Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the book launch of "George Yeo’s Musings - Series 3" on 31 August 2023.
George and Jennifer Yeo,
Tai Ho, Doreen and friends
Hwee Nee and I are very happy to join all of you here this evening.
In the foreword to Musings: Series Three, George writes, “Sometimes I feel like a piece of flotsam swept along by the tide of big and small history. All of us are flotsam on the same great river of life…. Along our voyage down the river, we encounter other pieces of flotsam who become companions and fellow travellers.”
When George invited me to speak at today’s launch, I was honoured. He didn’t tell me why I was invited, but I got a clue when I saw the foreword – could it be because I’m a fellow piece of flotsam?
We have indeed shared some adventures. We were fellow travellers in the early 2000s when George was Minister for Trade and Industry, and I was the Deputy Secretary and then Permanent Secretary.
I realised, perhaps I was invited here to share my voyage with George during our 4 years together in MTI, and the subsequent journeys that brought us together from time to time.
And no doubt, all of you here are also fellow travellers with George, and have interesting stories to tell.
Years before we floated together, George was floating ahead of me in university. We were in the same college in the UK, but George was several years ahead of me.
An interesting story that I heard later was that the light in George’s room was on till the early hours of the morning. This fellow traveller had thought that George, an engineering student, was burning midnight oil over his studies. George was a brilliant student, and I was curious why he had to work so hard.
I solved the mystery years later, when we were working together in MTI. Travelling together with him to engage many leaders in the region and beyond, I found that he had a remarkable knowledge of the history of each place we visited, and engaged his hosts deeply on many issues, past and present. At one of our dinner conversations, I found out that although George was an engineering student, the lights in his room were on till morning because George was so absorbed in reading about the history of various civilisations, and reflecting on the forces shaping the fate of people through the ages.
In fact, his interests range widely, as you can see from this book’s eclectic musings on anything from geopolitics to genetic science to Taijigong and the construction of a concert hall. I think of George as a Renaissance man in the breadth of his interests and depth of understanding of a wide range of subjects.
George has translated his deep interest in arts and culture into important legacies for Singapore.
During his time at MITA (the then-Ministry for Information and the Arts), this lovely Concert Hall where we are now, together with Victoria Theatre, Old Parliament House and Empress Place, were gazetted as National Monuments, and later refurbished. Together, they now form an important cultural complex.
George also undertook a bold initiative, to create a brand-new cultural complex – what Singaporeans lovingly dub as “The Durian” – the Esplanade Concert Hall and Esplanade Theatre.
I do not know whether the architecture of the new cultural complex holds any special meaning behind it. But I think it’s fitting that cultural endeavours prompt us to reflect and appreciate, and that we get to the succulent fruits only if we are prepared to overcome our fear of the spiky exterior.
Besides hardware, George also updated our software, through his relaxation of censorship, and support for many creative groups to shape a distinctive Singapore voice, drawing on the diverse elements of our multi-cultural society.
Thanks to this reshaping of our arts and culture landscape, we now enjoy a range of performance arts spaces, and a dynamic arts and culture scene. Besides bringing joy to audiences, I find it so heartening to see many young Singaporeans excelling on the global stage in the various performing arts.
Some of these stories are shared in several chapters of Musings 3.
Another important way that George translated his deep interest and knowledge of history and global affairs into a legacy for Singapore is the network of free trade agreements and economic partnerships that he initiated. It is a fascinating story of policy entrepreneurship at its finest, and I am privileged to witness and be involved in it.
By the turn of the millennium, support for free trade and globalisation was waning. For Singapore, this was a serious concern, as we thrive on free trade. When George was selected by fellow Ministers to chair the Agriculture Working Group at the Seattle Ministerial Conference in 1999, George agreed, knowing full well that agriculture was a politically sensitive topic for many countries.
The meetings were tough, and went around the clock, amidst a backdrop of protests against globalisation, and sharply divergent interests of countries where farmers were a major political force. George was astute and persistent in finding common ground amid this diversity of interests. He shares those details in this book.
Ultimately, though no new round was launched at Seattle, George did succeed in negotiating a draft text that all parties could agree with.
I joined MTI in 2000, and joined George for the next WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001. Coming after the failure and protests in Seattle against free trade, and shortly after 9-11, it was very tense, with heightened security.
The disagreements on agriculture continued. George nevertheless played a key role in forging agreement on agriculture, as well as in other parts of the negotiations, such as pharmaceuticals. Against great odds, the Doha Round was launched. At that meeting, China was admitted as the 143rd WTO member. It was a major turning point in the global economy.
George’s ability to find common grounds amidst diverse interest and to seek a way forward was, in my view, a critical reason why he managed to play such a key role on the global stage.
But even after the launch of the Doha Round, progress was painfully slow. George realised that left on its own, the momentum for free trade would continue to stall, with grave implications for Singapore. With a very creative mind, he initiated our first Free Trade Agreement or FTA – with another small but like-minded economy – New Zealand.
For the next few years, I remember travelling around the world with George, to persuade other economies to embark on FTAs with us. Some of our counterparts in ASEAN were unhappy as it looked like Singapore was breaking ranks. I remember, as the Permanent Secretary, having to respond to articles in the media on our stance. Later, when the ASEAN Ministers agreed to launch the ASEAN Economic Community, I was in the trenches with my counterparts to hammer out the agreement. It was heartening for me to see my counterparts embracing the idea so wholeheartedly.
One agreement followed another, and the momentum took off. It was a whole-of-government effort, with officials in MFA, MTI and various ministries all pitching in.
Today, we have a network of 27 Free Trade Agreements – bilateral and regional. In a more contested world, these FTAs are valuable assets for Singapore.
So it’s interesting to read, in the opening pages of this latest series, New Zealand Chief Negotiator Tim Grosser calling the Singapore-New Zealand FTA the ‘first building block of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’. Yet, I recall that when the FTA was launched, there were many snide remarks about to what two small economies could do for world trade.
Indeed, the small acorn that George planted has grown into a big oak tree.
I have spent some time recounting these, as I believe what George has achieved with the FTAs is closely related to a core question that was always on the mind of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee’s birth.
In this latest Musings, George recounted over two chapters, working with Lee Kuan Yew, and reflecting on Mr Lee’s contributions to Singapore. Mr Lee’s core question was – how does a tiny state, with no resources of any kind, survive and prosper? Mr Lee’s answer – strive to make Singapore useful and relevant to the world, notwithstanding our size.
What George did as the Minister in MTI shows how a Minister with a lively and creative mind can keep Singapore relevant and useful to the world.
At Doha, he was able to forge agreement among many competing and divergent interests.
Later, when we embarked on persuading countries to have FTAs with us, I saw how his deep knowledge of the history, politics and culture of each place he visited enabled him to engage and connect with his hosts in a deep and meaningful way. It was the business of trade, but his interest went beyond trade. People were always very charmed by his respect for their history and cultures.
I believe George holds a genuine respect and deep appreciation for, I would say, every culture and tribe. Indeed, you can see this in the whole collection of Musings. Across the 3 series, we are treated to George’s scholarship on countries and cultures around the world, and hear his stories as he seeks to continually deepen his understanding.
I can go on about the many other changes he initiated or supported while we were at MTI, including almost a complete re-naming and re-orientation of all the statutory boards under MTI. From the Trade Development Board to IE Singapore which I was personally involved in; to the transformation of NSTB to A*STAR and giving the space to Philip Yeo to revamp our entire science and technology strategy; to the re-organisation of the Productivity and Standards Board to SPRING Singapore. I recall Mr Lee Kuan Yew wondering whether this was all part of a dot.com madness! We had to assure him that it was genuine transformation!
A Renaissance man and an innovator. A creative thinker and a problem solver. George seeks out knowledge, he thinks out of the box, he breaks barriers and breaks down silos.
a. At the core of it all, what has he sought to do? To connect across historical and cultural divides and to build bridges that bring different interests and points of view together, to lead us to new possibilities.
One of the ways to build bridges is through sharing his thoughts and experiences with others, as George is doing through these books.
When George left MTI to join MFA, we prepared a farewell gift for him - a compilation of the speeches he’d made while at MTI.
Anyone who has worked with George can tell you he is an extremely good speechwriter. Most of the time at MTI, he wrote his speeches himself, and very quickly, filling them with unexpected connections between different worlds and ideas, and interesting anecdotes.
When we passed the bound copy of his speeches to George, we encouraged him to have his speeches published. I’m glad to see that this little gift that we presented to him has sort of served as a prototype for Musings.
But sharing his musings is even better than sharing his speeches, as George is able to write as well about his family and his faith, two important pillars of his life. He writes with openness and earnestness about them in Series 2 of Musings. Here, I would like to express my admiration for the strength and devotion of key members of George’s life, his wife Jennifer, and his four children – Edwina, Edward, William and Frederick.
Jennifer and their four children have not only floated along the river of life together, they have gone through rapids. Jennifer chooses to emerge from these challenges by showing gratitude and extending help to others, through the VIVA Foundation, which is their family’s way of thanksgiving. It is a family story that is so inspiring. Thank you Jennifer for your courage and sharing, including most recently your interview with the Sunday Times.
George writes about this shared river, “Life is a journey which has meaning because we share it with others. From those ahead of us, we learn. To those behind us, we leave a trail.”
I couldn’t agree more. And here I add my own words: With those beside us, we build bridges.
I hope I’ve managed to put across today that, above all – scholar, soldier, philosopher, negotiator, trailblazer – George is a bridge-builder.
That is what I’ve learnt from him, and what I admire and appreciate about him.
In his many years of public service, George has made many valuable contributions, and I touched on just a fraction of this during our voyage together at MTI.
The three volumes of Musings, totaling more than 350,000 words, is a generous sharing. They invite us to reflect on our life, our relationship to others, on the wonders and diversity around us, and on Singapore’s past, present and future.
It is a generous and valuable contribution which I am sure will be of immense value to all readers – Singaporeans and those overseas.
George, congratulations on the launch of Musings: Series Three today. Hats off to you on the hard work you put into this collection of musings. I hope your books will indeed leave a trail and continue to build bridges. Congratulations!
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