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15 Lessons I Learnt From George Yeo

15 Lessons I Learnt From George Yeo

I first met the former Foreign minister, George Yeo, when I had just graduated with my Master's Degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. I had just tuned into his President Speaker Series at Yale-NUS College (my alma mater).

After a delicious serving of Hainanese Chicken Rice, I was roped into one of the most life-changing projects of my life. (It was also on this day that I lost my Airpods Pro, a loss that paled in comparison to what I gained that day)

Thankfully, I was absurdly blessed to have the opportunity to volunteer for George Yeo in the past year to help him put together his series of books entitled - Musings. I have had the good fortune to listen to his musings as a reaction to events that play out in real-time. A man known for his incisive intellect and kind heart, he contributed greatly to the development of Singapore. The legacy left behind by his 23 years of public service in Singapore will be something future generations will study.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this kind of one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not many people will get to listen to him up close and personal. The best thing to do would be to grab a copy of his first book, Musings (Series One) and extract the insights he has spent the last year laboriously putting together.

However, I can afford to do the next best thing for you: to give you a list of the most important lessons I have learnt from him. Hopefully, this blesses you.

Mr Yeo and I kicking it back at a lunch meeting

Know Who You Are. Mr Yeo knows who he is. He is a Catholic and Chinese (Teochew). By extension, you can see that he drinks at the intellectual fountains of Catholicism, Confucianism and Taoism. Thus, when one reads his writings or hears his speeches, one cannot help but see these influences come to life. More importantly, he acts according to his values and not the whims of current fashion. As a young man, I succumbed to the temptation of measuring myself by the curated depictions I saw online. Through Mr Yeo I have come to grasp the profound words of Jesus, 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'

Diplomacy is the Art of Empathy. Sunzi wrote in The Art of War, '知己知彼,百战不殆’which can be translated to mean 'If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.' It is insufficient to know yourself, for it will only win you half your battles. To empathise is not to agree but to understand your counterpart's motivations, interests and considerations intimately. His uncanny ability to empathise makes Mr Yeo a skilled statesman and diplomat. A key ingredient in empathising effectively is to immerse in their history. If we can learn where they have come from, we can better understand where they are coming from.

Singaporean Actor, Lim Kay Tong in the original English version of The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole in 1985, which was written and directed by Kuo Pao Kun. (Credit: THE THEATRE PRACTICE)

Read Ten Thousand Books. To understand history, you must first study it. The best place to begin is through books. Mr Yeo is not just a voracious reader, he is an active one. Throughout his book, Musings, you will find an eclectic sampling of the great literature he has read. From Kuo Pau Kun's The Coffin is Too Big For The Hole to Fairbanks and Reischauer's Tradition and Transformation, you can see how he integrates the insight he has gleaned from these books to understand the world and apply it to do good. Harry Truman famously said, 'Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.' How can leaders lead their followers if leaders have no sense of the world?

Walk Ten Thousand Miles. There is this Chinese saying, '读万卷书,行万里路 '- which means that one ought to read ten thousand books and walk ten thousand miles to be a learned person. A man who only lives in a world of books is no more than a nerd. I learnt from Mr Yeo that one must repeatedly validate what you read with reality. Confirmation bias is for losers. Walk the journey of ten thousand miles, you can travel across the globe or you can explore your country. The point is that one must never remain idle in the comforts of home. Measure what you read with what you see, and you will become wiser.

Diversify your friends. Birds of a feather flock together. But, we are not birds. Mr Yeo was a Cabinet Member in Singapore for 23 years. It would be natural to assume he is only friends with people in high places - CEOs, C-suite Execs and Ministers. Yet, it's incredible to see how he has friends from different walks of life. His friends include students, young working professionals and even former grassroots volunteers. I have realised that the biggest benefit of having a diversified portfolio of friends is having a more accurate feel of the terrain. This means that you would reduce the chances of being horrendously wrong. We diversify our portfolio of investments because we want to reduce our risk of financial loss. Why do we not do it for our friends?

George Yeo in the 2011 Elections, which he lost. He remains one of Singapore's most beloved statesman.

Be a pleasant surprise. Another assumption that people make about politicians is that they are assholes in real life. It certainly is not true for Mr Yeo. I remember my first lunch at Great World with him. We each enjoyed a scrumptious plate of steamed chicken rice and washed it down with a much-needed kopi-o. He shared his candid thoughts on current affairs, life at Kuok Group and his life plans. It was also where my journey with his thoughts and books began. No matter how far one goes in life, we should always strive to surprise people pleasantly. If you make it big, let your 'fans' be glad they met their heroes.

Practice Archaeology. Archaeologists are obsessed with archiving. This is because any ancient sample they chance upon is likely one of one. Stored improperly, the clues of the distant past vanish forever. Mr Yeo's original Musings boasted a great collection of photos from a bygone era. The current version retains a significant sample. Thanks to his meticulous upkeeping, we saw many of these never-before-seen photos. A well-kept archive is a tribute to the past and a treasure trove for tomorrow.

Note to self: Archive my first 'couple' photo with Rachel for my great-grandson to remember me by.

Expand Your Mental Map. Singapore is a dwarf state. Our total land area is only 719 km². That makes us about 0.9x the size of New York City. (783.8km²). Many Singaporeans have a great deficiency because we have too small a mental map. Outside of Singapore, we have no real inkling of the developments in our region. It would be absurd that a New Yorker does not know where Miami or Charlottesville is but many of us (including me) struggle to point out where Medan or Palembang is on the map. Through Mr Yeo, I have become acutely aware of my weakness. I remedy this weakness through a healthy dose of documentaries produced by ChannelNewsAsia and a subscription to Wondrium.

Jennifer Yeo, the founder and chairwoman of the VIVA Foundation, addresses partners at an MOU signing in 2019. (Photo: VIVA Foundation for Children with Cancer)

Wrestle With Your Suffering. Mr Yeo's youngest son had to battle leukaemia in 1997 and this caused intense pain to his family for many years. Yet, Mr Yeo had the self-awareness to remind himself that many other families had to endure much worse. As his son survived cancer, the VIVA Foundation was born. Started by Mrs Yeo, the VIVA Foundation is a charity that obsessively focuses on saving the lives of children with cancer. In the face of suffering, it is tempting to curse at your ill luck. Mr Yeo taught me that to be better is to accept suffering as part of the human condition, grapple with its meaning, and use our suffering to benefit others.

P.S: Here is a quote from Adrian Tan, the President of Singapore's Law Society, on his cancer diagnosis - 'I had been putting off writing my third novel. But cancer is an antidote to procrastination.'

Don't Become Cynical. Mr Yeo was the Chancellor of Nalanda University, a school he spent significant time reviving. Yet, as Indian politics encroached on the university, he had to resign from an institution he helped build. Simply put, the Nalanda University that his team and him had in mind did not come to pass. Rather than whine or complain, he remains steadfast in his optimism that Nalanda University would one day return to being Asia's great learning seat. Things will not go your way. Resist the temptation of cynicism. It's much more nourishing to be optimistic.

It Starts By Caring. One time, I asked Mr Yeo how he had the stamina to last twenty-three years in politics as a Minister and a beloved MP. He answered that he cared about his constituents. One must first care about what he does to win the long game.

Think Outside Of The Box. When faced with a problem, don't default to the first solution that comes to mind. Think about ways to create a solution that would solve not only the problem but also generate unforeseen benefits. One of my favourite anecdotes from the book was his discussion of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. He inherited it as the Minister for Information and the Arts. While its tagline was inoffensive in Chinese, it was rendered as 'If you're a Chinese, make a statement.' An offensive statement to many in a multi-ethnic city-state like Singapore. A lesser mind would go on a campaign, explaining the 'actual' meaning of this slogan, or he would cancel the campaign. Instead, Mr Yeo changed the slogan to 'Speak Mandarin, it helps.' This reformulation was much more palatable and thus, received no complaints. I constantly think about this anecdote. I shouldn't settle for the first answer that comes to mind. It is better to find ways to resolve a conflict creatively.

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mark Chen criticizing Singapore in 2004 (Credit: CNA)

Master Your Temper. I have not once seen Mr Yeo get irritated or upset. Not during the little inconveniences of safe-management measures, not at his publisher - World Scientific when delays happen, not at his detractors whose criticism of him is often unfair, not even at me when I mess up royally. Even when a certain Taiwanese politician accused him of fawning over China in unsavoury terms, he responded with dignity. He has this serenity and composure that I can only dream of. The added benefit is that in doing so, you do not reveal an emotional weakness that your enemy can exploit. Mastering his emotions reflects the essential trait an outstanding leader must possess.

Liberal Arts Are For Champions. To me, Mr Yeo is the champion of the liberal arts. The drive for exploration reflects the liberal arts culture of challenging conventional wisdom and assumptions. Students are encouraged to deconstruct the prevailing dichotomy between "useful" and "useless" subjects. Mr Yeo reflects that ethos in his writing, thoughts and leadership. Yin and Yang must be balanced; the science and the arts must be integrated to satiate the enduring 'desire for a universal understanding' While he was an engineer by training, he is knowledgeable in military strategy, politics, history, culture and calligraphy. His book is a testament to the benefits of thinking with latitude. Unsurprisingly, he has (rightfully) earned the moniker of being 'Singapore's Renaissance Man.'

Did I forget to mention that he is a tai-ji practitioner who has ankle mobility that many youngsters can only dream of?

Listen Intensely. Mr Yeo has the uncanny ability to listen. When you speak to him, he focuses on you. He hardly interrupts and is always measured in his response. I have realised that active listening is a superpower because you make people feel appreciated, unlock new insights that would update your worldview and perhaps most importantly, hone the skill of humility. If I had half of his resume, I would probably be showing off the depth of my knowledge to the people around me. Yet, if one of Singapore's finest politicians could keep his ego in check, what excuses do I have? I think of Mr Yeo whenever I feel tempted to rebut, interject or babble. It pays to listen.

This is all a fraction of what I've learned from Mr Yeo, and hopefully, as the years go by, I hope the denominator will increase. Yet, if this was all I learned, I have already reaped a handsome profit.