George Yeo visits Buddha's enlightenment site, sees India's Nalanda Uni taking shape

Former foreign minister George Yeo bowed out from Singapore politics several years ago but it seems he's still living life in the fast lane.

Kept busy with multiple responsibilities under many new hats, he has been hopping from country to country, district to district, ever ready to share his ideas and views.

Besides being chairman of Hong Kong-based Kerry Logistics, the forward-thinking intellectual holds a key Vatican appointment and is also chancellor of India's new Nalanda University. The latter is his visionary project, which has seen an ambitious international effort to revive the legendary seat of Buddhist learning founded in the early 5th century.

The recent schedule of the former Aljunied MP was no exception.

First, Mr Yeo attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos where global headaches had to be tackled. He is a member of the foundation board of the World Economic Forum.

Then he flew to India's Bihar state to oversee the development progress of Nalanda University (NU) this week. He also holds two more positions at the university, which aims to promote inter-faith understanding alongside a more relevant, broad-based curriculum in its modern incarnation.

Earlier this week (Jan 24-26), Mr Yeo was leading a group of donors and supporters of the university from Singapore and Hong Kong in visits to the historical districts of Bodh Gaya and Rajgir, where the new university campus will be built. They also met the small, but growing university community.

George Yeo on Facebook

An active Facebook user, Mr Yeo, who was accompanied by his wife on the tour, was quick to update his whereabouts on his page with a generous dose of photos, which did most of the 'talking'.

They showed happy faces of the couple and sights in Bohd Gaya, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage destination where Siddhartha Gautama is said to have achieved spiritual enlightenment, and became better known as Buddha Shakyamuni (The Awaken or Enlightened One).

On Jan 25, Mr Yeo posted pictures of the famous temple complex Magabodhi Mahavihara where Buddha attained enlightenment after meditating for 49 days under a sacred Bodhi tree, according to his disciples. Buddhists believe the tree that exists today has flourished from a sapling, which descended directly from the original.

In Rajgir, Mr Yeo and his delegation combed the Nalanda ruins, the Nalanda Museum, Xuan Zang Memorial Hall and other places of interest.

Multitudes of Buddhist students and monks from other countries such as China, Turkey and Persia had flocked to the ancient Nalanda to study Buddha's teachings at its renowned university. It thrived for 600 years before it was ravaged by invaders led by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a general of Qutbuddin Aibak in 1193.

At its peak, the university is believed to have accommodated a spectacular number of 10,000 students and teachers.

One of them was Tang dynasty monk Tang San Zang, who is honoured at the Xuan Zang Memorial Hall (second photo below).

The monk is popularly known as Tripitaka in the famous Journey to the West fiction novel, which has sparked numerous shows on stage and film depicting the monk's arduous journeys and dangerous encounters in his expedition to India.

Mr Yeo fondly named a video of him and Mrs Yeo sounding a large bell together at the hall as "Recalling Xuan Zang in Nalanda".

The Singapore and Hong Kong visitors also visited Gridhakuta and Vulture's Peak where Buddha preached and expounded scriptures like the famous lotus sutra, whose resonance has continued to reverberate in the growing world of Buddhist population today.

Nalanda Library, a gift from Singapore

The old Nalanda Library, a focal point in the sprawling university of the past, will also see a dramatic rejuvenation.

Mr Yeo was instrumental in reviving the library too, even before he was appointed the university chancellor last year, noted the latest press statement from the university.

Donors from Singapore have contributed 80 per cent towards its fund-raising target of $10 million, said Mr KC Chew, who is honorary secretary of the Nalanda Library Fund. Regarded as a leading consultant in philanthropy, Mr Chew had managed the endowments at National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the statement.

Mr Chew said the fund committee members are "hopeful that the remaining amount will be reached soon after this trip".

On the importance of supporting a project like Nalanda University (NU), Mr Yeo said in the press statement: "Endowments play a very important role in building centre of knowledge and allowing them to realise their academic vision. As the Nalanda project moves ahead, we hope to have many more people join in this vision."

Echoing support, Vice Chancellor, Dr Gopa Sabharwal, said: "We are really grateful to the people of Singapore for believing in the vision of Nalanda and look forward to increasing support for this project."

Singapore-based architectural firm RSP led by Mr Liu Thai Ker, who was Singapore's master urban planner and Housing Board chief, has designed the library. RSP is part of a tripartite agreement with Nalanda University and Vastu Shilpa Consultants, who are the master planners for the university.

Mr Yeo and the NU board is expected to review the progress of university development plans at a meeting tomorrow (Jan 30), reported Indian media.

Up for discussion and action are the awarding of a contract to build the campus, which will be located about 12km from the original site. Other matters for discussion include the third intake of students (2016-2017), increasing foreign funding and starting a third school for Buddhist studies, comparative religions and philosophy this year.

Two schools that are already in operation teach historical studies, ecology and environment studies. NU launched its first academic session in September 2014. The university, which has a modest number of 65 students now, is aiming for a four-fold enrollment increase this year.

It expects to see interest in Buddhist studies from students in Southeast-Asian countries, an official told an Indian newspaper.

NU also aims to roll out schools for linguistics and literature, international relations and peace studies; information science and technology; economics and management; and public health in the coming years.

Related: Renew the promise of Nalanda

Helping to shape up the Vatican

Apart from this board appointment at the WEF, Mr Yeo also sits on the Nicolas Berggruen Institute's 21st Century Council and the International Advisory Board of IESE Business School. He is also a non-official member of the Hong Kong Economic Development Commission.

A devout Catholic and well-respected in diplomatic circles, Mr Yeo was appointed in 2014 by Pope Francis to an eight-person commission tasked to recommend changes to the administrative and financial structure of the Vatican, which was plagued by financial and other scandals.

The social media posts by Mr Yeo, who has a Facebook following of over 95,000, reflect his deep interest in world peace, the fostering of good ties among nations and inter-faith harmony.

He noted in a post on Jan 27 that the Iranian President had asked Pope Francis to "pray for him" during his visit to the Vatican. To that, Mr Yeo quipped: "Pray for me too!'

The former army general and ex-politician, who served Singapore for more than 20 years as a cabinet minister in many portfolios, also highlighted on Facebook the Japanese Emperor Akihito's historic visit to the Philippines as part of his international peace efforts.

Still brimming with youthful enthusiasm, the former face and voice of the ruling People's Action Party's youth wing launched his book containing his past speeches and writings last year. It is titled "George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao".

One of the passages that stands out encapsulates his identity and beliefs: "My core values are Chinese and Christian. As a Chinese, I am both Confucianist and Taoist… And, as a Christian, I believe in love as the highest virtue in life and the sanctity of the individual."