Skip to main content



PE 2023: 'Simplistic' to look at political ties, rules out senior civil servants who 'owe positions' to political leaders, says Tharman

SINGAPORE — Senior civil servants “owe their positions” to their ministerial bosses but that does not mean that these public officers would be beholden, nor should they be excluded from running for the presidency, presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam said.

Follow us on Instagram and Tiktok, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.
  • Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that all senior civil servants and senior people in the public service track owe their position to their bosses who are political figures
  • However, they are "not necessarily" obligated to their bosses and it “depends on the individual”
  • He was answering a question about how the presidential candidates will convince voters they will exercise the President's powers without fear or favour of their links with political parties or the establishment
  • He and fellow candidates Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian were on a live programme aired on CNA to answer questions about why they are the best choice for voters

SINGAPORE — Senior civil servants “owe their positions” to their ministerial bosses but that does not mean that these public officers would be beholden, nor should they be excluded from running for the presidency, presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam said.

“All our senior civil servants, all the senior people in the public (service) track… they owe their positions to bosses who are political figures. Are they obligated to their bosses because of that? Not necessarily. It depends on the individual.”

The former Cabinet minister was responding to a question during a live telecast on news channel CNA about how each presidential candidate would convince voters that they will exercise their powers without fear or favour of their links with the establishment or political parties.

The question-and-answer forum with the three candidates aired on Monday (Aug 28) at 9pm.

At the end of the session that lasted almost an hour, they made a pitch about why they are the best choice, to viewers who will be casting their votes on Friday.

Besides Mr Tharman, 66, standing for the Presidential Election are Mr Ng Kok Song, 75, former chief investment officer of sovereign wealth fund GIC, and Mr Tan Kin Lian, 75, former chief executive officer of NTUC Income insurance cooperative.

They took turns answering nine questions that covered:

  • What they think makes them the most qualified candidate
  • How they intend to be a unifying figure if elected
  • What qualities they have to represent Singapore on the world stage

On the question about links to the establishment or political parties, Mr Tharman used an example of a fund management company that depends on the Government’s money. He said that being part of such a company does not necessarily make one “not independent”.

“It depends on your character, your track record. So I would say, avoid simple labels.”

He reiterated that the Presidential Election should be a “contest between individuals” about their track record and character.

"If we go with the label of whether you've been a member of a political party or not, I think that's extremely simplistic."

He added that such labels would have ruled out former presidents such as Ong Teng Cheong, past candidates such as Dr Tan Cheng Bock and "also a whole set of people if you think about it".

"(They) may not be members of a political party but who have owed their positions to their bosses who were ministers in the government of the day."

Mr Ng said previously during a members-only event organised by the National University of Singapore Society last Friday that it is “quite likely” that there will be a conflict of interest situation when the President has worked with the Prime Minister before, alluding to Mr Tharman.

When asked during the event if he himself is a “subset of Tharman”, having worked under him, Mr Ng said that he had started work in the Monetary Authority of Singapore before Mr Tharman was there.

Mr Ng said again at the Singapore Presidential Forum 2023 aired on CNA that he does not belong to any political party and that he is the only non-partisan candidate in the race.

“If you have candidates who are supported or endorsed by any political party, there is a danger that the President cannot act without fear or favour because the President might have been influenced in serving the political agenda of the political parties concerned,” he said.

Before Mr Ng’s answer, Mr Tan had replied to the same question, saying that politicking takes away time and resources from solving problems. He would rather be more focused on finding solutions for issues faced by Singaporeans if elected, adding that the country's low birth rate is one problem.

“The most important consideration is what are the problems facing the people? And do we understand the problem? And if we do understand the problem, what are the possible solutions,” Mr Tan said.

He added that it is “not helpful” when someone relates different solutions to different political parties.

“I do not believe in politicking because it's taking away time that should be going into understanding the problem and solving your problem.

“I think we should focus on the problem, and use all available resources and knowledge to see what is the best way to solve the problem that faces the country and the people.”

Mr Tan has been linked to various opposition party members. This includes Singapore Democratic Party’s Tan Jee Say, Peoples Voice’s Lim Tean and People’s Power Party’s Goh Meng Seng.

The day before on Sunday, Progress Singapore Party’s chairman Tan Cheng Bock endorsed Mr Tan in his “personal capacity” when he spoke to the media after having breakfast with him in Chinatown.


With the world becoming a more “troublesome” and “divisive” place, Mr Tharman said that Singapore needs to avoid taking sides on the international stage.

This was in response to a question about what major challenges Singapore will face, and how they would — within the powers of the President — help Singaporeans cope.

“We've to create space for Singapore internationally with both today's friends as well as those who could be tomorrow’s friends, build economic ties (and) keep up political relations,” Mr Tharman said, adding that Singapore’s reputation internationally is something of importance and cannot be disregarded.

He also highlighted climate change as another big challenge for “small island states like us”.

“It may require some new finances, it may require the use of reserves for long-term investments. And the President has to be on top of understanding that challenge.”

When it comes to global challenges faced by Singapore, Mr Tan highlighted geopolitical tensions, trade frictions and climate change. He also said that the country has problems internally — namely having a high cost of living and high cost to start businesses.

Therefore, he said that Singapore needs to find more ways to reduce business costs so that it can “be competitive in the world”.

On how he would tackle these challenges, Mr Tan said: “I would like to discuss with the Government about how we can work towards this goal to make Singapore a more competitive place so that we can have more job opportunities for our people.”

Last to speak was Mr Ng, who highlighted two challenges — one domestic and one international.

On home ground, Mr Ng said that people here, particularly the younger generation, are more cynical about the Government.

“One very important thing is for the Government to restore trust, trust in the Government among the people, especially the younger generation,” he said.

"And how do we do this? I think we have to put right whatever has gone wrong in terms of our standards of trust and integrity.”

As for external challenges, he highlighted geopolitical conflicts. Adding that this can be dealt with as long as Singapore remains united as a nation, Mr Ng added that he would play a unifying role as President.


When asked about being a unifying figure for the country, Mr Ng used his campaign logo of a hand with an embedded heart to illustrate his point.

He said that the five fingers represent Singapore’s different races, religions and languages, and they are all part of the palm, so when one finger hurts, the whole hand feels the pain.

“I think the emphasis in the past has been too much on caring for our own racial community, our own religious community.

“But I think it'd be wonderful if we can move into the next step of encouraging members of one community (to care) for members of (another) community.”

As for Mr Tharman, he said that his goal is to be a President who advocates for Singaporeans to find a common ground, in the time to come when the country’s democracy is “becoming more diverse”.

He also said that the country needs to go beyond “celebrating our diversity and respecting differences”, so as to deepen the multiculturalism that exists here.

“And it means a lot more participation in each other's cultures. I believe we can do it. We can do something really special, deepen the Singapore identity by participating in each other's cultures as we grow up.

"Not just respecting differences and tolerating them and getting along okay in our daily lives, but becoming more Singaporean together.”

As for Mr Tan, ensuring that Singaporeans are financially secure is an important matter for him because that gives them hope for the future and “people (will have) more time to think beyond themselves”.

“We should therefore be willing to look into the real issues that are making people worried. When people are worried, they become more divisive, they quarrel with their other neighbours.”

Related topics

Presidential Election 2023 Ng Kok Song Tharman Shanmugaratnam Tan Kin Lian

Read more of the latest in



Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.