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Former minister George Yeo speaks about the launch of the final part of his trilogy, Musings — Series Three

 Rash Behari Bhattacharjee
Rash Behari Bhattacharjee • 5 min read
Former minister George Yeo speaks about the launch of the final part of his trilogy, Musings — Series Three
In the third volume, Yeo narrates edgy experiences like his complex relationship with Lee Kuan Yew and relaxation of censorship
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The publication of Musings — Series Three in August saw the culmination of a massive project that began in 2021 with a suggestion from media veteran Woon Tai Ho. The founder of Channel NewsAsia proposed a series of interviews with veteran politician George Yeo, 69, to gather his insights into the many global and local events in which he played a public role and his intriguing personal interests, such as the importance of harmonising our energy with the larger qi field.

We get a sense of why the first and second volumes of Musings were in high demand — Series One was on the bestseller list for seven months — when Yeo answers the question, “In the past, the peoples of Southeast Asia did not have such hardline views about identity as they do today, but were pragmatic about trade and exchange, and saw opportunities for making money. What examples have they shown of coexistence and cooperation for mutual benefit?” with “It can be shared. It need not be a zero sum, and very often it can be a positive sum.”

“Wang Gangwu, the great scholar, said once, ‘Singapore is where the mandalas of India and China overlap’. I thought that was a beautiful description. I’ve borrowed his idea and said that all of Southeast Asia is where the mandalas of India, China and the West overlap in different intensities, in Singapore, Malaysia, Indochina, Myanmar and Indonesia, creating the variegation that we see in Southeast Asia today. But in each of them, if you were to analyse the source radiation, it’s always India, China and the West.”

Even as a student in Cambridge University, Yeo pursued a love for the social history and culture of different nations alongside his chosen discipline, engineering. He reportedly often burnt the midnight oil reading about these subjects, a habit that caught the attention of his peers at university.

In later years, when Yeo’s official responsibilities took him around the world, his counterparts in far-flung nations would express appreciation for his deep understanding of their historical perspectives, which he was able to reflect in an insightful manner in proposing progressive proposals to address current problems.

At home in Singapore, this empathy manifested in an affinity with the Eurasian community. “After E W Barker stepped down from the cabinet, I was asked by the Eurasian community to represent them in the cabinet, which was a very great honour for me. Till today, I’m a patron of the Eurasian Association. So, I feel a very strong bond with them and they with me,” says Yeo.

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That closeness arose from an early association with the community through his Roman Catholic upbringing and his father’s active involvement with the Rosary movement of the republic’s Katong district.

Another experience of his formative years that left a deep impression on Yeo came via his mother, who married his father in China when she was 19. A month later, she left the country when mainland China was invaded by the Japanese in July 1937. She could not go back until China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping opened up the country in 1978.

“I was told that during the years of famine [in China], she and her sister had pork lard salted, put into kerosene tins and sent home, which kept many people going during the terrible years. This was probably in the 1960s,” says Yeo.

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He was referring to the large 18-litre cans ubiquitously used in that period for supplying liquids such as kerosene fuel and cooking oil and edibles like biscuits to retail shops. Once empty, these were resold for household use or despatching food items, like Yeo’s mother did.

“I grew up with a certain sense of China from her perspective. In 1983, I accompanied my folks back to China and met my grandparents on my mother’s side for the first time. That visit was very emotional for me because it was something I had heard about and felt was an important part of myself.

“That, to me, was a very important influence on my life — my mother,” says Yeo.

This topic was covered in Series One of the trilogy, which was published by World Scientific in August last year. Series Two, released in February this year, starts with his stint in the Vatican’s Council for the Economy in 2014, dwells on Islam’s struggles, then ranges over European affairs and the changing tides in different global vortices.

In the third volume, over 457 pages, Yeo narrates edgy experiences like his complex relationship with Singapore’s first premier Lee Kuan Yew, the relaxation of censorship under his watch at the new Ministry of Information and the Arts, and esoteric matters like the importance of paying attention to the qi field, which affects individual and social behaviour.

Before entering politics, Yeo served in Singapore’s military, rising to the rank of brigadier-general and taking over premier Lee Hsien Loong’s role as the then director of the Defence Ministry’s joint operations and planning directorate.

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Yeo spent 23 years in the cabinet, helming the ministries of information and the arts; health; trade and industry; and foreign affairs.

He left the political arena following his defeat in the 2011 general election, when he lost the contest for the Aljunied GRC constituency in the watershed polls that led to the resignations of senior minister Goh Chok Tong and Kuan Yew.

The spirit in which Yeo wrote the trilogy is expressed in his foreword, thus: “They do not constitute a biography or memoir … I have no theory to expound. There is history, but not from the perspective of a historian.”

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