We all know that former foreign minister George Yeo prefers to do things differently.
Despite losing at the 2011 General Election (GE) for what some may argue was a greater purpose, he now works for some pretty awesome people — Pope Francis and Malaysia's richest man Robert Kuok, just to name two — and undertakes cool projects like leading the historical Nalanda University in India.
He was probably not watching the SEA Games opening ceremony, for he was a guest at a dialogue session organised by Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao on Friday night. The dialogue was moderated by Wanbao Editor Lee Huay Leng, who is also the editor of his new book - "George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao”.
Yeo shared some fascinating never-before-heard nuggets about his life, thoughts and philosophy on various things important to us.
Here is our pick of the lot:
1. He doesn't cry, even when everyone else is, and it's his loss they are crying over:
When asked to recount his historic defeat in Aljunied, and how he felt about it, Yeo said he sensed it as early as on cooling-off day, and also on polling day, he could tell from the mood at polling centres he visited.
"When the ballot papers were poured out, I could sense it didn't look good — we could see where the crosses were," he said. By about 9 or 10pm, he concluded his loss was "clear", and congratulated Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang when he met him at a counting centre later on. There was also a tender moment when he dwelt on how two of his four children, who were following the results live on television with their schoolmates overseas at the time, had to force a smile in response to the news.
Here's the funny bit, though:
"I'm a bit philosophical. I have this tendency when I'm doing something, to detach myself and see myself. So I'm never very happy, I'm never very sad because of this. So I knew the larger reasons why the election results were that way. All around people were crying. I went to the office, people were crying. So I went back, I told my wife, I said, 'how come I'm not crying; (is there) something wrong with me?'"
2. He accepted a job without knowing what exactly he would be doing, and without a contract:
To be entirely fair, this was a job with Robert Kuok, who is only worth about S$14.65 billion. Yeo tells the fascinating story of how he got to know him:
"I spent four months at (Peking University) as a visiting scholar. During this period, Mr Robert Kuok, who heard I was thinking of the presidency, said 'Don't do it; it's not for you.' Now Mr Robert Kuok, I knew since 1989. He was in Singapore and he asked a friend, he said "Introduce to some of the new ministers." So he hosted me to a dinner at the Shangri-la hotel, and as a young man at 34, 35 years old, I was very flattered, because he was a big name. But I found him to be very deep and wise."
And how he netted his job with him:
"I would never have asked him for a job. A Singaporean friend asked him, 'Why not offer George a job?' and he knew me, so he did. I said, 'What am I going to do?' And he said, 'You just join first, round pegs will find round holes,' he said. We didn't even negotiate a contract at the time! So he wanted to take me on immediately, but I said no, I want to go to (Peking) first, and then joined him afterwards.
3. He threw a celebratory dinner for a group of university students who helped him break through the Great Firewall of China:
When I was in Beida (Peking University), I told myself I will go back to becoming a student. For some of the time I was alone. I operated my own washing machine, which needed a kick to get started. I took the train, and the Singapore students in Beida were so good, they looked after me. I said I can't post on Facebook, so one night five of them came to my room to help me set up my VPN to break out of China. They could not, because I was a professor, so I had a higher grade internet plan with stronger firewalls. So they were calling people in Singapore and so on. Finally at 1am, ha! I got through. Later on I had dinner for all of them, including the Singaporean people, just to celebrate the event. I posted on my Facebook: "Finally, light at the end of the tunnel!" I think the Chinese authorities who must've been monitoring me, they would have laughed.
4. He feels we perhaps should blame ourselves for Amos Yee turning out the way he has:
"If you break the law there are penalties, but the government cannot perform a parenting role — only parents can, and not just parents but relative, uncles and friends. They say it takes a village to raise a child. And it's something we all should think about. It's not just a family: it's a classroom, neighbours, relatives...
So let's think about this. The Amos Yee case. Whom do we blame? Do we blame Amos Yee? Do we blame the parents — they've tried, we know that — do we blame ourselves? Do we blame teachers? Something to think about. If it takes a village to raise a child, when the child grows up wrong, should we not also blame the village?"
5. He learned from a nun at the Vatican that it is good to be busy, especially when you get older:
"I've been going to the Vatican every month for meetings, and one day after going through quite a torturous transit and arriving, I went to have lunch and there was this nun from India, a Malayali nun, and she said how are you? Because everytime we see each other we hug each other. I said I'm very busy, and she looked at me and said, "Busy is good!" And suddenly I felt happy... if busy is good then I'm good!
It's not a bad thing to be busy. Many people when they grow older, they have a lot of time. They're waiting for people to contact them, waiting for people to ask them to do things. A good friend of mine said, the worst thing about growing old is to feel that you are no longer of use... So to be busy is good and we should not be too concerned about asking older people to do things for us. They are happy. So busy is good."
6. He rejected a GIC/Temasek job offer from the late Lee Kuan Yew:
At the dialogue, Mr Yeo also revealed more about his months post-GE11.
"But moving out of politics into the private sector, I didn't want to move out immediately, because if I were to join a local company, people will say it's kelong (local slang for 'cheating'). Some people were very kind and actually offered me high positions with their companies, so I said no no no, thank you. (Then) Minister Mentor, he said 'I need help in GIC or Temasek', so I told him, I think I'll try my luck in the private sector!"
So there you have it. Even though he doesn't appear to be returning to politics anytime soon, Singaporeans can be pretty satisfied that we can count among our ranks one heck of a badass in this 60-year-old.