The Tao of life after politics

The Tao of life after politics
Mr Yeo punting near Cambridge, England, with sons Frederick (left) and William in October 2011. If we fail to engage the young, the transition from a hierarchical to a network society will be a troubled one, he says.

Dr Phua Kok Koo, founder and chairman of World Scientific (publishing firm), had repeatedly persuaded me to write a book about my views on politics and culture since my time in the Foreign Ministry.

I replied, repeatedly, that I was not in a frame of mind to do so. While in government, there were too many issues to grapple with. After I left the Government in 2011, my life entered a new phase and there were too many new challenges to face.

I am not an academic and feel no inclination to discourse on society and government in an abstract way.

As for writing the memoirs of my years in government, that would involve combing through records in various ministries, the People's Action Party, Parliament and the constituency I served, over 23 years. Much material would still be classified.

It is also easy for my recounting to be misunderstood as self-serving. In all the roles I played, I worked as a member of a team and claiming specific responsibility for particular acts of commission or omission could be invidious. Hence, when Dr Phua suggested that my speeches be compiled instead, I thought it a good idea. They are all already in the public domain.

GE 2011 and its aftermath

Just before campaigning began for the May 2011 General Election, a friend of mine who is a professional pollster told me confidentially that his analysis of the trends indicated that my team would garner 43 per cent to 47 per cent of the votes.

I kept this piece of information to myself, not wanting to demoralise my teammates. As it turned out, his forecast range precisely bracketed the 45 per cent we received. Despite being mentally prepared for a loss, the loss when it came was painful.

The Workers' Party had fielded its first team against my colleagues and me in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in a high-stakes bid to break the PAP's dominance of the Singapore Parliament. Over three electoral terms, the boundaries of Aljunied GRC had shifted to envelop the sole opposition constituency in Singapore at Hougang.

It was not surprising that the Workers' Party should attempt the breakout through Aljunied GRC, although this could not have been the only reason.

In my speech congratulating the Workers' Party candidates, I expressed the hope that they would look after the constituents whom I had the privilege of serving over two decades.

A day or two later, Workers' Party leader Low Thia Khiang remarked that the PAP team lost not because it had performed badly but because the people wanted more opposition members in Parliament.

At a media conference the following week, I announced my retirement from parliamentary politics.

In the subsequent weeks, pressure built up within and outside the PAP for me to run for the Elected Presidency in August. This was despite my having indicated earlier that I thought myself temperamentally unsuited for the responsibility.

Initially, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong supported my candidacy but when Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, former Deputy PM and PAP chairman, indicated his willingness to run with the PAP's support, I bowed out. I would only have contested out of duty, not ambition.

It should not be an exercise in self-justification. Two individuals I respected discouraged me from standing for the presidency. My taijigong Master, Sim Pooh Ho, who lives in Kunming, took a Taoist view.

He took me on as a disciple only after I left government. He said that the times were changing and it was better for me to be free, not to do less, but perhaps to do more. His words then sounded a bit mysterious to me.

Robert Kuok, whom I had known for over 20 years, and looked up to as a wise man, also advised me not to stand for the presidency.

Through two separate channels, he passed word that the presidency was not for me and invited me to join him instead, which I did after a decent interval.

Two years later, I was appointed by Pope Francis as a member of an eight-person commission charged to recommend changes to the administrative and financial structure of the Vatican.

Before flying to Rome for the first meeting, I called on Archbishop William Goh for his blessing and advice. Archbishop Goh began by observing that I could not serve the Holy Father if I had not lost the elections.

At that moment, I recalled the words of Master Sim. I describe myself as a Taoist to close friends - in a philosophical, not religious sense. I have been fascinated by the Tao Te Ching since my undergraduate days and, in recent years, by the I Ching as well.

Before joining the PAP in August 1988, I was required to write a short essay about my core values.

Although I do not have a copy of it despite repeated searches, I remember clearly that what I wrote is more or less this: "My core values are Chinese and Christian.

As a Chinese, I am both Confucianist and Taoist. The Confucianist side of me believes that civilisation is only possible with effort and organisation.

For society to enjoy peace and to progress, there must be good government and human beings must have a sense of li (propriety and respect in human relationships).

The Taoist side of me accepts that whatever we do, there are larger currents at play which are beyond our control and to which we are subject.

My mother, who was born in Chaozhou and came to Singapore only after marrying my father at the age of 18, had a great influence on my sense of being a Chinese. And, as a Christian, I believe in love as the highest virtue in life and the sanctity of the individual."

When Goh Chok Tong became Prime Minister in November 1990, he appointed me to head the new Ministry of Information and the Arts.

I designed the logo as a stylized yin-yang in green and red - green representing nature of which we are a part, and red, the life force of civilisation.

My Senior Parliamentary Secretary Ho Kah Leong drew the logo in Chinese brush and left me to dot the red eye in the old Taoist tradition.

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