Thursday, May 12, 2011

Q&A with George Yeo on GE2011 results

May 12, 2011

Revitalising a movement that created Singapore

Foreign Minister George Yeo met the press on Tuesday. Below is an edited excerpt from his remarks at the press conference

Did you think the Workers' Party would win with such a decisive margin? And also, you said that you will help in whatever way you can to help transform the PAP. What are some of the key factors you'll bring up?

We thought from the outset that it will be a tight contest. We never expected that the margin would be what it was. In fact, right up to the eve of Cooling-off Day, I think the general feeling among many people, and I'm told among bookies too, was that it will be a tight contest.

The People's Action Party will be taking a hard look at itself, soul-searching as to how our society has changed and why there was this resentment against the Government.

And we've got to work at this so that we can achieve a new unity in Singapore. A new unity which also embraces, engages, involves the young. That's very important, otherwise we'll be a divided society, which will not be good for Singapore.

You spoke about the need to re-attach Singaporeans to the Government as far back as when you first entered politics. So over the last 23 years, how much were you able to effect this in the party and Cabinet?

We must never stop adjusting to the forces of change in the world. Either we change or we'll be changed. Within the party and the Cabinet I've always kept true to that position. Of course, in a collegial system, you don't often make things public. But in my public communications, most Singaporeans would have noticed that I did not always take an orthodox position.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has indicated quite clearly and forcefully that there's a sea change. So there is recognition (now) and there has to be a response.

Both you and the Prime Minister have indicated the need for reform within the PAP. Is this view shared within the top ranks of the PAP and the Cabinet?

I think many party members feel that way. And in the coming weeks and months, there will be many discussions, debates about the way forward. We got to gather feedback from all supporters from all walks of life, from outside the party too, from the young, from the old, from the educated, from the less educated, from all classes, from all groups, and try and find a way to achieve this new unity. It's not just one or two persons.

I think it should be the revitalisation of a movement, of a movement which, in an earlier phase of great unity, created Singapore and enabled us to make the astonishing progress that we've made. What we need to do now is re-achieve a new unity so that in this century, with all the challenges of globalisation and information technology, also fragmentation, we continue to surge ahead. We're smack right in the middle of a region which is bursting with energy. If we get our domestic politics right, we'll have a very bright future.

You talked about how the Government is not hearing what the people are saying. But we actually have got a lot of feedback channels. So what exactly has gone wrong in the current system? And can you share with us how do you think the GRC still plays a part in the political landscape?

When I was at Harvard Business School, there was a course which I took called Control. It was about how an organisation achieved its objectives through feedback. We studied all manner of feedback mechanisms - audits, checks, counter-checks and so on.

In the end, the professor gave a summation which, till today, I remember: From time to time, he said, it's important to shake the box, because whatever system you set up after a while becomes so predictable that it doesn't capture all the feedback that it needs to have. So a certain shaking of the box is required from time to time - and this is such a time.

In this election, race was not an issue - and we take that for granted, as if this is a normal phenomenon. In fact, without the GRC system, political parties would be greatly tempted to take stronger racial lines, and that's not good for society. So I don't think the intellectual argument for GRC is in doubt.

The question is, how big should a GRC be. I've been a member of a three-person GRC, a four-person GRC, a five-person GRC. I must say a three-person GRC is a little small. I think four was good. Five was also nice because within the five, we have complementary strength and we could draw upon each other for assistance.

Is it good for Singapore that the opposition occupies six seats in Parliament?

I thought many Singaporeans wanted a stronger opposition voice in Parliament. They've got that. But for some reason, I think partly because of the emotional dilemma in Aljunied, somehow there's no emotional resolution, which I'm still trying to understand.

You said that you have believed for some time that the PAP needs to transform itself. Did you make any previous attempt to voice your concerns?

I see this from a different perspective. I prefer the word 'transform' to the word 'reform'. And I believe there are fundamental forces at work which affects not only Singapore but also the whole world. Technology has changed the way human society is being organised.

Once you have the iPhone in your pocket, with all that computational capability and the ability to communicate in real time, relationships change. And it changes everything and everywhere - the family, the relationship between parents and children, between teachers and students, between ministers and citizens, between monks and followers.

Hierarchies are breaking down, a process of disintermediation. And it's creating a lot of angst in the world. People feel alienated because of fragmentation.

They find their friends on the Internet and they link up worldwide. The old methods of democracy based on geographical definition don't always work well.

For instance, when the campaign started, someone from the Cat Welfare Association e-mailed me to say, 'Look, can you speak up for us?', because in one of my residents' committees, when cats were being culled and the residents appealed to me, we accommodated them in a modest way and they were grateful. There are no votes in my constituency if I count only the cat lovers in my constituency. But as a group in Singapore, they are strong and they advocate the cause.

And we're finding more and more special interest groups who advocate their specific causes stridently and are very often quite prepared to vote around the cause which they believe passionately. I don't think present forms of democracy in the world quite capture these new passions in a satisfactory way.

If you flip over to the other side, to traditional relationships, in an urban setting with fragmentation, you need a new way to link human beings together so that they feel calm, at ease, that admits all the changes in the world, but still rooted to family and to community. But it can no longer just be to geographic community because we're all not only living in geographical communities.

So it's complicated and it's a challenge which all countries, all organisations, face, not just the PAP.

I would venture to say that the Darwinian process is at work - that those who are able to adjust to these new patterns most effectively will gain a great advantage over those who are trapped in the 20th century. In this transformation, the PAP will have to take into account not just this GE but the new forces which now operate in the world.

Would there be a change in the way the PAP engages different interest groups?

The PAP is a broad church, so always, there is a lot of debate within. I'm part of that debate. I'm often a minority voice but there are others who share my views too. This internal debate has to continue.

You said that you were a minority voice... within the party. Do you feel you've now become a majority voice?

No, I won't say that I'm always a minority voice. Sometimes, I'm part of the majority voice. So there are issues where I'm in the minority and there are issues where a majority supported me. It's an ongoing debate. And I must say the PM keeps an open mind.

Even the Prime Minister's apology at Boat Quay - he came down to Kaki Bukit and after the walkabout, we sat down for coffee and we were reviewing the progress of the campaign so far. I told him that there was deep resentment which had to be acknowledged, not just cursorily but in detail; and it was not just a question about policies, it was not just the minds we were addressing, we had to address their hearts too.

He listened very hard... and later he told me that it was because of that conversation that he took that position at Boat Quay.

So I'm a voice, sometimes it's in the minority, sometimes it's part of the majority.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has questioned whether or not the Workers' Party would be in Parliament to serve Singaporeans or to oppose the PAP. What challenge would the WP's entry into Parliament pose? Second, do you feel as though the voice of the younger people was the cause of your downfall in this election?

What Parliament will be in this new term will be interesting. Pity I won't be there to be part of that. I've no doubts that the objective of the Workers' Party would be to further strengthen its position in Singapore and the positions they take - what they support and what they oppose.

This is not surprising because it's (true) for all political parties too. It is an adversarial system in Parliament and you don't want to have the ruling party score more points and win more votes in the next election because that's to your disadvantage. That's the calculus and it's to be expected.

Younger voters: I think nationally, there was a swing among younger voters against the PAP. My own guess is that the swing was less in Aljunied GRC. So while I hear anecdotally that in some constituencies you could feel their antagonism viscerally, in Aljunied GRC, if there was an opposition against us, it was expressed almost in apologetic terms.

I'm sure many of them did vote against me but the national outcome could not be explained by the votes of the young alone. I think it was across the board.

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