Former S'porean Minister George Yeo recounts his early interactions with M'sian PM Anwar Ibrahim

Yeo recalls his interactions with Anwar from the early 90s when the Malaysian politician was widely viewed as Mahathir's successor.

Mothership | February 11, 2023, 11:38 AM

George Yeo: Musings is a collection of just that: The former foreign minister’s musings across various diverse topics.

Series Two, the second of three books, looks beyond Singapore to the region and beyond, drawing from Yeo’s experiences in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. — and not just in his capacity as a former foreign minister.

The book is written by Yeo, with Woon Tai Ho, and published by World Scientific. It will be available at all major bookstores from Feb. 16, 2023, and Mothership readers can order a copy here with the promo code “WSMSGY20” for 20 per cent off.

The book is presented in a question-and-answer format. An excerpt from Chapter 18, "ASEAN Dalam: Malaysia and Brunei", is reproduced here. It features Yeo recalling his early interactions with M’sia politician Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently appointed the country’s PM.

During his trip to Singapore in 2008 after his release from prison, Anwar said in a dialogue that “books” were the only friends who kept him company in prison. He alluded to his friendship with Yeo, “Mr George Yeo sent a book he autographed when I was in prison. I was able to finish the book. If he sent it to me now, I will take months.”

By George Yeo, with Woon Tai Ho

I first met Anwar Ibrahim and Wan Azizah in Langkawi in 1990. Lee Kuan Yew was making his farewell visit to Malaysia before stepping down as Prime Minister.

In Penang, he met Tunku Abdul Rahman for the first and last time after Separation. Tunku was largely blind and wore dark glasses. He stood at the doorway to greet Lee Kuan Yew and Mrs Lee when they arrived. It was an emotional encounter.

I have never, before or after, seen Lee Kuan Yew showing so much deference to another political leader. They sat on a sofa. Tunku was slumped backwards. Lee Kuan Yew sat on the edge and looked at Tunku intently. Every sentence began or ended with ‘Tunku’. “Tunku, you remember...”, “Yes, Tunku, ... but Tunku, ...”

After the conversation, Lee Kuan Yew and his wife walked to a back room to see Tunku’s wife who was in a wheelchair. I overheard them asking each other afterwards whether Tunku’s wife showed any recognition of them.

After Penang, we accompanied Tun Daim Zainuddin in a corporate jet to Langkawi. Daim wanted Lee Kuan Yew to meet Malaysia’s future leader. Anwar shook Lee Kuan Yew’s hand and introduced Wan Azizah. For a moment, Lee Kuan Yew was not sure whether to shake Wan Azizah’s hand. Sensing his uncertainty, she stuck her hand out. I could see a certain relief on Lee Kuan Yew’s face.

Stuck in an elevator

On a visit to Singapore in 1991 as Education Minister, Anwar asked to see me.

When he arrived at the PSA Building where the Ministry of Information and the Arts was located on a high floor, I was alerted and went to the lift landing to receive him. Unfortunately, the lift jammed for about 10 minutes while he was inside.

I was greatly embarrassed when the lift door opened and apologised profusely. I made a lame comment that he could see that not everything worked in Singapore.

Anwar was his usual charming self and put me at ease. The bad start became a good start to our relationship.

Cultivated by Anwar

In 1993, I hosted lunch for Mohamed Nazri and two other leaders from UMNO Youth. He told me that Anwar would shortly take over the Malaysian Deputy Premiership from Ghafar Baba. I was sceptical as there had been no indication in the reports I read in Singapore. True enough, within a few weeks, in a lightning campaign, Anwar’s supporters propelled him into position. I never doubted Nazri again.

I was flattered to be cultivated by Anwar.

He invited me every year for a forum to discuss world affairs. It always included a few US senators, Paul Wolfowitz, Hank Greenberg and others from across the Pacific, and a few of us from the region including Ginandjar Kartasasmita and Surin Pitsuwan.

In addition to my wife, I usually brought one of my kids along. Anwar and Wan Azizah were always gracious, even to my children. Years after his troubles with Mahathir, when he met a Singaporean whom he thought would know me, he would ask after my youngest son.

The last annual forum was at the end of 1997. The Asian Financial Crisis hit Malaysia severely. Mahathir did not take Western accusations of cronyism lightly and hit back when he opened the forum. He was on the defensive. In our group call on him, he referred important questions to Anwar.

Later, at dinner, Anwar told me that he would have to “un-say” some of Mahathir’s words.

Uniting Malaysia

In the subsequent months, however, another blitzkrieg, this time against Anwar, was unleashed. From being PM in waiting, he was sent to prison.

It was not for Singapore ministers to comment on Malaysian politics but, in my heart, I felt a profound sadness.

Since then, Malaysian politics has been changing kaleidoscopically. Anwar’s political fortunes ride a roller coaster.

Knowing him for so many years, I naturally wish him well. When he became Prime Minister in November 2022, albeit of a fragile coalition, a spell was broken that he could never assume that role. My wife and I were very happy for him and Wan Azizah.

Anwar has both the heart and ability to unite the people of Malaysia.

Top image from Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore