Yaacob Ibrahim, Member of Parliament, speaks from the backbench for his first time in 20 years

And the things he said weren't boring at all.

Martino Tan| February 28, 06:03 PM

"Even though you are retiring as a Minister, I am happy that you will continue to serve your residents and contribute to Singapore in other ways", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told former Minister Yaacob Ibrahim in his valedictory letter in April last year.

Indeed, this was what Yaacob did on Wednesday, February 27, on day two of the 2019 Budget debates.

Unlike some of our former ministers who typically become less prominent in parliament after retirement, Yaacob Ibrahim, MP from Jalan Besar GRC, rose from the back-bench to share some interesting suggestions for Budget 2019.

It is an unfamiliar place for our ministers to see Yaacob speaking from.

And look, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat both turned their heads back, almost as if they were doing double-takes at the sight of him standing where he was.

Now, why was it so jarring for them? It's because Yaacob entered politics in January 1997 as a back-bencher but has been an office-holder (Parliamentary Secretary, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Minister of State, Minister) for the last two decades.

Speaking as an insider

And he put that extensive time spent on the inside to good use, it seems — in his speech, Yaacob made interesting observations on growing the economy and on the Singapore bicentennial.

Quite early on, he said he did not want to hog the limelight, and would only share his views on these two issues.

Is he well-placed to speak about them? We imagine that with his experience in government, he would understand the challenges ahead of them in terms of transforming the economy.

So crucial Yaacob views this to be that he goes as far as to equate a successful evolution of our economy to the continued survival of Singapore.

"I do not pretend it is an easy thing to do, something which Minister Heng acknowledged in his speech. Having been involved in this process in my previous incarnation, I can see the necessity of transformation. (emphasis ours)"

A suggestion, and a reminder

Yaacob proposed a way to build up the entrepreneurial culture in the heartlands: develop a space most Singaporeans are familiar with — void decks.

On our bicentennial commemorations, Yaacob reminded the House that Singaporeans need to "recognise both the good and the bad" of our colonial past, and to acknowledge that different communities have different historical experiences and memories.

"If we are to build an inclusive society, as mentioned by the Minister for Finance, Mr Heng Swee Keat, then we need to ensure that inclusivity applies not just how we view the here and now, but also how we view our history as a people. We need to acknowledge that different communities have different historical experiences and memories. We need to recognise both the good and the bad."

Interestingly, as a Malay, Yaacob also raised a "burden of history" that the Malay community carries, the myth of "being lazy and unable to study hard" — something he said his teachers would dismiss him for.

"It is unjust and unfair. If we are to commemorate the bicentennial we must also recognise the less savoury aspects of it – practices and ideas designed to meet the needs and maximise the profits of the empire at the expense of the indigenous population."

He said the government could also consider looking at our history curriculum in schools to ensure that students are well-versed in pre-colonial history as well as a deeper understanding of the region.

"I would also add that our history is intertwined with the history of the region. Our history points to certain truths about this region and Singapore. That I think is a point that needs to be stressed more by this commemoration. In this way, more, especially our young, understand how Singapore has been and will continue to be a part of the larger region, tapping on its good location and the talent of our diverse peoples to provide a peaceful hub for mutually beneficial trade and commerce."

"I'm a party man"

Yaacob's refreshing approach to "post-retirement" participation may seem surprising, considering that retired ministers typically leave politics after their current term of office ends, but if recent coverage on him is anything to go by, it appears that he still has much to contribute.

When directly asked by Channel NewsAsia if he will be running as an MP in the next election, his reply was:

"You have to ask the Prime Minister that".

While he told CNA that his family wanted him to step down, he nonetheless added that he is a "party man".

Yaacob said he will wait on instructions from PM Lee before prioritising other aspects of his life accordingly.

We like what he's had to say in this one speech already, though, so we hope MP Yaacob can continue to contribute his good ideas beyond this term.

The new anchor minister at Jalan Besar GRC can do with a wise man on his or her team, just like what Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has been doing at Marine Parade GRC.

Editor’s note: A remark made by Yaacob in his parliament speech is edited for clarity.

Top photo from Gov.sg YouTube.