EM2 primary school streams in 2004, and scrapping the EM3 stream four years later.

He continued this work of building a more inclusive Singapore as Finance Minister from 2007 to 2015, making significant steps in social interventions.

These included instituting the Workfare Income Supplement in 2007, and leading the SkillsFuture lifelong learning movement, which was launched in 2014.

In an interview with ST in 2013, he described how the Cabinet had shifted to the left in how it viewed social policy and helping lower-income Singaporeans.

When describing Singapore's approach to social policies during a 2015 interview by BBC Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, he said "I believe in the notion of a trampoline", a phrase that went viral online.

"There are ways in which an active government can intervene to support social mobility, to develop opportunities and to take care of the old, which don't undermine personal and family responsibility. And that's the compact that we're trying to achieve. It's almost a paradox," he had said at the interview.






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Long before broadening meritocracy became a buzzword among local politicians, he spoke of it in an interview with ST in 2013.

"It's not just education, it's the way we treat blue-collar workers generally, ordinary workers, whether it's in restaurants or when you're taking transport, everywhere," he said then.

"We are still a little too much of a hierarchy based on what happened to you at age 18, what scores you had, what qualifications you had, which course you could go to."

He also often spoke about the importance of maintaining Singapore's multiracial and multicultural character. 

When asked early on about why he joined politics he had said: "I also enjoy chatting with people, listening to them and trying to figure things out with them. You must enjoy it. If you don't enjoy politics, it can be a chore, or a cloud in your mind. But if you enjoy it, it keeps you going. 

"Everything becomes an opportunity to help someone, an opportunity to understand an issue better so that we can find a solution, or do something novel in the community."

3. Rebel, sportsman, poet

But there were few signs in his youth that he would one day enter politics.

As a student at Anglo-Chinese School, Mr Tharman was "completely uninterested" in his studies and had an "awful reputation for indiscipline", reported ST in 2004.

He sat in the back row in class, hung out with the troublemakers and dropouts, and enjoyed needling his teachers.

His father, the late Professor Kanagaratnam Shanmugaratnam was known as Singapore's "Father of Pathology", and established the Singapore Cancer Registry in 1967 to provide data on cancer trends in the country.

But young Mr Tharman had no interest in studying medicine. Instead, he devoted his energies to sports - hockey, football, cricket, athletics, volleyball, sepak takraw and rugby — practising almost every day. 

He has said that hockey has a special place in his heart, and he went on to join the combined schools team.

"I think a lot of what I am was actually shaped in my school days. I spent my time playing sports — almost every day of the year, sometimes two sports in a day and, often, until it was too dark to see the ball," he said in an interview in 2004.

"You learn to take knocks, to go in for the tackle, and to live with your scars. You rely on your teammates; you lead, you win and lose as a team."

But his sporting ambitions were thwarted when he developed severe iron-deficiency anaemia at 17, which required him to pop 25 pills a day for several years.

He was an avid reader and dabbled in poetry, penning four poems for a 1978 collection called "but we have no legends" with ACS schoolmates Chew Keng Chuan, a former chairman of The Substation, and Yeoh Lam Keong, a former GIC chief economist.

They were all then in national service and part of the Young Writers' Circle at the National Library. 

The trio "drank countless cups of coffee", and had "violent quarrels over strange things like grammar, meaning and whose poetic license had expired", they said in the preface of the book.

Mr Tharman said in a 2015 interview with The New Paper that he never regarded himself as a poet, "much less a good poet".

Following his schooling in Singapore, he studied for a Bachelor of Science in Economics degree at the London School of Economics and a Master of Philosophy in Economics degree at the University of Cambridge.

He later obtained a Master in Public Administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he was conferred the Lucius N. Littauer Fellow award for outstanding performance and leadership potential.

4. Did not always agree with the PAP; brushes with the law

During his university days in London, he became a student activist, attending meetings and debates.

Uncomfortable with the politics of the PAP then, he immersed himself in leftist literature, made friends with student activists and explored "alternative" political and economic models.

His passport was impounded on his return to Singapore in 1982, and he was hauled up for questioning by the Internal Security Department (ISD). 

During the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy, he was again questioned for a week by the ISD. Several of his friends were detained for allegedly subversive activities under the Internal Security Act.

Later on, when he was director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore's economics department, he got into trouble with the law for bringing a report containing a flash estimate of the country's economic growth into a meeting with private-sector economists.

The figure was later published in The Business Times, and Mr Tharman, along with four others, was charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act (OSA). He pleaded not guilty and put himself on the witness stand.

After a long-drawn trial in 1994, he was fined $1,500 for endangering the secrecy of classified documents.

Asked how the OSA incident had affected him later on he said: "In the totality of life, I don't think this was a serious blow. Everyone has got to have his fenders dented once in a while, and you try to come out stronger because of it."

5. One of the most popular politicians

Going by election results, Mr Tharman is one of the most popular politicians around.

As anchor minister in Jurong GRC, his five-person team garnered the highest vote share for the PAP in the 2015 General Election, with 79.29 per cent of the vote.

Speculation about Mr Tharman becoming the next prime minister had often bubbled up.

In 2016, 69 per cent of those who responded to a poll said they would support him as Singapore's next prime minister.

But he ruled this out, saying then: "I'm good at policymaking, I'm good at advising my younger colleagues, and at supporting the PM — not at being the PM. That's not me."

6. International heavyweight

In 2019, Mr Tharman was reported by international media as being on the shortlist to be the next head of the International Monetary Fund.

Throughout his public service career, he led several international councils on economic and financial reforms.

He became the first Asian to head the International Monetary and Financial Committee, the policy advisory committee of the IMF, in 2011. He was chosen by members of the committee.

He also chaired the Group of Thirty, an independent global council of economic and financial leaders from the public and private sectors, from 2017 to 2022, and currently chairs the board of trustees of the group.

At the same time, he co-chairs the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, which aims to redefine the way the world governs water for the common good.

He also served on the High-Level Advisory Board established by the UN Secretary-General to make recommendations on multilateral reforms for the UN's 2024 Summit of the Future.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2021, he co-chaired the G20 High Level Independent Panel on Global Financing for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, together with Nigerian economist and World Trade Organisation director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and American economist and former United States Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.

ALSO READ: Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announces he's running for Presidential Election

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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