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S. Jayakumar: Quality of next-gen leaders will be critical factor

Former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar on a post-Lee Kuan Yew future and why the Government cannot sit back on issues of race and religion. - ST PHOTO: T KUMAR
Former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar on a post-Lee Kuan Yew future and why the Government cannot sit back on issues of race and religion. - ST PHOTO: T KUMAR

Former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar has released a memoir covering his boyhood, career as a law academic, and 31 years in politics. Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu takes its title from his philosophy as Foreign Minister, a post he held from 1994 to 2004. He tells Rachel Chang his views on a post-Lee Kuan Yew future, why Government cannot sit back on issues of race and religion, and why he has no desire to return to public life, even to the Istana - a question asked of him in 2011. 

Q: Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu sums up Singapore's approach to foreign affairs. How does Singapore keep its seat at the table as a second superpower, China, emerges?

It's the nature of every big power to try to line up as many smaller countries on their side. So it's not surprising that China would want to have Singapore's support on many issues but, at the same time, the United States, too, wants to line up as many countries. So what do we do? We have to demonstrate, as best as we can, that just like them, we are driven by calculations of our national interest. We don't want to go out of our way to upset or annoy any country, but if our interests coincide, we will support them on an issue. If our interests do not coincide, we will disagree.

And that's why in my books (both this one and 2011's Diplomacy: A Singapore Experience), I (recounted) episodes where sometimes China tried to bully us, sometimes the US tried to bully us. I hope the way we've exercised our foreign policy over the years has shown the US and China that we want to be on good relations with both. Sometimes we disagree with one, but it doesn't mean we are permanently on the side of the other.

Q: Singapore is not a claimant in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but it is also under pressure from China and Asean. Asean countries which are claimant states want the grouping to stand with them. But China insists these are bilateral disputes that non-claimants should not interfere with. How do you think Singapore should handle this situation?

We place emphasis on two things: firstly, the observance of international law, which means both general international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, in particular, the maintenance of the rights of navigation and overflight in the sea lanes of communication. That's where our national interest lies in South China Sea maritime claims.

Secondly, the other prong of Singapore's foreign policy on this is: Support Asean.

But when I say support Asean - Asean does not have a territorial claim as such, nor does Asean have a position on the rights and wrongs or the merits and demerits of any particular claim. Asean's position is that these disputes must be resolved in a way that avoids tensions or conflict, and is in accordance with international law. That is in sync with Singapore's position.

Avoidance of tensions and conflict must be of paramount importance for us if Asean is not to be distracted in its developmental aspirations for each member state.

So that is, I think, Singapore's role. Basically, Asean has to persuade other countries - including some of the claimant states which are Asean countries, and China - that it is in the best interest of all to resolve this in accordance with international law and, most importantly, in a way that does not heighten tensions and conflict.

Q: Some say Singapore's counsel will no longer be sought out by bigger countries after the passing of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose insight and analysis was prized by big-power leaders.

It is true that the leaders sought out his views. (But) leaders have also sought out the analysis and views of (Emeritus Senior Minister) Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, (Deputy Prime Minister) Tharman Shanmugaratnam. So Mr Lee Kuan Yew's shoes are not easy to fill. But so long as Singapore is viewed as successful, a small country which has carved out a certain role in the region and in global affairs, people will be interested to know what makes Singapore tick - and what are the views its leaders have.

So the quality of the leaders after Mr Lee Kuan Yew is going to be a critical factor. The succeeding generations of leaders can make their own niche, their own mark and expertise.

So it may not be one new Lee Kuan Yew, but it can be several individuals who are highly regarded. Different people can fill different roles, and by leaders I don't just mean Cabinet ministers, but everybody else - permanent secretaries, diplomats, etc.

Collectively, they make up an image, and the reputation of Singapore. So that may be the post-Lee Kuan Yew future. It's not one towering figure but a mosaic of many different individuals that make up the Singapore story.

Q: In your book, you say you're not pessimistic about Singapore's future the way some others are, because you see in young Singaporeans an innate pride in, and passion for, Singapore.

Yes, I'm not as despondent as some people about the attitudes of the younger people. Innate pride is critical. You cannot expect people to make the extra effort for the country if they don't feel pride in a country.

Look at the number of young people who were part of the process of paying tribute to Mr Lee. Now, you may need a psychologist to analyse what all that means. But there seemed to be a genuine feeling of sorrow about his passing. And inherent in that feeling was also an appreciation of what is the Singapore he helped to shape. That is also a good sign.

It may not be one new Lee Kuan Yew, but it can be several individuals who are highly regarded... Collectively, they make up an image, and the reputation of Singapore. 
- S. Jayakumar

Pride, passion and patriotism cannot be achieved overnight. Often this is acquired over many generations and hundreds of years, after periods of disasters, suffering, victories. So it is a tall order to expect to achieve this quickly for our young nation. But I sense the process has begun. It's only if people feel neutral about the country, then I'll be worried.

The nature of politics will change. Nothing is cast in stone (and) politics will evolve. But I'm thinking about the long-term future.

Of course, how do you avoid a sense of (the young) taking for granted (success) - that is a challenge. Singapore really has not had a major calamity or terrible crisis to bring about solidarity.

So when major crises are absent over a long period of time, there is, by nature, a tendency to take what you see around to be the normal. There's a danger in that. How do you overcome that? It's not easy. It requires a lot of political education and hopefully Singaporeans travel and see how things are in other countries.

Q: One theme in your book is how Singapore aggressively dealt with any race-, religion- or language-related offences. Will this approach continue to be accepted by a new generation more used to self-expression?

Race, language and religion are very emotive, almost primeval instincts. And I think it will take many generations before we can say that these factors are not important. The vast majority is not a problem, but there's always a small group, whether they are hot-headed, over-zealous or just bigoted, who can create a lot of mischief and problems.

And Singapore is unlike other countries. There are other countries where a city can have a few weeks of riots, looting and destruction, and the rest of the country survives. You see the riots in Baltimore or in Ferguson (Michigan) in the United States. But the rest of the US survives.

Singapore is a city and it's a country. We just cannot (do that). So it's right that we take these things seriously.

  • What's for supper

  • Where: Singapore Island Country Club (Bukit Location)
    240 Sime Road

    Mee siam: $4.20
    French toast: $3.50
    Apple juice: $2.65
    Coffee: $1.75
    Total: $12.10

Q: There's been a spate of people charged over race or related offences. Are you concerned that it's a rising trend?

I'm not sure the trend is growing, but I strongly support nipping such things in the bud. You have to take action before it gets out of control. That's what I think has kept Singapore safe and sound.

It's always lurking there. And when it manifests itself, you either (use) counselling if he was just misguided, hot-headed or foolish; where it's deliberate mischief, then you have to prosecute. So which instrument you use, whether it's the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the criminal law or the Sedition Act or, in an extreme case, the Internal Security Act, that has to be carefully calibrated. But action has to be taken.

Q: Some see the authorities as overreacting for arresting anyone who makes a careless remark on social media. It may also prevent the maturing of public discourse here.

There's freedom of speech, but freedom of speech can never be absolute. And in Singapore's context, one very important exception to freedom of speech is that you shall not provoke ill-will amongst races, religions or languages. I think that must be hard-coded in Singapore's approach to law, order and stability because we have seen how it has led to widespread problems in other countries. And all the more so on the Internet, because its anonymity and the speed at which certain things go viral can cause greater damage in faster time.

I'm sure for every offending remark, there are many who have responded with outrage and condemnation. But that does not mean that as Government, you don't act. You have to act. Certain benchmarks are necessary to be set in every society. And for Singapore, if we believe in multiracialism, I think that benchmark is extremely important. That's what has distinguished Singapore from many other countries.

Q: You spent 31 years in public life before retiring before the 2011 General Election. You write about how you've taken up inline-skating, kendo and other hobbies in retirement. Any desire to return to public life? Your name has been mentioned as a presidential candidate.

Well, for the last Presidential Election (in 2011), I was asked the question and I ruled myself out.

I was then several years younger. And now when I'm going to be 76, it's all the more reason for me not to change my position. I've had a very fulfilling and interesting period of three decades in politics and I think I've made a contribution. For me, it was quite important to make a clean break with public life. We cannot be half-retired and half-not-retired. So I did express a wish that when I step down, I step down both as an MP and as a minister. That was my preference.

The book, Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu, published by Straits Times Press, is available at leading bookstores or online at for $27.82 (GST included).