Interview with George Yeo
Singapore After Lee Kuan Yew
Former Singapore foreign Minister George Yeo talks about Singapore’s history, the challenge of national identity, and why it is important to learn from young people.
Singapore After Lee Kuan YewBy Yin-chuen Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 583 )
Former Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Kerry Logistics Network George Yeo may have left politics four years ago, but he is in no danger of being forgotten.
This past May, supporters packed the house to hear him speak at the launch of his new book, George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao. Both the political realm and media circles are abuzz, wondering if this hugely popular figure will stage a return to politics next year as a candidate for President of Singapore.
What is Yeo’s attraction? Hailing from a military background, he is also an engineer and holds an MBA. A confirmed Roman Catholic and member of the Vatican Council, he was personally recruited by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to serve as Chancellor of Nalanda University, where the Buddhist Monk Xuanzang once lectured. Nobel Laureate in economics Amartya Sen has called Yeo the “finest social thinker and statesmen of our times.”
Yeo owes some of his popularity in Singapore to his unwillingness to pander. As early as 1990 when Lee Kuan Yew was still senior minister of the administration, Yeo likened Singapore to a banyan tree, frankly describing the area under the banyan tree as barren, where no grass grows. With state organs everywhere, and lacking a sufficient civil society, he called for an appropriate balance in Singapore between collective power and delegated power. Just 36 at the time, he had just become Singapore’s youngest-ever Cabinet-level minister.
Yeo sat for an interview with CommonWealth Magazine in the wake of the Singapore ruling party’s resounding election victory, offering his views on contemporary politics and much more.
CommonWealth: How is Singapore different today from 50 years ago? How do you look upon the post-Lee Kun Yew era in Singapore?
George Yeo: Lee Kuan Yew was like Moses, taking us through decades of difficulty. The people were not always happy, and they may have complained, but they accepted his leadership. And now we have arrived at the Promised Land, after 50 years.
But on the fiftieth year (anniversary of the country’s founding), and with the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, I think we opened a new chapter in Singapore’s history. I am optimistic, because the circumstances now are favorable. Asia is on the move, China is making dramatic progress. Southeast Asia is at peace, benefiting from China’s development, and India is also showing interesting development. So we are in a part of the world where all kinds of opportunities are appearing.
Now that we’ve reached the Promised Land, and Lee Kuan Yew has passed away, apart from sadness we feel very grateful for his leadership, and for bringing us here.
But into the future, we have to set new goals for ourselves. The past is not a guide to the future. The future must be guided by present circumstances, with memories of the past.
If you look at the history of Singapore, when the British East India Company established trading posts from Calcutta – first Penang, Singapore in 1819, Hong Kong, and all the way to Shanghai – it created a string of trading stations for the nineteenth-century China trade. Today in the twenty-first century, there is a new China trade, must bigger than the previous one. And all the cities created with the old China trade will benefit from this new China trade.
The new China trade differs from the old China trade, which was imposed by force. The British, the European powers, they conquered, they manipulated, and they used gunboats to intimidate. And they had extraterritoriality, controlling the flow of goods and applying their laws wherever they went.
But this new China trade will be based on the Internet principle. It’s not based on conquest, or my laws applying in your country, but on alignment of interests, and cooperation, with no fear that in order to participate I must change myself.
So you have your operating system: You’re on Android, I’m on iOS, or some other system, and all you need are common protocols, like TCPIP, and you join in. Change is gradual and not engendered by force; rather by persuasion, osmosis, self-influence.
Singapore, created by an old Silk Road, is in a good position for the new Silk Road. But the challenge is that now we have turned inwards. We’ve become a little anti-foreigner; we feel that Singaporeans should be more protected. So when we talk about the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, the fiftieth anniversary, and the coming elections, it is all about settling the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. They must feel secure that they are the most important people in Singapore, and then we can turn outwards again.
CW: What’s the key to making people feel secure, or assured? I think this is the key question for every government around the world. What do you suggest?
Yeo: Well, it is a problem greatly complicated by globalization, and by technology. Today, everybody has options. Even parents dealing with children have more options than before. Young people travel to many more areas and know more than we do, and we have to learn from them and be more willing to rely on them..
Instead of treating citizens as citizens to be governed, we should think increasingly of co-governance. If you tell young people what to do, they rebel. But if you tell them, ‘You have to look after me, so tell me what to do,’ they become responsible. Suddenly they become adults.
So when I launched my book in Hong Kong, I said the most important thing now is to learn from young people. Teachers must learn from students; parents from their children; government leaders from the citizens; priests must learn from the flock; doctors must learn from their patients… And when you reverse it, much the way with yin-yang, which always tends to modulate, in a nice way, it would be a healthy relationship. The new structure will no longer be hierarchical, but a network, with denser nodes, smaller nodes, but interactive. And that will be much healthier.
I think in this new world and civil society, this organic growth from the bottom up is very important. And to me it’s the key to success in the future. Normally when you have changes like this, it’s very difficult for big countries like India, China or the U.S. to change, because everything is encrusted. But small countries, like Singapore, small societies like Hong Kong and Taiwan, are more nimble and open to change, and experiments are taking place in these smaller communities. It is in the little communities in Asia today that we see the future of Asia.
CW: You have discussed the example of Switzerland and how it encourages you regarding the future of Singapore. Please elaborate on that.
Yeo: Well, the Swiss people are diverse. They have a long history of fighting each other, and of disagreeing (with each other). And they found a way of achieving consensus, after difficult experiences, and of accommodating one another. The Swiss Germans are different from the Swiss French, and they make fun of each other. But they are united. And they take defense very seriously. Every year they dig more tunnels, more caves. They take national service very seriously, based on the voluntary principle. If you want to be promoted, then you must do national service. So it is a very strong society, because the strength is an internal strength, coming from their DNA rather than an organized strength.
Even the way they organize their cities… And the cities of the future should be organized like that. Not big cities with traffic jams and congestion, but distributed. And using technology, so you have a sense of nature and a sense of being free yet connected. It’s like an Internet connection: there’s not just one main frame, but many smaller computers and mobile devices all linked together. The network is powerful, but there is autonomy. So to me Switzerland will always be an inspiration.
CW: You talk about the conflict between nationalism and internationalism. How can we compromise in the face of such conflicts? How did Switzerland manage?
Yeo: The Swiss are very proud of being Swiss, so it’s a very strong identity. But it is not a “legal” identity, in that sense that, let’s say, you ask our children,
“Are you Taiwanese?”
“Yes, I’m Taiwanese. I was born here.”
“What passport do you hold?”
“Oh, I have an American passport.”
You see? So nationality itself has weakened. And nationality as far as paying your taxes, and voting, that has weakened. But the deeper, social identity that says, I am Taiwanese, I am Min-Nan, I am Hakka, I am a Jew, I am a Swiss… these things are indestructible.
So we have deep identities, and multiple identities, and “citizenship” has become a shallower identity. I think this is unavoidable, because we have more choices than ever before. And today the government cannot control your mind, and it can’t control your money.
CW: How do you go about coalescing different ethnicities? Singapore has been very successful as a multi-ethnic society. How do you coalesce different people coming to Singapore, to identify themselves as Singaporeans, and to take pride in being Singaporean? Such identity issues are something Taiwan continues to face today.
Yeo: I think this issue is a big challenge for Singapore. Singapore is a young country – 50 years is not a long time. And we’re trying to create an additional layer, one that we did not have during the colonial period… Since we’re Chinese, we’re Malays… we’re pulled in different directions.
The British never considered it their responsibility to make us into a nation; in fact, the British strategic policy was not to allow Singapore to become independent, because Singapore had too many Chinese, and they were afraid that if Singapore became independent it would become a satellite of China.
So their strategy was for Singapore to allow Singapore to be independent through Malaysia, so that the Chinese would be in the minority. This was the way they approached colonization. Everywhere in the world they had these considerations; who to put in charge of the gun? And they didn’t want Chinese people in Southeast Asia to have the gun.
So from a divided society, against the wishes of the British government, Singapore became independent, and Lee Kuan Yew had to pool different races together. Fifty years later, is there a Singapore identity today? Yes. Is it a strong identity? Not really.
What do I mean by that? If you take a Singaporean out of Singapore, and put him in China or America, or Europe, after two or three generations does he still feel Singaporean? Will he still feel Chinese? Yes, of course. If he’s a Christian or Buddhist, will he still feel Christian or Buddhist? Yes, of course. Will he still feel Singaporean? I’m not so sure. Because it is not a strong force. It’s a growing force, and it requires continuous reference back to Singapore.
Yeo likened Singapore to a big banyan tree, with no grass growing underneath it.
Chinese civilization is strong because it’s in the DNA. So you can destroy the country, and scatter Chinese people to Vancouver, to Panama, to Mauritius, and they still remain Chinese. Because the parents will make sure the children are Chinese; they observe the values, the rituals.
So what is a Singapore identity? In Singapore, if you’re Chinese you remain Chinese, if you’re Indian you remain Indian, if you’re a Muslim you remain Muslim. So what is a Singapore identity?
Singapore is an idea. And the idea is this: you keep your identity, but you have to go further than that and accept other people that are different from you…So your mind must be a bit bigger, and your heart a bit bigger… It’s easy to say, but not easy to carry on.
Today people say, ‘Oh, Singapore is such a harmonious society,’ as if it is natural. But this is not natural. You may look at a garden and say ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful!” But it is not natural. It’s there because every day there are people tending to it.
So Singapore is what it is only because we are doing things every day to make it like that.
CW: How do you do that?
Yeo: It is law, it is security, it is intelligence, it is culture, it is practice. And it is media.
You might go, ‘Oh, that is because you censor.’ But I was Minister for Information for nine years, and I never did any censoring. You might ask, ‘You don’t track the headlines? You don’t read the newspaper?’ I say, no.
People ask, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘I have conversations,’ with editors, and with journalists in Singapore and overseas. We talk, and we have certain principles, so that if something is inaccurate, it must be corrected. If it is something unfair, and the person who is affected wants a correction, a correction must be allowed. And if you say something that is untrue, and you refuse to correct it, you may get sued (for libel or slander).
I remember having to deal with The Economist. They wrote a long article on me, and I wanted to correct certain things in a letter, expecting it to be published. But they said your letter is too long, and they changed it themselves.
I insisted that my own words be published, and agreed to shorten it if it was too long, but they said no, that is their internal policy.
So we said, in that case, we have to control the circulation in Singapore. That’s our law, and we cannot change.
So in the end, they said okay, and we let them circulate freely.
It required a struggle to achieve a position, but now (due to the time difference) The Economist is available today in Singapore before it is available in London. Is that censorship? No, it is management of the information flow.
Compiled and translated from the Chinese by David Toman.
George Yeo Yong-Boon
Year of birth: 1954
Current Positions: Chairman, Kerry Logistics; Deputy Chairman and Director, Kerry Group, Ltd.; Chairman, Singapore Summit
Experience: Minister for Information and the Arts, Minister for Health, Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister for Foreign Affairs (Singapore)