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Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: Xinhua

Will Rishi Sunak’s rise in UK prompt soul-searching in Chinese-majority Singapore?

  • Singapore’s three prime ministers are all of Chinese descent, but observers note Sunak’s rise should not be ‘romanticised’ as he was chosen by a small circle of Tory MPs
  • Observers also question whether takeaway should be about a person from an ethnic minority group being PM or that a ‘ridiculously rich elite’ could take the top job
Rishi Sunak has succeeded the embattled Liz Truss to become the first person of colour to lead Britain, a move that has been described as historic and evolutionary for UK politics.
In India – the crown of Britain’s erstwhile empire – jubilation appeared to be widespread over a person of Indian origin becoming the leader of the country’s former colonial ruler.
In Singapore, another Asian ex-British colony, Sunak’s ascent has also proved to be a subject of intense social media chatter, with commentators pondering whether there were lessons to be gleaned on pathways for a person from a minority group to take on top leadership positions.

Chinese-majority Singapore has for years grappled with the question of whether a person from its ethnic minority groups could one day become prime minister, the country’s most powerful political position.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and his designated successor Lawrence Wong. Photo: Handout
Its three prime ministers, including current leader Lee Hsien Loong and his designated successor Lawrence Wong, are all of Chinese descent.

Members of ethnic minority groups have served as president, a largely ceremonial role, and in various high-ranking positions including as deputy prime minister, chief justice and attorney general.

However, leaders from the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) have in the past pointed to surveys that show that Singaporeans preferred a prime minister of their own race, meaning the majority would pick a Chinese prime minister.

The highly respected retired Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh called Sunak’s rise to prime ministership a “miracle”.

“I did not think the UK would be ready for an Indian Prime Minister before Singapore is ready,” the former ambassador to the United Nations wrote on Facebook late on Monday. “Singaporeans should reflect on this irony.”

King Charles welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, on Tuesday. Photo: Pool via Reuters

Bilahari Kausikan, another foreign ministry grandee, offered a contrary view. In a comment responding to Koh, Bilahari suggested Singaporeans should not “romanticise the moment” by forgetting that Sunak was chosen by a small circle of Conservative Party parliamentarians.

He said the party had opted for a “white fool” just months ago, in a seeming reference to the outgoing Truss.

Sunak’s appointment is a result of the Conservative Party fast-tracking its succession process after Truss resigned as party leader and prime minister following a disastrous six weeks in office.
With the economy in tatters, rivals including ex-prime minister Boris Johnson – facing investigations for impropriety during his three-year tenure – and the leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt stepped aside from the race, giving former chancellor of the exchequer Sunak a walkover victory.
Food on shelves at a supermarket in London, as cost of living across Britain continues to bite. Photo: EPA-EFE

Sunak ran against Truss following Johnson’s July resignation, but lost out when the decision was brought to a vote before the Conservative Party’s full membership.

Like Bilahari, other Singaporean public intellectuals expressed scepticism over whether Sunak’s ascent was of significance in the Singapore context.

Calvin Cheng, a former nominated member of parliament known for his pro-establishment views, noted that Sunak – a practising Hindu of Indian descent – was chosen by the Tory MPs and not the British electorate.

Sunak had earlier lost the race to “the least charismatic, most awkward and clueless white woman Liz Truss”, Cheng wrote.

South Asian British people, he said, often had their Britishness questioned: “For these Little Englanders, to be English or British, one has to be White.”


‘One of us’: Indians thrilled as Rishi Sunak set to become UK’s first leader of South Asian descent

‘One of us’: Indians thrilled as Rishi Sunak set to become UK’s first leader of South Asian descent

Cheng expected Sunak to struggle in leading the Conservative Party in the next general election, pointing out that Johnson previously won a landslide victory as he turned the old Labour white working class to him.

“If Sunak leads the Tory Party to victory in two years, then yes, the PAP and Singaporeans need to reflect,” Cheng said. “Until then, it is wise to accept that the Sunaks and the Obamas have to overcome racism by the majority, to lead a country that they are in a minority in.”

Political scientist Walid Jumblatt Abdullah from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University also suggested that Sunak’s rise should be viewed cautiously, questioning whether the takeaway should be about a person from an ethnic minority group being the prime minister or if it was that a “ridiculously rich elite” could take the top job.

What’s next for Britain’s Rishi Sunak? The new leader’s first days

Sunak’s wife Akshata Murthy has a US$721 million stake in Infosys, the Indian tech firm founded by her billionaire father Narayana Murthy.

Walid said not every development should be viewed through the lens of identity politics, and leaders must be assessed on their merits.

“Voters often care more than just about identity. So it is paramount that a person is never elected [or] chosen merely because of their identity,” he said. “At the same time, it is equally, if not more important, that a person is not denied a position because of their identity.”