From the archives: Tharman right man for job: Observers

Appointment as new finance minister is no surprise given his ability, experience and record

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on Nov 30, 2007.

Singapore has had only six finance ministers since it became self-governing in 1959, and from tomorrow there will be a seventh.

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 50, joins the select list when he takes over the post Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has helmed since 2001.

To observers and the financial community, it is a natural progression in his career and he is the right man for the job.

Mr Tharman spent much of his professional career at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the central bank and financial regulator.

He become its managing director and was credited with helping liberalise Singapore’s banking sector.

He quit to join politics in 2001 and was one of the seven newcomers thrown into the political deep end as they were given appointments right after being elected.

Even in 2001, the talk among financial analysts was that given his MAS pedigree, he was certain to take over the finance portfolio from Mr Lee when the latter succeeded then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong.

Mr Lee kept the Finance post on becoming Prime Minister in August 2004, but Mr Tharman became MAS deputy chairman that same year.

That, and his appointment as Second Finance Minister in May last year signalled there was no change in course and his delivery of this year’s Budget was further confirmation of this.

With the promotion announced yesterday, he joins the ranks of other finance ministers: Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Lim Kim San, Mr Hon Sui Sen, Dr Tony Tan, Dr Richard Hu and PM Lee. 

The appointment is no surprise to MPs and finance industry observers.

They pointed to his natural flair for figures and his proven record in spearheading Singapore’s ambitions to become Asia’s financial hub.

Said DBS chief executive officer Jackson Tai: “Tharman has his fingerprints all over the development of Singapore’s sound and vibrant financial markets. His credibility and vision will reassure market participants across the globe looking for a safe haven, in a region characterised by rapid growth and volatility.”

Citibank Singapore chief executive Jonathan Larsen added: “Tharman took on a role as managing director of MAS during Singapore’s transition period towards a more liberalised banking sector. He has been instrumental in helping the financial sector to thrive and attract multinational players to set up operations here.”

But there remain challenges: improving Singapore’s competitiveness despite growing pressures from an ageing population and widening income gap, cost of living issues, and meeting the pressures of globalisation.

But as West Coast GRC MP Arthur Fong put it: “As Education Minister, even though he is not a trained educator, he put his heart into the job, and it showed. So going into the role of Finance Minister, you know he not only has the heart, but the technical capabilities as well.”

Indeed, Mr Tharman is credited for having an indelible mark in Education – a portfolio he will keep until after next year’s Budget.

He is credited, among other things, for allowing mainstream schools to run budgets and operations more independently; boosting prospects for Institute of Technical Education students; and making significant changes to streaming.

Said Mr Fong: “He exceeded a lot of people’s expectations by putting the fun back in learning. ‘Teach less learn more’ wasn’t just a convenient term. He put it to work to allow not only children but also parents, to enjoy new ways of learning.”

Agreeing, businessman Anson Lim, 50, a father of three boys, said Mr Tharman got schools and parents to realise that children have different abilities and intelligences: 

“He introduced direct school admission where kids like my sons managed to get into good schools based on their other abilities, such as sports and the arts.”

But Mr Tharman himself said he was only keeping up the momentum and direction of change since he took over from Mr Teo Chee Hean in 2003.

Still, that Mr Tharman is getting another heavyweight portfolio is a reflection of the confidence PM Lee has in him, said analysts, who noted he was among the fastest risers of the 2001 cohort along with Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan and Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen.