Indian-origin Singapore Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam hopes for ‘strong Singapore culture’

Speaking at the 5th Singapore Sheng Gong Cultural and Folklore Beliefs Festival, Indian-origin Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam said he was confident that Singapore can eventually create a rich local culture.

Indian-origin Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam
Indian-origin Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Photo courtesy: Facebook

Tharman, along with his Japanese-Chinese wife Jane Yumiko Ittogi, attended the event at the Zhen Ren Gong temple in the Redhill precinct of the city-state.

"I have always found that those who have the deepest beliefs in their own culture are very often also those who are the most open to other cultures… I believe we can do it, and it will make Singaporeans more confident…," The Straits Times newspaper quoted him as saying.

Tharman, who gave up all political and ministerial posts last week to prepare for his bid for Singapore's presidency, after being in politics for more than four decades, singled out an Indian-origin boy in a Chinese lion dance that welcomed him at a public function. "Everyone is strengthened when they see this happening," he said.

As Singapore enters its next phase of development, the question it needs to ask itself is what identity it wants and how it then keeps its traditions alive, said the former senior minister, who relinquished all public posts and resigned from the ruling People's Action Party to run for the non-political president office.

While the Republic is multicultural, Singapore cannot be just about different cultures, kept exactly as they are, Tharman said, adding that nor should the answer be to add the various cultures here together or blend them.

Instead, by staying open to each other's cultures and learning from others, Singapore's culture can grow stronger and its people more confident, said the 66-year-old economist at his first public appearance after stepping down from his ministerial roles.

Addressing more than 800 devotees from three different folk traditions, Tharman said Singapore has kept its folk culture and traditions alive, with many temples being over a century old, with the oldest almost 200 years old.

Indian-origin Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam
Indian-origin Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam (left) with Indian PM Narendra Modi. Photo courtesy: Twitter/@narendramodi

Noting that temples are not just about deities and religion, he said they are communities where people come together to care for others' welfare, such as the elderly and poor, and share common values.

As the country develops further, there are different paths it can take to retain such traditions, said the former senior minister and coordinating minister for social policies.

Tharman pointed out that among societies with different cultures, discussions tend to either be whether to take a salad bowl approach, where cultures are added together but are still separate or that of the melting pot, where cultures are mixed together.

He asserted that adding together different cultures is one way, but it is not likely to result in a strong Singapore culture.

The other way, where Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian cultures are mixed, "will appeal to (some people) intellectually, but it will not appeal to the heart", he said, adding that this mix will become weaker over time.

"But we cannot just keep separate cultures exactly as they are we must keep evolving, and one way to keep evolving is to be very open to each other's cultures and absorb something from each other's cultures," the report quoted Tharman as saying.

He added that this does not mean a weakening or dilution of one's culture, noting that Singapore's cultures have always absorbed elements of other cultures, whether those be East or West, India, China or from other parts of Southeast Asia.

Key to such openness is deepening respect for different cultures, including foreign ones, and for people from different walks of life, Tharman said.

The presidential election, held every six years, is scheduled to be held later this year before the term of current President Halimah Yacob ends on September 13.