Budget debate: S'pore should not pick 5G, 6G prime minister based on race considerations: Chris de Souza

Mr Christopher de Souza said race should not be used as a trump card or disqualifying criterion. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - One day, when deciding on Singapore's fifth- or sixth-generation prime minister, race should not be used as a trump card or disqualifying criterion.

This was a wish expressed by Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) on Friday (Feb 26), as he delivered the last of MPs' speeches on the Budget statement.

"When it comes to leadership of government, we should not discount anybody because of their race, but instead evaluate the candidate based on who is best for the job," he said. "I hold this belief. I know many in my age group and younger hold this belief firmly too."

But he also stated that he categorically believed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is "the best man for the job".

"And I also do believe that the 4G ministers have chosen the best man for the job to eventually lead their team. So nothing in my speech should distract from those conclusions."

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was chosen by his fourth-generation peers to be their leader in an announcement first made in late 2018.

Mr de Souza said that when evaluating a candidate to lead the Government, more robust factors such as the person's character, abilities, values and experience could be considered instead.

"If there is a Singaporean Chinese candidate of the right age and with the right character and the right skill set making him the best man for the job, he should be chosen for the job," he said. "If there is a Singaporean of a minority race of the right age and with the right character and right skill set to be the best man for the job, then he should be chosen for the job."

Mr de Souza added that a woman with outstanding leadership ability should not be discounted either, pointing to the example of German leader Angela Merkel.

"Singapore is small. If we were to straitjacket our perception of talent, we could very well lose out on the best person for the job," he said.

Mr de Souza noted that political leaders in Singapore come with years of experience and of being elected members within the House.

"It could easily be 20 years before an elected member becomes a prime minister, and by that time the familiarity and connection that people would have with the minister would count for more than just his race," he said. "Covid-19 has shown, more than ever, the need for good government and good leadership of and in government."

While the decision on Singapore's 5G or 6G PM could be 15 to 20 years away, this should not deter Singapore from having such conversations now, said Mr de Souza.

"Some may say I am being overly idealistic to the discount of pragmatism," he said. "I beg to differ. Why? Because the very idea of a multiracial, multicultural Singapore was an ideal, an aspiration… And inch by inch, year by year, we grow closer to making it a reality. Are we there yet? I believe we have some way to go."

Race to unite, not divide

Mr de Souza added he was not saying that race was unimportant, nor that it should be used to dichotomise and polarise.

"Being a Singaporean is the key identity marker in Singaporeans of my age group and younger. The second identity marker - that of race - comes after the first identity marker - which is, being Singaporean."

This, said Mr de Souza, spoke to deep, personal beliefs of his.

He shared with the House how his second daughter, adopted at birth, is of ethnic Chinese lineage, and is today completely part of his family.

"To pre-empt her wondering why she looked a little different from her older sister, my wife and I told her when she was very young: 'You came from your tummy mummy; but you were born in our hearts'," said Mr de Souza.

"It is the same way I view Singapore - we are all given life from our mother's wombs but we are all born with Singapore in our hearts."

He later added that in discussing what it means to be Singaporean, the Government should also look at vulnerable groups like the stateless living here - by giving them citizenship or at least permanent resident status, so they have something to be rooted in.

And as Singapore strives to become a more united country regardless of race, it should discard a binary view where race either completely doesn't matter or always matters, to the discount of everything else, said Mr de Souza.

"It is a spectrum... within which my daughter, of Singaporean Chinese lineage and living in a Singaporean Eurasian home, is completely comfortable.

"Race is an asset to make the tapestry of Singapore culture richer and our identity fuller, so let it not divide us but unite us in always choosing the right person to lead our government."

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