Polity Presents… “In My Shoes” with Minister K Shanmugam

Note: The contents of this interview are derived from an interview with Minister Shanmugam conducted by Polity, and do not represent the views of Tembusu College or Treehouse.

“What are the ends? The ends are the maximum possible freedom of the human spirit within the constraints of the state and of having to live within a society.” This quote stood out the most during our interview with Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, K Shanmugam. The seriousness and conviction conveyed by his tone, was different from the overall easy-going and introspective tone of the conversation.

We appreciated this of course, as one of our worries going into the interview was that we would be out of our depth. Six students, ersatz Stephen Sackur, grilling one of the most renowned litigators in the country. It could have gone comically wrong. Lucky for us, our questions were taken seriously, and our views were considered and tactfully addressed.

One question we raised was about democracy in Singapore.

The Singapore model of governance is often criticised by certain international organisations, which bemoan the state of democracy in Singapore. When asked if this criticism was valid, the Minister said that the motives of these organisations should be examined, as they are sometimes used as pressure points for ideological reasons.

Referring to our example of Reporters without Borders, Minister said: “Part of their methodology is they identify some people in Singapore – they don’t tell us who – and RWB puts out these people’s views as being an accurate reflection of Singapore as a whole. If you went and asked people who might think that this is one of the worst governments in the world (if you look at the extreme 5% of that group, I’m sure they will think we’re worse than Afghanistan), you will get some extreme answers.  Look at some of the countries that are ranked above us, based on this methodology.  We are ranked below Gambia, Guinea, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Cambodia.  Serious people will not find this credible.  I had asked RWB to come here and have a debate, let’s talk about this. Since you believe in free speech, I’ll pay for your airfare, why don’t you come to Singapore and we’ll have a debate on your methodology, why you rank us below these countries, and whether this can stand up to scrutiny. They never agreed. They knew they would be exposed.”

He then emphasised the importance of looking at the lived experiences of people before passing judgement.

“[…] All of you aren’t necessarily highly-connected, you have done reasonably well. How often have you been accosted by a policeman for the wrong reasons? How often have you been arrested? Or have people tell you that you can’t say what you think? How often has anybody asked you or your parents for some money to do whatever needs to be done in the government? Did you have to pull any strings to get into university or did you get there by merit? What is your lived experience? Just think for yourselves and then compare with other countries.”

Democracy, the Minister said, is a means to achieve “the maximum possible freedom of the human spirit” within the constraints of a civilised state and society.

“It’s a political system. Dictatorship, autocracy, democracy, all of these are systems, and the systems are used to achieve certain ends […]. Democracy is thus the best system. Our democracy does not precisely mirror the democracies in the West. We do not have precisely the same processes. That is what we are criticised about. And I reject that; I say that taking into account our limitations, our size, our processes work for us. Do we have representative democracy? Yes. Do we have elections which are secret? Yes. Do Singaporeans have the ability to vote against the government and vote for a new government? Yes. The fact that (we) don’t mirror exactly Westminster, or the US Congress, or any one of the other countries, I don’t think that is the criteria, then it becomes ideological.”

Young people today increasingly have different priorities. Perhaps most significant of these is a greater desire for leisure time. When questioned about how Singapore’s leadership should evolve given these changes in the public outlook, the Minister stressed that Singaporeans must remain competitive to survive, citing size and lack of natural resources as key constraints.

“We are 720 square kilometres. We have an economy the size of all of Malaysia, which has 330,000 square kilometres, has oil, timber, and a 30 million population. […] What resources do we have in Singapore that allows us to have such an economy equal to the Malaysian economy? You make money either by producing something (from the ground, oil or minerals) or by growing something (agriculture), or having large manufacturing facilities where you manufacture things for others. Do we have the space for large manufacturing? So, we are competing with a very small land space, so we have to manufacture high-value goods, and export them. We are only going to be able to export them if the products are competitive. […] Second, we make our money by providing services – legal, accounting, medical and so on – to the region. But do you really think that our neighbours don’t want to do their own banking, their own legal services, that they want to let us do it? Or are we doing it because we can provide it in a more competitive way, in a better way? Which means high quality. So I can understand people wanting leisure, but as a country, what is our value proposition? If we are not competitive, we are 720 square kilometres of barren rock that does not provide for human habitation. From water, to eggs, to rice, to vegetables, to fruits, we import everything. None of us would be satisfied if every day we just had enough to eat – we want something more in life. We want to be able to reach our full potential, engage in meaningful activities, good jobs. How is that going to come about if Singapore doesn’t have a successful economy? How are you going to have a successful economy if you can’t take on the immense competition that is coming from China and India – millions of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates. And Indonesia moving up as well.  If you go to Jakarta, you’d find how bright the Indonesians are, and how much they are into IT. COVID is affecting them but they are also competitive. How do you succeed without being competitive?”

The Minister expressed the importance of a greater appreciation of the basis for Singapore’s economic survival and prosperity.

“I think we need to do more to explain what our economy is based on. I’ve been a believer that we need to have greater economic literacy – within our population, not just the younger generation. What is the size of Singapore, what is our economy based on – services, and manufacturing – and who are the competitors, what are our competitive advantages, and why we need to bring in talent to support the talent that’s already in Singapore, so that our people get good jobs and, at the same time, to be competitive in an international environment. But that kind of understanding is not prevalent.  Because the economy is generally successful and stable, and people have not had to think about these things. So, it is not the fault of the people.  People haven’t had to think much about these things. It has been the job of the government to worry about this and try to find solutions such that each year there has been growth.”

Given these imperatives, and possible gaps in knowledge that exist among the populace, how far should the government reflect popular opinion? According to the Minister, the key lies in communication, not just about economic policy, but about social issues as well.

“You need to explain to people why we are going into certain sectors, why we are asking our people to say, ‘you know these are the areas of the future, let us bring in the investments and I hope that you all can become competitive in this field’. […] But also socially, where do we want to go? Race has been a topic of interest the last few days. What are we? What do we stand for? Multi-racial society? What does that mean?”

“Being a Singaporean is not a subtraction, it’s not “I’m an Indian”, “I’m a Chinese”, “I’m a Malay”. We have our individual identities but we also have a larger identity. Being a Singaporean is adding on these things. So we don’t want to subtract the lowest denominator but we want to add on while we have our own cultures. So, you also need leadership that shows the way in social issues. Now, popular opinion, there are two parts to it. One, if you only do what is popular, that’s populism. A country can very quickly go down the tube because when you say you do what is popular, usually that means whoever you hear loudly. Maybe it’s a majority, sometimes it can be a minority.  At the same time, you are elected to satisfy people’s wants, for a better society. And you have to take into account the majority will, do what the majority want. If people want something, you have to try and put that into effect – unless you believe it is going to be bad.  So, sometimes, even if it’s the majority, should be careful about going down the route of Majoritarianism…it may not automatically equal to the best interests of the country. Because the people who have those views may not necessarily have all the facts.”

“Suppose you believe that a policy, which the majority want, is going to take the country down the tube and the majority themselves will suffer, do you have a duty to explain and try to change people’s opinion? Or do you just say ‘Well it’s far easier to do what people want, then I’m popular’? There are leaders like that around the world who would do the latter. We haven’t chosen that path. We have chosen the path where we say “Look this may be tough but it’s our duty to explain to you why in the medium term and the longer term that this is in your interest, this is better for all”. So it’s not just saying populism or no populism. It’s really first you analyse the policy, you analyse what our interests are, interests of the country.  And then, if you think something will be damaging for the people, then you explain, try and persuade.’

On the topic of social issues, given that LGBT issues remain contentious in many societies, it seemed worth asking whether this was precisely the sort of issue that calls for a degree of state intervention. However, the Minister doesn’t believe that there is a significant knowledge gap in this area, specifically when it comes to 377A.

“People have a view, and they have enough of the facts. Private sexual relationships…I think many understand the facts. Now it’s a question of how they feel about it. These are sexual mores and a significant percentage of the Singapore population says, laws on this, just leave them alone.”

But some would argue that 377A is more than just a sexual matter for members of the LGBT community: the conventional path to happiness in Singapore, the ability to form a family unit of their own, is not an option that is available to the LGBT community. If the issue is viewed solely as a sexual one, then one could argue that people do have all the facts. But perhaps it could be argued that the populace does not fully understand the extent to which, for some individuals who want to start a family, it is a legislative brick wall that stands in the way of realizing happiness. When asked if the state should do more, the minister said,

“We passed legislation which expressly mentioned the LGBT community and said we would not stand for any kind of attack on them. We will protect the LGBT community, I said that in Parliament. But what you’re talking about is to remove 377A, I think society is moving in that direction, but there is about two-thirds who have very strong views that the government shouldn’t do it. An elected government has a responsibility in protecting everyone.  That duty cannot be abdicated, on the basis that a majority disagree.  An elected government has also a duty to make sure that everybody gets equal opportunities, whether LGBT or otherwise. An elected government has got the responsibility to protect the LGBT community. But an elected government, cannot also push down the throat a majority of Singaporeans laws which they don’t agree to.  You need the social mores to evolve and that evolution might take a bit of time. We reached a landing point on the evolution, which tries to accommodate different views and interests.  And that has to continue to evolve.  The government has a duty to lead and help in the public discussion of these issues, which we do. I engage in them, so do others. We have to engage, we have to talk to all sides, and we have to avoid the kind of divisive debates that characterise this issue in the West, and we have to try to keep our small community together, and help the evolution take place.”

While divisive rhetoric is viewed as concerning and something to be avoided, it seems impossible to avoid that foreign perspectives are going to strongly influence the discussion, given that most of the discourse now takes place online. It seems reasonable to believe that these views, including religious perspectives, might hold sway over many Singaporeans. When questioned about this possible inevitability, the minister said:

“Well it’s not just religious perspectives. It’s all the different sides of the story. […] We have had many discussions with people across many different sectors, and there are very strong viewpoints. Even on the current change by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, there’s consultation going on to move to a no-fault divorce, there’s a significant feedback and pushback. 40-45% of Singaporean marriages unfortunately end up in divorces. So you try to remove the angst and anger from divorce by moving towards a no-fault divorce after a period of time, but even for that, there’s a lot of pushback, so these things are not as easy.  But we have to do the right thing. Might take time though, because we must communicate and persuade.”

Staying on the topic of evolving social norms, we asked the Minister how changing attitudes towards the use of certain types of drugs might affect the enforcement of drug laws. On this topic, Minister highlighted a few points:

“A significant majority, if you take ages 13 to 30, 94% of persons from that age group think that drug taking is negative for society. Here, I know the facts, I know the science, I know that it is horrible for people, it breaks families. It is a large reason why so many of the western societies are suffering and are so unequal. If you are born to parents who are taking drugs, your ability to move on in life is significantly discounted compared to parents who are not taking drugs.”

“But at the same time, some of the young people think that it is ok to take drugs so long as you don’t become addicted. So yes, there are some attitudes changing, but there is enough science that shows the effect on your brain and health. Even for cannabis, which is being legalised for financial reasons in many states. We just have to do our best to continue to educate people and take a tough line. The government has a duty to lead and if you ask me, I believe that doing the right thing is important. Drugs will destroy our society. If you keep quiet, you are party to the destruction of society.”

Arguably, the social issue that the government has most consistently emphasised the importance of intervention in, is the issue of race. This is now a hot topic, with incidents such as the Ngee Ann Poly lecturer’s tirade and incidents of verbal and physical abuse faced by Singaporean minorities casting a spotlight on the state of racial harmony in Singapore. The Minister was careful to make a distinction between the current state of racial harmony and the direction in which it is headed.

“I am more interested in the direction of travel. I was sure we were travelling in the right direction. If you look at what I have said over the years, I have never said we are not racist. I have always believed that there is racism in Singapore. And most people will accept that, I think. Name me a country that is multi-racial that doesn’t have racism. That’s the first point. The question is, ‘How do we deal with it?’. I have always believed that we have dealt with it better in Singapore. There is a greater degree of racial harmony, although that doesn’t mean that racism does not exist in Singapore, the direction of travel was positive. These recent incidents had led me to question whether the direction of travel is still positive or whether we are regressing or whether we are standing at the same place.”

The minister attributes some of the recent incidents partly to a whispering campaign that has stoked anti-Indian sentiment, one that is politically motivated.

“The reason I said that is that I believe that there is a whispering campaign that is going on which has taken an anti-Indian sentiment that is motivated by political expediency and political reasons. As I said in Parliament, when you have a campaign against Indians from India, there are people in our society who cannot differentiate between Indians from India or Indians from Singapore. It will spill over to a generalised anti-Indian sentiment. I do not want to suggest that this is the majority viewpoint. I think most people will support all the races, are positive and multi-racial. But, there are some worrying signs about our trajectory. These recent incidents are not just from the majority about the minority, it has also been from the minority about the majority. So, we need to make sure we move in the right direction.”

But even if society is moving in the right direction, is it doing so fast enough? According to the CNA-IPS survey on race relations in 2016[1], as much as 37% of Chinese Singaporeans under 30 did not find it acceptable for a Malay to be prime minister. These are young people, and 37% is a significant proportion, over one-third. When asked why he thought this mentality persists, the Minister said:

“A significant majority of each race prefers their own race to be Prime Minister. So if you look at the Chinese, 98% of them would want a Chinese to be Prime Minister. Likewise, a majority of Malays prefer Malays to be Prime Minister and Indians prefer Indians to be Prime Minister. So, I would not put it as Singaporeans not being ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister. A more accurate way of describing it is in most cases… race is an important factor in politics. When it comes to the ballot box, people often prefer to vote for somebody of their own race. That does not make them racist; people have their own preferences. It does not mean that they would not accept a minority. A very good minority candidate can overcome these reservations, just like President Obama did. And my hope is that we will have a PM from the minority communities, sooner, rather than later. I think Singaporeans will support a non- Chinese PM, if they think the person to be very good.”

“America has been a republic now since 1776 with over 2,000 senators being elected. Two Senators per state are elected once every six years. Out of that 2,000 plus senators, I think there has only been 11 African American senators who were directly elected. Out of 11, only six were actually elected as the others were appointed to fill vacancies. So, you tell me is race not an important factor? This is the U.S. […] I think the IPS survey also touched on who do you want married into your family. Preferences were very strong for their own race. Most people prefer their own race than they prefer a Caucasian. Now, I don’t think that makes them racist by any stretch of the word.”

“This man in the video, if he had had the view that his daughter should marry a Chinese, I would not call that racist. They are preferences. What makes it racist is going out there in public and saying that all Chinese should only marry another Chinese and Indians are bad in dating a Chinese girl. To make it even worse to say it to a total stranger who was with his Chinese looking girlfriend. This is completely unacceptable. You have to make a distinction between people’s private family preferences which may run along racial lines… it can run along economic lines. […]But you cross the line when you pronounce it as something that should be true for society as a whole, and you go even further, when you attack somebody who has no business with you, that is completely racist and unacceptable.”

But personal preferences in romantic relationships aside, we suggested that the state should take the lead and say that this tribal mentality, choosing a leader on the basis of their race, needs to go. In response to this, the Minister said:

“I think the state has a responsibility, and I think the state is doing a fair bit on that. […] Take the GRC concept. If we did not have GRCs, do you think we would have as many minority MPs in Parliament as we do today? Look at it as a process, do you think you would have as many minority MPs in Parliament as you now have without GRCs? Having four official languages, having Mr Lee stand there for the first public statement on the 9th of August to say this is not a Chinese country, this is not a Malay country, this is not an Indian country, this is a country for all of us. Being Singaporean is an idea, as Rajaratnam said. […] Let’s look at the reality around. How many Malay and Indian MPs are there? We run a system based on meritocracy, equal opportunities.”

“Of course, if you are in the part of the majority community, it is more advantageous. There are benefits that come from that. We have to acknowledge that. Suppose you apply for internships your dad happens to know more people, it might be easier for you to get it. The State needs to actively work to make sure that everybody else also gets opportunities by getting a good education and move up. […] Which other society has 75% as one population and has English as the main working language? This government has long moved towards making us a working multi-racial society. Does that mean everything is perfect? No. There are things which we can do better.  Can it be perfect? Hopefully one day, if we keep travelling in the right direction.”

The question of whether we are moving in the right direction is an important one. As societal circumstances change, it needs constant revisiting, not just by the government, but also by the wider community. The interview provided insight into the nuanced perspective of Minister Shanmugam on various prevailing issues, and advanced the discourse surrounding these issues to new ground. It also shed some light on the Minister’s personal convictions.

“If I had to leave you with one thought, [it would be that] it is an immense privilege to serve Singapore and Singaporeans. Because there are very few jobs where you can sit down, think, work it through, and make changes that will benefit a significant section of society. As a Minister, you can make that change. […] It’s an immense privilege, particularly in a place like Singapore, where you’re working with very high-quality people and you can get things done. And not spending all your time on politics. In fact, we spend very little time on politics and a lot of time on policy.”

“For the person with the right temperament, seriously, I mean, often when I talk to people including all of you, I would say, you are all young, you are all in your 20s, so you have your life ahead of you. But at the time you are about to pass on, if you sit back and ask yourself, what do you think you would have wanted to do more of? Would you have wanted to make more money, spend more time at the office, or would you feel like as long as you have had a certain level of material comfort, you actually would have wanted to spend more of your time helping the world become a better place, helping others? Once you have a certain amount of money, an additional X amount, is that going to make you happier? But if you have made a difference to five people’s lives outside of your family, would you have made a difference? From that perspective, I think this job is a tremendous privilege.”

About the Author:

Rahul Abraham is an alumnus of Tembusu College and a former member of Polity.


[1] M Mathews. (2016), Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies (CNA-IPS) survey on race relations, Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore

Feature and header image from Polity.