George Yeo: No To Parliamentary Politics, Maybe To Presidency

Squashing the prospect of him returning to the rough and tumble of parliamentary politics, former Cabinet Minister George Yeo has said that he has no desire to return to his old stomping ground, even as the clock ticks towards the next General Election.

However, he is leaving the door open – albeit just slightly – for a potential run for the presidency.

“My position is the same. I don’t see myself going back into parliamentary politics,” he told TODAY. “For presidential politics, I’ve kept that open but I don’t see myself going into presidential politics either.”

In a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday (Jun 3) for a new book of his past speeches and writings – George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao, a 686-page tome that has already sold more than 3,000 copies in two weeks and is into its second print run – Mr Yeo reiterated he does not feel himself temperamentally suited for the role of President.

And if duty called? “One should not engage in self-flattery about duty calling. I think most people who are in politics have a certain ambition, and I don’t see myself having the ambition for presidential politics,” said Mr Yeo, 60, who nevertheless described himself as “a person very given to a sense of duty”.

In the book’s introduction, Mr Yeo had revealed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had supported his candidacy for President in the lead up to the Presidential Election in Aug 2011. But Mr Yeo bowed out when Dr Tony Tan indicated his willingness to run with the ruling party’s support. “I would only have contested out of duty, not ambition,” he wrote.

Mr Yeo had led the People’s Action Party team that lost Aljunied Group Representation Constituency to the Workers’ Party in the 2011 General Election.

After a 20-year run in Cabinet helming four ministries – he last held the position of Foreign Affairs Minister – Mr Yeo is now chairman and executive director of Kerry Logistics Network, whose head office is in Hong Kong, as well as deputy chairman of Kerry Group.

During the interview held at his office in Great World City, Mr Yeo – who is based in Hong Kong and returns to Singapore every month – said he still keeps in touch with Aljunied grassroots volunteers through meals or jogs. He shares his views when approached, “but as a commoner”, and asks others for their views in turn, he said. “I think for most people I’m a known quantity. I suppose it’s good to be consistent but one should be alive to new situations and be sensitive to changes in society and the larger environment.”

Despite spending most of his time overseas, Mr Yeo continues to keep tabs on happenings in the Republic.


Giving his observations on the “Singapore soul” – a topic he had spoken about in his seminal 1991 speech about pruning the “banyan tree” of the state institutions to allow civil society to grow – Mr Yeo said: “I think we’re going through, in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era …. a certain sense that this is where we were, we’re now in transition, but where we will be is not quite settled. And we’re feeling our way into that future.”

As an example, he brought up the case of teenage blogger Amos Yee who was convicted of posting an obscene image online and posting content intended to hurt the religious feelings of Christians. “People all feel very conflicted by it. You ask yourself, if you’re a parent, how would you feel? If you’re a teenager, how would you feel? He’s obviously very bright, it would be such a sad thing if his life were to be destroyed by some of the things he’s done or said. There should be a reaction but it should not be an overreaction,” said Mr Yeo.

“Is it possible to somehow manage it in such a way that he will grow up to be an adult who will make a big contribution to society rather than be a problem to society? I think whatever we do, we should always be motivated by a sense of wanting to do good and to save lives, which sometimes means being tough.”

On life after politics, Mr Yeo said he thought he would be in semi-retirement. Instead, he has found himself travelling as much as before. He has also taken on multiple roles: He will become chancellor of Nalanda University in India from July, and was in 2013 appointed by Pope Francis to a Vatican commission. Mr Yeo also sits on the Hong Kong chief executive’s economic development commission.

Asked if there is anything he misses about being in Government, Mr Yeo said it had a “different flavour” from the private sector, where considerations tend to be shorter-term. Being in Government, “it’s a large cause you’re working for, you take a longer term perspective”, he said. “You’re on duty all the time, wherever you are … at a hawker centre, or in a shopping centre or overseas, you’re on call 24/7. So that’s the life of a politician and you must be energised by that and not feel that it’s any imposition.”

With three of his four children residing overseas in various countries, Mr Yeo said he and his wife rely on technology to keep in touch with them. His daughter works in private equity in Singapore, while his three sons are studying in the United States, China and Britain. “The family is far flung so we keep a family WhatsApp account and try to keep each other informed and updated,” he said.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *