Cabinet minister, diplomat, scholar. If asked, these are the likely identities that most Singaporeans would ascribe to former statesman George Yeo. Lesser known to the public would be the 67-year-old’s identity as an aspiring erhu player or a member of a Vatican council.
Most recently, Mr Yeo has added another feather to his cap as an author, with the launch of his latest book titled George Yeo: Musings, which is based on interviews with veteran media practitioner Woon Tai Ho and is intended to be the first of three books.
TODAY spoke with Singapore’s former foreign affairs minister on Monday (Aug 22) in a wide-ranging interview that covered his thoughts on the repeal of Section 377A, his position as a presidential candidate, and his views on the growing tensions between the United States and China, among other topics.
The following edited excerpts of the interview with Mr Yeo — who was also the minister for health, trade and industry, and for information and the arts at various points of his 23-year career in the Government — touch on his thoughts on life after politics.
AUG 28 — TODAY: You wrote a fair bit about the concept of identity in your new book. You were once a military officer and, of course, a government minister. Now, people see you as an intellectual. How do you identify yourself?
Mr Yeo: I see myself in different aspects. I'm a son. I'm a father. I'm a husband. I'm a Singaporean. I'm Chinese and I’m Catholic. I’m from SJI (St Joseph's Institution) — we just celebrated the 170th anniversary of the arrival of Lasallian education into Singapore and Indonesia.
Part of the wonders of life, maybe part of the pleasure of life, is to have different facets. I mean, if we have no facets, we're just a pebble on the beach. Dull and boring and unremarkable.
I think every human being is remarkable, precisely because he's so multi-faceted. And even among those we dismiss initially, if we pick that pebble up and look at it carefully, and maybe give it a slight polish — it is wondrous.
Everyone is a precious stone, and I don't think it's good to say, “Who are you?”, and reduce a person to one dimension.
TODAY: It has been some years since you left politics. Do you miss it?
Mr Yeo: Office had its stresses, and sometimes quite intense stresses. So I don’t miss that. I'm happy not to have executive responsibilities.
But I can’t help thinking of the same issues (making news headlines) based on the public knowledge I have and saying, “What should (the Government) now do?”
And when the government leaders take a certain course of action, I ask myself if I would have done that. But then, maybe they have more information than I have and they cannot openly talk about it.
But my mind doesn't stop thinking about politics. I have a very active political mind, though it's not so much about domestic politics, but regional and world politics.
We are in an inter-tidal period in world history. Large forces at play, completely beyond our control. And they are colliding and merging, creating rough waters, whirlpools.
If you have been down white waters before, and you know that you’re turning a corner, where you position your boat is very important well before you reach the corner. By the time you’re aware of what is happening, it’s too late.
Being able to see ahead — if you have a drone that tells you this is how the river goes — then you make early moves and you can have an enjoyable and safe voyage. But if you are blind, it can lead to tragedy.
It is the same for Singapore, because we have to accept the waters for what they are. Big countries can control the waters — to a point.
We can’t. All we can do is to position ourselves and to decide with whom we raft ourselves to (for safety). That’s all we can do.
TODAY: Was there anything you wished you had accomplished before you left politics?
Mr Yeo: So many things left undone! Politics is an endless flow. You are in the water for a period, you leave the water, and the water continues flowing. There’s no beginning or end to politics.
One small thing (I will share): My wife had a concert at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on Aug 7.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has an Asean Day on Aug 8, but because it is the eve of National Day, we celebrate Asean Day on Aug 7 in Singapore.
So my wife got in touch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and it said we can play the Asean anthem and put the flag up on screen.
The ministry’s advice was that everybody (in the audience) should stand up. So we all did, and I think people were proud to stand up that day and see the Asean flag fluttering.
For many of them, they heard the Asean anthem for the first time and they liked it. It was new to them.
I’ve always been pushing for a stronger Asean from the time I was a trade minister.
I was in favour of teaching the anthem to all students. I pushed, but the Ministry of Education was not persuaded. It said our students are so busy, they are doing this and that, but basically it didn’t think Asean is important.
I still feel that all of us should know how to sing the Asean anthem. We may be the first country in Asean to do that, but that's okay. We lead by example.
And when other Asean countries come here and find that, eh, our kids can sing the Asean anthem, they will say, “How come? You mean Singapore is more committed to Asean than me?”
We create a competitive dynamic.
It was a little thing that I wish I was able to push through, but unfortunately, you have only so much energy to fight so many battles.
TODAY: How do you spend most of your time these days?
Mr Yeo: I’m supposed to be retired, but somehow, I find myself rushing around and short of time. Maybe it’s not a bad thing. But on the whole, the time during the Covid-19 pandemic has been good to me.
I found time to do this book, learn calligraphy and the erhu (a Chinese two-stringed bowed musical instrument), which I have learned to scratch.
I’m not very successful with the erhu, I’m afraid. But it fascinates me, because I have never learned a musical instrument in my life before.
I picked it up because an old friend of mine told me that Zhu Rongji (China’s former premier), when he retired, he picked up the erhu. So I thought, “If Zhu Rongji can pick up the erhu, I can pick it up, too.”
I’ve been learning it for about a year-and-a-half at a music school in Tampines.
It is a one-on-one session. When I go in there, there are parents with children — very few adults going there alone.
TODAY: Do people ever mistake you for the erhu teacher?
Mr Yeo: No! How could they?
TODAY: Well, maybe they see this distinguished gentleman going in, and they go, “Ah, he must be the teacher.”
Mr Yeo: No, no. I go in every time, erhu slung over my back, wearing slippers — because we have to remove our shoes — and looking very meek and submissive as a student.
TODAY: Do you play for your wife? What does she think about it?
Mr Yeo: Oh, my wife is a pianist. So for her, it’s painful listening to me. Anyway, she said she will coach me. She is so advanced and I’m so primitive. I think it would be a strain on her.
But I’m not learning it to perform, I’m learning it to hold back dementia.
Former foreign affairs minister George Yeo during a visit to Rome, Italy and the Vatican City in 2017 (right) and in 2018 with his wife Jennifer (left). — Picture via Facebook/ George Yeo
TODAY: Sounds like quite an interesting way to spend your time.
Mr Yeo: I do other things, serious things, partly for income.
I’m on the board for some companies, and adviser to others.
I also spend a fair amount of time helping universities around the world. I’ve long been an adviser to the IESE Business School in Barcelona.
What's interesting is, this business school was established by the founder of the (Roman Catholic organisation) Opus Dei, Josemaria Escriva (a Spanish priest who died in 1975) .
His profound insight was that most of modern life is about working in offices and doing business, and that there should be a moral dimension to what we do, whoever we are.
So even though the business programmes in IESE are completely secular, there's always a moral dimension to the discussions.
TODAY: Could you give an example of what sort of moral discussions?
Mr Yeo: Let's say you have a business case about competition. All businesses want to establish monopolies and to fix their competitors. But beyond a point, it's not quite ethical.
And if you treat everyone as someone to deal with in a sharp way, in the end, economic life becomes highly antagonistic.
Without a moral framework, the market economy, capitalism, can harm society and can result in many bad things.
TODAY: You spent some time working with the Vatican (as a member of the Vatican's Council for the Economy). What was it like, and did you get to meet Pope Francis or speak to him?
Mr Yeo: You’re anticipating the second book. Those were very interesting years and I felt so privileged. Not in my wildest dream could I imagine I would have such an experience in my life.
When we went there, we stayed in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (next to St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City), which is a kind of a dormitory.
The pope lives on the second floor in the first block, and he eats in the same canteen — so we were bumping into him all the time.
There was one December, when I was heading from the Vatican to India, I was in my jeans, with my backpack and my hand-carry bag. I was in the first block, on the fifth floor.
So when the lift opened, I thought I had arrived at the lobby. But no, it was the second floor and the pope walked in with an assistant.
I quickly tried to disappear into a corner — not very successfully — so I tried to make some inane conversation. When the lift door opened, I felt quite relieved that I didn’t have to continue the conversation.
Then, I noticed that he went up to the concierge, to greet the concierge. And as I left, I noticed him walking to the kitchen.
I think he does that every day. He did not want to live in the Apostolic Palace, which is a kind of beautiful suite in the main building of the Vatican, otherwise he would be alone.
He wanted to be with people. So in the canteen, he always had a corner table.
If he was there, usually people were a bit quieter when they spoke, and furtive glances would shoot in his direction from time to time, to see what the pope was doing and with whom he was conversing.
When he left, the eyes followed him. When the door shut, the volume of the conversation went up again.
It's a little bit like when the commanding officer enters the officers’ mess, or when Dr Goh Keng Swee (former defence minister in Singapore’s early independent years) entered the dining room of the Ministry of Defence’s headquarters.
We didn’t disturb the pope. In the evenings, there was a buffet — half of which consisted of leftovers from lunch — he would be there also, lining up for his food. We, of course, made way for him.
He's very down-to-earth. He likes to say that you can’t be a good pastor — a pastor is like a shepherd — you can’t be a good shepherd, if you don’t smell of the sheep.
If you are a perfumed cleric, in beautiful garments and bejewelled, you won’t look at the sheep at all.
The pope always looks very frumpy. There's nothing particularly elegant about the way he dresses, except for very formal occasions.
TODAY: How do you think Singapore can engender a unified society at a time now when there is a need to have different voices?
Mr Yeo: No society has a magic formula for the future. The way to the future, I think, requires leaders to always be close to the people whom they lead.
I'm not just referring to political leaders. You could be a corporate leader, you could be a parent, you could be a teacher or a doctor.
If you detach yourself from the people whom you're supposed to be serving, alienation happens.
I like what Pope Francis repeatedly enjoins us (Catholics) to do, which is, if you're a shepherd, you must smell of the sheep.
You can't be a shepherd in an air-conditioned room, before your dashboard and control panels, telling the sheep what to do.
If you do that, the sheep will revolt.
A good shepherd spends a disproportionate amount of attention on the sheep that are lost, injured or need help.
The healthy sheep will look after themselves, and from time to time, you just corral them.
The sheep that are healthy, I think they like that, because one day they, too, may be injured, then they know the shepherd would go to them.
Ultimately, the question is not a technical question. It's not about standard operating procedures and algorithms. It is a moral question.
Without moral leadership, there is no true leadership. — TODAY