Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo created history even as he lost his seat. Aljunied became the first Group Representation Constituency to fall to the opposition since these “super constituencies” – as they were called at the time – were created in 1988. These big wards, electing up to five or six members of parliament, one of whom must be an Indian or a Malay or belong to some other ethnic minority, were intended to be safe seats for the ruling party, claimed the opposition, which was unable to contest many of these seats earlier. But this time it did, and the Workers’ Party captured Aljunied.
George Yeo will be remembered for losing the first GRC to the opposition, but it will not tarnish his reputation – not after the way he fought and the larger causes at work that led to his defeat. Voters responded to the Workers’ Party’s call for a First World Parliament – not dominated entirely by the ruling party but with an effective opposition as well. The media carried stories about people torn between their admiration for George Yeo and their desire for a two-party system. The majority, in the end, decided to sacrifice the man for the desired system.
One may ask why the opposition won only in Aljunied and in none of the other GRCs held by the PAP. But the opposition has always been stronger in Aljunied from the time George Yeo was elected from there in 1988. Neighbouring Hougang has been a Workers’ Party stronghold since 1991. The opposition was on hospitable ground and gave it its best shot. Everybody is impressed with the Workers’ Party A-team that captured Aljunied.
My heart, however, still belongs to George Yeo. I hang on every word he says or writes because he has always something to say – something fresh, insightful, perceptive. At his last rally in Aljunied, he spoke of old hierarchies breaking down and the new media making it possible to connect with others abroad. There he was fighting for his life, knowing he could lose, and yet he was speaking of new possibilities. It was so like him – a visionary with the gift of words.
His opponents included good speakers, too, but while they spoke of democracy and football and the Wizard of Oz, he was talking of globalization and the new media and the way these affected ordinary people. He spoke of the need to listen to people and transform the ruling party – and the way he spoke, these did not sound like empty words. He looked like a man who could connect with others.
The video he posted on Facebook, appealing to young Singaporeans for their support, seemed so intimate. He seemed to be looking at you as he spoke. He spoke of the things he had learnt from the young, including “how to blog”. No wonder, his admirers turned out in droves for his last rally, sporting merchandise proclaiming “In George, we trust.” But, in the end, he was only a man who lost to a movement for a two-party system on a ground more hospitable to the opposition.
I am not demeaning his opponents, who included scholars, good speakers and astute politicians with their own ideals. But George Yeo is different – at home with ideas, able to relate, and blessed with the power of words.
In a way, I am reminded of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. They may be different in style and personality, but both are great readers with capacious memories and formidable intellects. Both are good speakers and wordsmiths. Listening to Yeo talking about blogging, I was reminded of the time – in the 1990s – when Lee Kuan Yew spoke about how he had learnt to email. He was excited about its uses and possibilities and said everyone had to learn it to keep up with the world.
Lee Kuan Yew was elected unopposed from Tanjong Pagar. He will continue to be in public life.
What will George Yeo do?
No doubt, he will continue to play an important role somewhere. A man of his calibre will not be wasted – certainly not in a society as meritocratic as Singapore.
Some are saying he could be the next president. I don’t know. Isn’t somebody else already tipped to be the successor?
A president, anyway, is more seen than heard. At least, that’s how it seems if you get all your news from the papers and television. George Yeo, though easy on the eye, is a better speaker and writer. A think tank may be just the place for him. But wouldn’t he really shine if he also edited a newspaper or a magazine and wrote online as frequently as he could? The newspaper or magazine needn’t be the Straits Times or anything currently around – no, something new, something fresh, more like him. Something full of new ideas and great words – like nothing ever seen in Singapore.
Look at Qatar, home to Al Jazeera, which won the Columbia Journalism Award for its coverage of the Middle East uprisings. Why can’t Singapore make a splash in the media world, too? It can’t be for lack of talent when Singapore universities and think tanks are climbing up their respective league tables. It may even have the man to do it. “In George, we trust.”