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Tharman passes his orals

As a former central banker and a force behind Singapore's ongoing financial deregulation, Tharman Shanmugaratnam was well suited for a top post in Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's government.

But first he had to pass a test. Goh wanted to make sure that the 44-year-old Cambridge graduate could communicate as well with local fishmongers as with foreign bankers.

So while campaigning for reelection last month, the prime minister put the ex-banker on the spot. Goh turned to Tharman at a public rally and asked him to explain Singapore's current economic difficulties. (The economy is expected to contract 3 percent this year.) Then Goh asked the crowd if they understood Tharman's explanation. The nods of approval apparently satisfied Goh, who after his reelection named Tharman a senior minister of state, with portfolios covering trade, industry and education.

"It's a question of simplifying without being simplistic," says Tharman, who worked at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the island republic's de facto central bank, for 17 years.

Political analysts say Goh wants Tharman to prove himself more fully before winning the pivotal job of finance minister now held by Lee Hsien Loong (who's also deputy prime minister and Goh's likely successor).

It's been a remarkable comeback for Tharman, who in 1994 was accused of spilling government secrets. Then the director of the central bank's economics department, Tharman carried a confidential government growth forecast into a meeting held by a private sector economist. The economist saw the forecast and shared it with the local media. Tharman fought the charge, arguing that he had done nothing wrong, but was convicted and fined 1,500 Singapore dollars ($825).