Echo Buzz: Musings With George Yeo

At the highly anticipated book launch event, ‘From Thoughts to Pages: Launch of George Yeo: Musings,’ Echo had the honour of interviewing the esteemed Former Foreign Affairs Minister of Singapore, George Yeo. The atmosphere was brimming with intellectual curiosity as we delved into a discussion that transcended the pages of his newly unveiled work. Now, allow us to present the exclusive conversation that encapsulates the essence of his profound insights and reflections.

EchoMedia at the book launch with Mr. George Yeo 

Q: You’ve served in various ministries – Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What strategies did you employ to promote Singapore as a hub for innovation, technology, and education on the global stage?

A: Well, it was about leveraging our strengths while being realistic about our capabilities. We positioned ourselves strategically, recognizing the changing trends in information and technology, and focused on areas where we could excel. Knowing how our interests match global advancements helps us navigate and participate effectively in these developments. 

Q: What were the most significant leadership challenges you faced during your leadership and how did you address them?

A: One of the major challenges was navigating the fine line between national interest and international relations. It needed a careful touch, involving detailed diplomacy to keep trust and balance without giving up our stance on crucial matters. We worked to align our priorities with global partnerships, making decisions that matched our nation’s vision while building cooperative ties with other countries. It meant skillfully navigating through multifaceted geopolitical landscapes, sticking to our stand on key issues, and forming friendly alliances for shared progress and stability.

After the interview with Mr. George Yeo

Q: As Minister of Information, Communications & Art, you liberalised the use of local dialects in Singaporean media. How do you feel about the declining use of dialects in younger generations?  

A: Finding the right balance is tricky. We value our cultural heritage but also recognize the need to adapt to the present. Our approach has been gradual, promoting cultural preservation while acknowledging the trend towards a more standardised language. Realism is key, showing interest in dialects, and allocating resources sensibly – it’s a process. Everyone has their preferences, and it’s like that with languages too. English is not a must-know, but its widespread use makes it beneficial. Similarly, speaking Tamil may not be easy, but we hope future generations will inherit it naturally over time.

Q: Can you share any personal experiences or anecdotes that highlight the dynamics of the Singapore-Malaysia relationship during your leadership? 

A: There were tense moments, especially regarding territorial disputes. However, dialogue and diplomacy played crucial roles. The resolution of these issues often involved intricate negotiations and mutual respect. During a critical negotiation between Singapore and Malaysia, a significant issue came up regarding a railway line. There seemed to be a disagreement concerning the terms of the contract from Singapore’s perspective. Despite Singapore insisting there wasn’t an issue, a prolonged standoff persisted. I emphasised the need to clarify uncertainties and suggested finding a mutually beneficial solution—a win-win approach. Generosity and fair dealing were key values, seeking a resolution that provided benefits to both parties.

Q: There was a speech you made at the Danube Institute that highlighted the thought of “Family name first” – would you say that the family name [Yeo] comes before the individual for yourself?

A: Both are part of me, and I cannot choose. You may ask, why is it the father’s name and not the mother’s name – but that’s tradition. If you break the tradition, you stand the risk of being ostracised. For most of us, we may not believe everything in our culture, but we respect it nonetheless. 

Q: Do you have any regrets in your career that you wish you could go back and undo now? 

A: Others have asked me this question, and I have not had any difficulty thinking through it. When you make a decision, it is with the best information available to you. When you look back, you have new information. I would not have deliberately done something wrong. But you make mistakes. A mistake I made once was: I met an American Secretary of State. She had travelled a long distance, and I knew that. I said “Oh, you must be very tired,” and she reacted on the supposition that she looked bad. I shouldn’t have said that, and I’ve learned my lesson. I should’ve said, “I know you’ve had a long flight, it’s amazing how you keep up”. It’s the little things you learn when you make mistakes. 

Q: Today we’ve witnessed the launch of your new book, Musings. What do you hope to achieve from these books, and is it about your personal legacy or guiding future leaders? 

A: It’s a mix of everything – it’s almost like having a conversation with a good friend. We talk about views, reflections, friends, incidents, mistakes that we’ve made, funny anecdotes; it makes for an easier read. My approach is, “This is what I think and feel, you don’t have to agree, these are my views. I am not trying to force anyone, but I hope they are persuaded – but it’s all right if you disagree.” It’s a lighter approach, it made the writing easier, but it required more embellishment. The more anecdotes, the better. Anecdotes bring the book to life, rather than a series of arguments. The pictures probably help. It’s about reminiscing, history, and geography. At times it’s a travelogue, sometimes it’s sketching the people you’ve met. It’s a freer format than a memoir or an autobiography. 

Q: Would you have anything to say to your readers? What do you hope they take away from your book? 

A: It’s written at the back of the book, actually. I hope they find resonance, and connect to me too, and know that I’ve experienced the same things before. If there is chemistry between the writer and the reader, then there will be a relationship, an impact. Many people have read the book, and that has touched me greatly because it shows they’ve resonated with my writing. Sometimes they say, “I, too, have my family history”, or “I have had the same problem before” – that’s wonderful. That’s sharing, right? 

As the event neared its end, a long line formed to have Mr. George Yeo sign copies of his books. He interacted with an assortment of fans, both young and old, and kept a firm and friendly smile throughout. Even though Yeo has closed the chapter on his political career, he has embarked on an exciting one as a writer, sharing his various experiences with the rest of the world, time and time again. 

Written By: Ruby & Ashley

Edited By: Tarini

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