SINGAPORE — On Monday (15 August), ex-Foreign Minister George Yeo, 67, spoke to Yahoo News Singapore in his office at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy about his new book "Musings". Based on interviews with media veteran Woon Tai Ho, it is the first of a three-part book series where Yeo expounds on varied subjects such as his personal life, China, India and his time in government. The following is part I of edited excerpts from our conversation.
23 years in politics
I can see from your Facebook page that you still meet the former Aljunied PAP team quite regularly. Eleven years on from the defeat in Aljunied, what are your thoughts about it now? What kind of feelings does it bring up? Do you think you would have done anything differently in hindsight?
At that time, there was a tide flowing, which was very strong. I was right in front of it. So we were washed away. That reversed when Lee Kuan Yew passed away. I think it returned in the last general election. I'm a Taoist, I look at these things in a detached way. Sooner or later, a certain rebalancing in Singapore's politics would have happened. Could I have prevented it myself in Aljunied? (pause) I think it would have been very difficult.
I did not sense any personal animosity towards me. In fact, quite the contrary. I sensed people feeling awkward, almost feeling uncomfortable. I was talking to some of my grassroots leaders the following morning, they said people looked at each other in the lift and they all kept quiet. My old friend Habib Hassan from Ba'alwie Mosque - maybe he was trying to please me, but he said, your popularity rating went up three times after you lost (laughs). But politics is like this, you have to accept it for what it is.
You said in an interview that you don't intend to run for president. But is there anything that might change your mind? Will we ever see you in politics again?
I've retired from the SAF. For many years, I was Brigadier-General (NS) until I reached the age of 55, then the practice was to retire. But if in a wartime situation they said, we need you to come back to do certain things, of course I have to say yes. So equally, politics is part of life. So if I can help, I will of course help in an appropriate way. I cannot say look, I've retired, I will not look back at Singapore.
So would you ever change your mind about running for president?
Not as I see it (laughs).
READ & WATCH: "The problem with 377A is, it was an inherited law. And we say, well, we will not act on it. That is not satisfactory," says 'Musings' author George Yeohttps://t.co/0wOoeQA6Qb pic.twitter.com/OdQfj6wa0l
— Yahoo Singapore (@YahooSG) August 19, 2022
You headed four ministries: Ministry of Information and the Arts, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Which was your favourite?
I can tell you that my most stressful ministry was MITA, which I helmed for nine years, longer than I did the Foreign Ministry. When I was in MITA, it was almost as if there could be explosions at any time. It was good training (to be a diplomat) for MFA (laughs).
I had to deal with journalists, film producers, artists, religions, heritage museums, libraries. And cultural issues are the most sensitive, because we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual society. People feel strongly about their identities, and if they feel that you disdain them or shortchange them, they get upset very quickly. And they suddenly, from little things, draw huge conclusions. And unless emotions are quickly stilled, they become disproportionate.
When Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" came out, we banned it immediately because if you tried to argue the merits and demerits of censoring such a book, you will get nowhere. You only get people angry. So we decided, let's have some peace and quiet, just ban it...banning it is like virtue signalling to the community, this is troublesome, let's not have this trouble.
(The book) "Last Temptation of Christ" was initially banned. And there was an appeal, I think by Minister Rajaratnam, and we decided to unban it. Because Christians feel certain issues differently from the way Muslims feel certain issues. And we can't say, look we should treat everybody equally. If you treat everybody equally, you will have a lot of trouble. So you have to say look, let's be practical. Let's be commonsensical. It's very important to you, we'll be sensitive. This is not so important to you, so that's okay.
Our society is variegated. So it requires subtlety of management. You cannot say, well, I have the law, I have regulations, and we impose them equally across the board. It'd be a very unhappy Singapore, if we do that.
Sensitive issues of faith and culture
In the book, you said Lee Kuan Yew called you up as he felt that your Catholicism might affect your decisions as a government official. Were there any moments where you felt your faith conflicted with your public role?
As a minister in a secular government, you have to rise above your religion and be fair to everybody. But at the same time, there is a question of conscience, there are things you can't do because your conscience says you should not do them.
So when I went into politics, I told my family, treat every term as the last term because I may have to resign, because I lose an election, or I got to take responsibility for something which has happened, or I have a fundamental disagreement with policies.
Did you ever consider resigning then?
There were moments when that thought was in my mind, when we had the problem with the Romanian chargé d'affaires who had run over some Singaporeans and ran away. [Former Romanian CDA to Singapore Silviu Ionescu knocked down three pedestrians in 2009 with the embassy car, causing the death of one, and eventually fled Singapore] And I saw MFA leaving it mostly to the Ministry for Law to handle. So I told them, no, we are the Foreign Ministry, we have to take responsibility. And I told my staff twice, that if he slips through our fingers, I may have to resign because Singaporeans will be very upset.
(But) justice was done. By complete chance, there I was at St. Peter's Basilica, waiting for the Papal mass to end so that I can greet Pope Benedict. Sitting behind me was the Romanian Foreign Minister. We (asked for) a bilateral meeting, I brought this up. With his permission, we took a photograph and I issued a statement. And he assured me that Romania will act on this within Romanian law. There was no extradition treaty, but luckily in Romania, if you commit a crime overseas, which is a crime in Romania, you can be prosecuted in Romania. [Ionescu was sentenced to six years' jail for manslaughter and died behind bars in 2014]
What do you make of the fact that conservative groups, especially religious groups, have become so vocal and assertive when it comes to controversial laws like Section 377A?
The problem with 377A is, it was an inherited law. And we say, well, we will not act on it. That is not satisfactory. So at some point in time government will have to rationalise it. But the moment you rationalise it, people will say, look, this is a slippery slope. Then after that there'll be gay marriage and adoption by gay parents. But if there is an assurance that it's not a slippery slope. I think we would have diffused the issue.
So to me, the key is what assurance the government can give to these groups that you talk about, that this is not a slippery slope. (There are) red lines which will not be crossed. Not just red tape, which can be easily removed, but something firmer than that, which comforts them, then we would have defused this issue.
You suggest in the book that new Singapore citizens should be approved by a jury of ordinary Singaporeans, and that citizens should have provisional status for five years. Do you think that citizenship has been handed out too easily, perhaps even devalued in some sense?
We are completely self interested. So we bring in clever people, wealthy people, connected people. But some of them when they come in, they think that they are blessing the Singaporeans and they act as if we should be very pleased that they are here. I met some of them when I was a Member of Parliament. They talk as if we owe them. Now this psychology is very important that Singaporeans do not feel that the foreigners whom we bring in are lording over them, and looking down on them and misbehaving.
Let's say you tell this jury: 10 candidates, you interview all of them, don't blackball more than two. Those two will leave the room with their tails between their hind legs, and they'll be telling everyone else, wow this is a tough process. People will learn from this. People will behave differently after that. Subsequent applicants will be doing homework. I think that psychology is very useful. And Singaporeans will say ah, good. Yes, we want them and they are a blessing to us.
Part II of the interview with George Yeo will be released on Monday, 22 August.
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