Singaporeans more vocal today, bringing new tensions and possibilities: George Yeo

Former Foreign Minister George Yeo during the signing of his newly launched book, George Yeo On Bonsai, Banyan And The Tao at the Esplanade.
Former Foreign Minister George Yeo during the signing of his newly launched book, George Yeo On Bonsai, Banyan And The Tao at the Esplanade.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans are more vocal today than they were in the 1990s, a change that also brings new tensions and possibilities, said former foreign minister George Yeo at the launch of his book on Thursday.

He attributed the "much healthier" civic participation these days to two factors: the Government "letting go'' to some extent and new technology like social media "allowing sunlight to break through".

His remark on the effect of social media recalls a seminal speech he made in 1991 when he used the analogy of the state as a banyan tree, calling for it to be pruned to let the sun through so that the undergrowth - or civic society - will not be stultified.

"Old hierarchies are being undermined by its disintermediating effect," said Mr Yeo, now age 60 and chairman of logistics firm Kerry Logistics Network, who quit politics in 2011.

These include relationships between children and parents, students and teachers, and citizens and the Government.

He added: "In the past it was based on hierarchies. (But) this structure is being undermined, corroded by technology, creating more web-like relations. So one has to be prepared to learn from others, the old from the young, from peers."

Mr Yeo was one of the first politicians in Singapore to adopt social media, joining Facebook in 2008. He hit the 5,000 "friend" limit within months, and then started a fan page, which has 92,254 followers.

The banyan features in the title of the 686-page collection of his speeches: George Yeo On Bonsai, Banyan And The Tao, published by World Scentific.

It was officially launched today, although it has been in major bookstores since last month. The book, which costs $83.46 for the hardcover version and $38.52 for the paperback (prices after GST), has shifted 6,500 copies so far.

Mr Yeo led the team at Aljunied GRC, which the People's Action Party lost to the Workers' Party in the 2011 general election. On Thursday, he declined to comment on Singapore politics, saying he retains a passive interest in it and takes a "more detached" view.

"I'm not involved in grassroots politics in Aljunied," he said, adding that he is not in a position to give advice to the PAP team at the GRC.

The book launch was attended by about 600 people, including Mr Yeo's former parliamentary colleagues and businessmen.

The guest-of-honour was Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who spoke about the revived Nalanda University in India in a 20-minute speech and his relationship with Mr Yeo, who will next week succeed him as the university's chancellor.

Said Dr Sen: "We see George's intellect in the book in all kinds of ways ... (And) even before he became chancellor he was an extraordinarily indispensable member of the board, in how to up the institution, how to take difficult decisions and how to proceed from there."