S'poreans now more vocal: George Yeo

Singaporeans are more vocal today than they were in the 1990s, a change that also brings new tensions and possibilities, said former foreign minister George Yeo yesterday.

He attributed the "much healthier" civic participation these days to two factors: the Government "letting go'' to some extent and new technology like social media "allowing sunlight to break through".

His remark on the effect of social media recalls a seminal speech he made in 1991 when he used the analogy of the state as a banyan tree, calling for it to be pruned to let the sun through so that the undergrowth - or civic society - will not be stultified.

"Old hierarchies are being undermined by its disintermediating effect," said Mr Yeo, now aged 60 and chairman of logistics firm Kerry Logistics Network after quitting politics in 2011.

These include relationships between children and parents, students and teachers, and citizens and the Government.

He added: "In the past, it was based on hierarchies. (But) this structure is being undermined, corroded by technology, creating more web-like relations.

"So one has to be prepared to learn from others, the old from the young, from peers."

Mr Yeo was one of the first politicians in Singapore to adopt social media, joining Facebook in 2008.

The banyan features in the title of the 686-page book of his speeches: George Yeo On Bonsai, Banyan And The Tao. It was officially launched yesterday, although it has been in major bookstores since last month.

Mr Yeo led the team at Aljunied GRC, which the People's Action Party lost to the Workers' Party in the 2011 general election.

Yesterday, he declined to comment on Singapore politics, saying he retains a passive interest in it and takes a "more detached" view.

"I'm not involved in grassroots politics in Aljunied," he said, adding that he is not in a position to give advice to the PAP team in the GRC.

The book launch was attended by about 600 people, including Mr Yeo's former parliamentary colleagues and businessmen.

The guest of honour was Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who spoke about the revived Nalanda University in India in a 20-minute speech and his relationship with Mr Yeo, who will succeed him as the university's chancellor next week.

Said Dr Sen: "We see George's intellect in the book in all kinds of ways... (and) even before he became chancellor he was an extraordinarily indispensable member of the board, in how to up the institution, how to take difficult decisions and how to proceed from there."


This article was first published on July 10, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.