Jayakumar gives take on governance in new book

Ex-senior minister offers inside look at Govt's workings, talks about leadership succession

Professor S. Jayakumar speaking at the launch of his new book at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday, with Money FM 89.3 presenter Michelle Martin moderating the session. He said that when he began writing Governing: A Singapore Perspective, it
Professor S. Jayakumar speaking at the launch of his new book at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday, with Money FM 89.3 presenter Michelle Martin moderating the session. He said that when he began writing Governing: A Singapore Perspective, it was never his intention to give a lesson to Singaporeans. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Former senior minister S. Jayakumar has launched a book chronicling his experiences of Singapore's governance, as well as giving his views on issues such as the Lee family dispute over their 38 Oxley Road home and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's retirement plan if the Covid-19 crisis does not abate.

Titled Governing: A Singapore Perspective, the 192-page volume includes first-hand and behind-the-scenes accounts of his time spent working with founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, as well as topics such as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's leadership succession, the 4G leaders and this year's general election.

At the book launch yesterday at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Prof Jayakumar, 81, said that when he began writing the book, it was never his intention to give a lesson to Singaporeans.

"I've been in politics long enough to know that Singaporeans don't like to be told lessons, don't like preaching by ex-ministers or ministers. Those of us who are parents will know that when we tell our kids how it was back in our time, their eyes glaze over.

"But... I can best describe the book as my invitation to Singaporean readers to come with me on a journey into behind-the-scenes workings of the Government, and try to lift the veil of mystery."

His previous book in 2015, Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu: A Singapore Memoir, discussed Singapore's foreign policy and developments during his political career which spanned 31 years.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who was guest of honour at the launch, said he counts Prof Jayakumar as a "close friend and fearsome golf kaki".

He had this to say of the man who had worked with all three of Singapore's prime ministers: "There are very few like him who have been in the thick of the action or had ringside seats to Singapore's political struggles across such a lengthy period. It is no wonder then that Prof Jayakumar writes with authenticity and authority, not vicariously bestowed by position, but as a first-hand witness of those events."

Prof Jayakumar, he added, "has no axe to grind, no point to prove, no lofty ambition that craves to be fulfilled".

"Brief, to the point, no hyperbole or unsubstantiated assertions, with caveats where necessary for precision, coupled with a prodigious memory and searing intellect. These qualities not only translate to reliable accounts, but also convey the core of the issues, challenges and events distilled in his book," Dr Ng said.

Prof Jayakumar entered politics in 1980 and held portfolios including foreign affairs, law, home affairs and labour. He was deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2009.


  • Governing: A Singapore Perspective is published by The Straits Times Press and is available at leading bookstores at $35 (inclusive of GST).

    The book can also be ordered from The Straits Times Press online bookstore at www.stbooks.sg from today. The Amazon Kindle e-book is priced at US$16.99 (S$22.90).

    Prof Jayakumar is donating his royalties from the book to the Ministry of Foreign Affair's adopted charity the Rainbow Centre, which supports children with developmental and learning needs.

He retired from politics at the 2011 General Election, but has continued to advise the Government, at first in an unofficial capacity, and from June 2018 as Senior Legal Adviser to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

In August, he was awarded Singapore's highest civilian honour, the Order of Temasek (With High Distinction).

Dr Ng said that in writing the book, Prof Jayakumar's intent is not only to inform and sometimes entertain, but, ultimately, to leave the reader with the seminal truths and choices that Singapore and Singaporeans must make to master their own future.

"This book does not shy away from provocative issues, as long as they are core to Singapore's existence and well-being."

Book excerpts


"In 1974, when the Chairman of PAP, Dr Toh Chin Chye, first broached the idea of my entering politics, I demurred and said that I was not ready.

"Later, in 1979, when Goh Chok Tong, through S. Dhanabalan, asked me to stand in the next General Election, my first response was that I preferred to continue teaching law at the university. But they asked me this question: "Supposing you are on the top of our list, and if you say no, and we have to go down the list and everybody else keeps saying no. We then go to the bottom of the list and then later, would you regret it if things went awry in Singapore?

"When it was put in that way, I found it very difficult to refuse."


"I have nothing against them personally. I was, however, astonished by the siblings' drastic actions. Surely they must have known that their attacks on PM Lee would harm not only his reputation but would also cause great damage to Singapore's reputation. It would also sully the legacy of their father, who was the founding father of modern Singapore... What the siblings did came across as an open declaration of war."


"A few days after GE 2020, on 15 July 2020, I emailed this view to a Cabinet minister: 'We should not be beguiled by WP's stance that they only want to check the Government. This time their line was to prevent a clean sweep of all seats.

'At the next GE - their aim will be to prevent PAP having a two-thirds majority. Further down the road, we should not rule out them (in concert with other opposition parties) trying to prevent PAP winning a majority of seats. They will do so if they have enough winnable candidates.

'As I see it, the camel has gotten its nose into the PAP tent. It will want to occupy the whole tent in 2, 3 or 4 elections down the road.'"


1G to 4G - Singapore's leadership transitions

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2020, with the headline 'Jayakumar gives take on governance in new book'. Subscribe