George Yeo

The Tao of life after politics

This is an excerpt from an introduction to a new volume of speeches titled George Yeo On Bonsai, Banyan And The Tao.

Dr Phua Kok Koo, founder and chairman of World Scientific (publishing firm), had repeatedly persuaded me to write a book about my views on politics and culture since my time in the Foreign Ministry.

I replied, repeatedly, that I was not in a frame of mind to do so. While in government, there were too many issues to grapple with. After I left the Government in 2011, my life entered a new phase and there were too many new challenges to face. I am not an academic and feel no inclination to discourse on society and government in an abstract way.

As for writing the memoirs of my years in government, that would involve combing through records in various ministries, the People's Action Party, Parliament and the constituency I served, over 23 years. Much material would still be classified.

It is also easy for my recounting to be misunderstood as self-serving. In all the roles I played, I worked as a member of a team and claiming specific responsibility for particular acts of commission or omission could be invidious. Hence, when Dr Phua suggested that my speeches be compiled instead, I thought it a good idea. They are all already in the public domain.

GE 2011 and its aftermath

JUST before campaigning began for the May 2011 General Election, a friend of mine who is a professional pollster told me confidentially that his analysis of the trends indicated that my team would garner 43 per cent to 47 per cent of the votes.

I kept this piece of information to myself, not wanting to demoralise my teammates. As it turned out, his forecast range precisely bracketed the 45 per cent we received. Despite being mentally prepared for a loss, the loss when it came was painful.

The Workers' Party had fielded its first team against my colleagues and me in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in a high-stakes bid to break the PAP's dominance of the Singapore Parliament. Over three electoral terms, the boundaries of Aljunied GRC had shifted to envelop the sole opposition constituency in Singapore at Hougang. It was not surprising that the Workers' Party should attempt the breakout through Aljunied GRC, although this could not have been the only reason.

In my speech congratulating the Workers' Party candidates, I expressed the hope that they would look after the constituents whom I had the privilege of serving over two decades. A day or two later, Workers' Party leader Low Thia Khiang remarked that the PAP team lost not because it had performed badly but because the people wanted more opposition members in Parliament.

At a media conference the following week, I announced my retirement from parliamentary politics. In the subsequent weeks, pressure built up within and outside the PAP for me to run for the Elected Presidency in August. This was despite my having indicated earlier that I thought myself temperamentally unsuited for the responsibility.

Initially, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong supported my candidacy but when Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, former Deputy PM and PAP chairman, indicated his willingness to run with the PAP's support, I bowed out. I would only have contested out of duty, not ambition. It should not be an exercise in self-justification.

Two individuals I respected discouraged me from standing for the presidency. My taijigong Master, Sim Pooh Ho, who lives in Kunming, took a Taoist view.

He took me on as a disciple only after I left government. He said that the times were changing and it was better for me to be free, not to do less, but perhaps to do more. His words then sounded a bit mysterious to me. Robert Kuok, whom I had known for over 20 years, and looked up to as a wise man, also advised me not to stand for the presidency.

Through two separate channels, he passed word that the presidency was not for me and invited me to join him instead, which I did after a decent interval.

Two years later, I was appointed by Pope Francis as a member of an eight-person commission charged to recommend changes to the administrative and financial structure of the Vatican.

Before flying to Rome for the first meeting, I called on Archbishop William Goh for his blessing and advice. Archbishop Goh began by observing that I could not serve the Holy Father if I had not lost the elections. At that moment, I recalled the words of Master Sim.

I describe myself as a Taoist to close friends - in a philosophical, not religious sense. I have been fascinated by the Tao Te Ching since my undergraduate days and, in recent years, by the I Ching as well.

Before joining the PAP in August 1988, I was required to write a short essay about my core values. Although I do not have a copy of it despite repeated searches, I remember clearly that what I wrote is more or less this: "My core values are Chinese and Christian. As a Chinese, I am both Confucianist and Taoist. The Confucianist side of me believes that civilisation is only possible with effort and organisation. For society to enjoy peace and to progress, there must be good government and human beings must have a sense of li (propriety and respect in human relationships). The Taoist side of me accepts that whatever we do, there are larger currents at play which are beyond our control and to which we are subject. My mother, who was born in Chaozhou and came to Singapore only after marrying my father at the age of 18, had a great influence on my sense of being a Chinese. And, as a Christian, I believe in love as the highest virtue in life and the sanctity of the individual."

When Goh Chok Tong became Prime Minister in November 1990, he appointed me to head the new Ministry of Information and the Arts. I designed the logo as a stylized yin-yang in green and red - green representing nature of which we are a part, and red, the life force of civilisation. My Senior Parliamentary Secretary Ho Kah Leong drew the logo in Chinese brush and left me to dot the red eye in the old Taoist tradition.

Digital revolution

HUMAN society is going through profound change, perhaps as dramatic as the shift from nomadic existence to settled agricultural life or from feudal to industrial society. The motive force is, of course, the digital revolution. Old structures are crumbling everywhere. Information technology and the social media are undermining hierarchical relationships. Many countries are experiencing institutional crisis. The relationships between parents and children, between teachers and students, between priests and laity, between doctors and patients, between government leaders and the citizenry, are all changing.

In developed countries, the incomes of middle classes are stagnating or in decline. The work many do is progressively taken over by machines, algorithms and foreigners. For large numbers, the best is past. Lacking hope, mass unhappiness among the middle classes has become a growing phenomenon. A small minority grow wealthier either because they are already rich or because they are smart or lucky. Perhaps the situation has to get worse before it gets better.

The new technologies unleashed by the digital revolution enable better and higher forms of human organisation to emerge but not before old ones are brought down. The search for new pathways to that future is the story of today. Throughout history, in times of great change, the future is first to be discerned in the freer cities where conditions favour social experimentation. In some ways, the future evolution of Asia can already be seen in the struggles of cities like Singapore and Hong Kong.

The young and restless

IT IS natural that the young should play a major role in this great transformation. As hierarchies give way to networks, it is younger members of society who adapt the most readily.

As chairman of the Young PAP in the 1990s, I encouraged a group of young men and women to start a Young PAP website. After telling them not to get me into trouble with party bosses and government regulators, I left them to their own devices. It was skunkworks but showed promise.

When blogs became popular, I asked a young friend to let me blog on his website. I also had another friend start a new site for me to blog on with a different reach. Learning the new social media was interesting and helped me keep in touch with a younger generation.

As Facebook took off in Singapore, I was encouraged to start an account by another group of young supporters. They held my hand initially. After a few weeks, I was happy to be on my own. Within a year, after my Facebook account reached the limit of 5,000 friends, I started a public page.

Working with young Singaporeans changed me. I learn much from them and many in turn feel responsible for me. Towards the end of the 2011 election campaign, I posted a short video message to young Singaporeans which quickly went viral in Singapore and abroad. In network society, communication is effective only if it is viral.

After leaving party politics, I considered winding down my Facebook accounts but was discouraged by many people. In any case, posting on Facebook is now commonplace. It is nice that the children of some friends became my Facebook friends. In an unexpected way, my early adoption of the social media also brought me closer to my four children who became my critics and consultants. If we fail to engage and involve the young, if we only want to change them without allowing them to change us, the transition from a hierarchical to a network society will be a troubled one.

It is for this reason that I support activities which encourage young Singaporeans to see Singapore's future in positive terms.

Bringing down an old order without a clear sense of what should replace it can lead to unnecessary tragedy. Successful social transformation requires the young to be included as internal agents of change. This challenge, we also see in Hong Kong today.

Recalling my own involvement in undergraduate student politics in Cambridge, I feel a certain empathy with Hong Kong students in their desire to improve social and political conditions despite the limitations of one country, two systems. If youth has no passion, society has no future.

Under Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore was unabashedly a hierarchical society. When asked if Singapore was a nanny state, he replied that, if it were one, he was proud to have fostered it. But he also knew that Singapore society was entering a new phase.

In November 1990, Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside to let Goh Chok Tong take over as Prime Minister. The state retreated a little; controls were carefully loosened; greater diversity was tolerated if not selectively encouraged. As Minister for Information and the Arts, I was happy to push some boundaries - censorship, use of dialects and Singlish, greater emphasis of pre-PAP history and promotion of our diverse ancestral heritage. These were all sensitive issues and I had to manage senior Cabinet colleagues artfully. A speech I made about the need to prune the banyan tree in order that civic participation could flourish resonated with many Singaporeans. Pruning the banyan tree means cutting down hierarchy. Letting more sunlight through enables the social network to be better energised.

Celebrating diversity

DIVERSITY causes tension. In hierarchical societies, diversity is frowned upon because it makes top-down organisation more difficult. Standardisation improves efficiency but it also leads to oppression. There is a trade-off which Kuo Pao Kun poked fun at in his popular play The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole.

Many years ago, the late Cardinal Jan Schotte told me this story about Pope John Paul II whom he served as the secretary of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican. Drafting a speech for the Holy Father, Cardinal Schotte inserted a sentence for the Pope to say that "despite our differences, we are one". John Paul II gently chided him and replaced "despite" with "because of". "Because of our differences, we are one."

The particularity of the individual is sacrosanct. Each of us is unique; each is ultimately responsible for his own life. The correction by the Pope was not of style but of deep principle. Diversity is not to be merely tolerated; it is to be celebrated.

For those who believe in God, every human being carries a divine imprint which unites us. For Confucianists and atheists, every human being has a moral core which also makes us one.

We may disagree over man's spiritual nature but there is something deep in all of us, probably encoded in our DNA, which bows before the ideal of human fraternity and which is moved by the cries of a child.

This, of course, has not stopped slaughter over religious beliefs. Unity in diversity is easy to say. Living it requires a daily examination of conscience.

I recounted Cardinal Schotte's story to a group of young supporters who were helping me raise funds for a public sculpture by a lake in my old political constituency. They were inspired and designed a badge with the Pope's amended formulation.

In their enthused response, I draw hope for Singapore's future.

Singapore is what it is only because it is diverse. As a member of Parliament, I regularly officiated at ceremonies to welcome new citizens. Invariably, my speech made the same point. Although Singapore does not recognise multiple citizenships, we encourage new citizens to maintain old links and cherish their ethnic and religious heritage. Singapore is enriched by their addition and our international network enhanced.

However, there is one requirement to being Singaporean, which is this: A new citizen has to enlarge his heart and broaden his mind to embrace those who are different from him. In other words, becoming Singaporean means becoming a bigger person even though Singapore is a small country. Needless to say, those of us who are already citizens should also manifest this same largeness of mind and spirit.

The bonsai and the fugu fish

AS A small country, we should always have a modest view of ourselves. Foreigners may compliment us on our achievements but sometimes these are just words of courtesy. In the 1990s, a Singapore businessman was told that a Shanghai leader, who was a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, described Singapore as a bonsai to a visiting US Cabinet Secretary. My businessman friend was most offended by the remark. Did he think that Singaporeans were incapable of doing big things? I understood my friend's reaction, but did not feel quite the same way. After all, it is not easy to grow and maintain a bonsai. Some bonsais last a long time and they can be very valuable.

With the spirit of Ah Q, I also told myself that if a Chinese leader considered the Singapore bonsai though small to be of the same stock as the Chinese people, that is a great compliment to us since China is a great country.

From then on, when talking about Singapore's relations with China, I would describe Singapore as a bonsai which is of occasional interest to China because of genetic similarities.

Singapore also shares genes with Malaysia, Indonesia and India. When President B. J. Habibie in a moment of anger dismissed Singapore as a little red dot, Singaporeans started wearing that little dot as a badge of pride. This, strangely, has endeared us to many Indonesians.

But it is an Indian friend who sized us up (or down) most accurately. During his first term as Chief Minister of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu compared the workings of Singapore to nano-technology. Yes, we are small but we pack a lot into a tiny space and are able to network Singapore to the entire world. Singapore is of interest to many people because, though small, it has all the attributes of a country, unlike Hong Kong.

Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner encouraged Singapore to study the genome of the fugu fish some years ago because it has the shortest genome among vertebrates. This made it easier to relate gene to function. Singapore is like the fugu fish.

I have had long conversations with Nicolas Berggruen of the Berggruen Institute of Governance about the positive and negative aspects of the Singapore system. He is fascinated by Singapore society because it is small enough to be studied as a complete social, economic and political model.

Singapore is not intelligible in itself. Its economy, culture and politics can only be understood in the context of the region it serves. Singapore is only one node in a dense network of many nodes.

Whether the Singapore node grows or shrinks depends on the health of the network and our ability to link up with other nodes and add value. Our diversity is therefore a great strength. Joel

Kotkin describes Singapore as a home for many tribes. This enables us to arbitrage across cultural domains. Indeed, this arbitrage is at the heart of our economy and foreign policy. As Minister for Information and the Arts, Trade and Industry, and Foreign Affairs, I devoted considerable time to the development of our cultural connections because they underlie our economic, political and social life. These efforts also brought me closer to the many minority communities living in Singapore.

I was very touched when Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish friends congratulated me on my Vatican appointment.

Diversity makes us vulnerable

DIVERSITY is, however, also our vulnerability. Every channel which connects us to the world outside also brings infection.

Maintaining Singapore's integrity and security is therefore a continuing challenge. Two conditions have to be met for a city-state to stay independent. First, its foreign policy has to be nimble and adjust to a shifting external balance of power.

Second, the citizenry must be united in its common defence against external subversion and aggression. The external and internal equations have to be solved simultaneously. Only when Singaporeans feel secure about their own place at home can they turn outwards and do big things together.

I spent 16 years as a soldier, first in the Army, then the Air Force and, finally, in the Joint Staff. The Singapore Armed Forces is a well-equipped and well-trained militia. Its fighting ability is completely dependent on the unity of diverse Singaporeans and their commitment to a common, righteous cause. By being prepared for war, we are more likely to have peace. It is better not to be put to the test.

If we can maintain peace in Asia for another 10 to 20 years, the region will be transformed beyond recognition and become a powerhouse of the global economy. While trials of strength are inevitable, Sino-US relations are unlikely to deteriorate too badly.

Even when China's economy overtakes that of the US in size, the US will remain the dominant military and political power in the world for decades to come. American popular culture has already taken over the world. Unlike the US, China is not a missionary power. So long as it is able to maintain its own political and cultural universe within, China has no ambition to compete with the US for global supremacy without.

If China is also a missionary power, like the former Soviet Union, another hot or cold war is inevitable. Happily, China is not and a titanic clash between the US and China is not inevitable.

Between China and India, they are more likely to cooperate than to fight. Except for a minor border war in 1962, which has been largely forgotten in China, the long history of contact between them has been peaceful. Each recognises the other as an ancient people. I have the privilege of joining Amartya Sen, Wang Gungwu and others in reviving an ancient Indian university in the state of Bihar. For centuries, Nalanda was a great university attracting students from different parts of Asia, the most famous being the two great Buddhist monks from Tang China - Xuan Zang and Yi Jing. It was from the records of these two monks that India recovered a large chunk of its own history.

Nalanda was a light to the world and, hopefully, will be again, promoting the philosophy of man living in harmony with man, man living in harmony with nature, and man living as part of nature.

This ideal is not only desirable today, it is a necessity. The greatest danger in the age we live is technological development racing too far ahead of man's moral development. We need men of goodwill coming together from all directions to reflect on the moral challenges of our times and help point the way forward. Nalanda can provide one such meeting place. I hope, Singapore, another.

The writer is a former Foreign Minister of Singapore and is now chairman of Kerry Logistics.