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Decision to repeal S377A a 'very good example' of a transformed PAP, says ex-minister and party stalwart George Yeo

SINGAPORE — Former senior politician George Yeo said on Tuesday (Aug 23) that the move to repeal Section 377A is a "very good example" of the sort of transformation of the People's Action Party (PAP) he was calling for on the eve of the watershed 2011 General Election (GE), which ended his political career.

Former foreign affairs minister George Yeo, photographed at the National University of Singapore's Bukit Timah campus.

Former foreign affairs minister George Yeo, photographed at the National University of Singapore's Bukit Timah campus.

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  • In 2011, former foreign affairs minister George Yeo spoke about the need for the PAP to transform and treat citizens as “human beings”
  • Since then, the party has been more sensitive to the ground, Mr Yeo said in an interview with TODAY coinciding with a book launch
  • He backed the move to repeal Section 377A, calling the law an "oddity"
  • But marriage is a sacred union that should remain between man and woman, he added
  • Mr Yeo also clarified his position on whether he might be a candidate at the presidential election in 2023

SINGAPORE — Former Cabinet minister George Yeo believes the decision to repeal Section 377A is a "very good example" of a transformed ruling People's Action Party (PAP), along with Members of Parliament (MPs) who are now "much more sensitive to the ground". It is exactly the sort of transformation that he was calling for over a decade ago — on the eve of the watershed 2011 General Election (GE), which cut short his political career.

Mr Yeo, 67, whose last political appointment was as Singapore's foreign affairs minister before his team lost in the GE, made the observation during an interview with TODAY on Monday (Aug 22), a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at the National Day Rally the repeal of the law that criminalises sex between men.

The interview was held to coincide with the launch of a book by Mr Yeo, titled George Yeo: Musings, which is based on interviews with veteran media practitioner Woon Tai Ho and is intended to be the first of three books.

Aside from his past role as Singapore's foreign affairs minister, Mr Yeo was also the minister for health, trade and industry, and for information and the arts at various points of his 23-year career in the Government.

He was also formerly a member of the PAP's Central Executive Committee.

In 2011, Mr Yeo was heading PAP’s Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which included Mr Ong Ye Kung, now Health Minister who was then making his political debut. (Mr Ong entered Parliament after successfully contesting Sembawang GRC at GE2015.)

During the team’s campaign speech that year, Mr Yeo spoke about how the party needs to exercise "flexibility" and treat its citizens as "human beings".

In order for Singaporeans not to feel helpless, he said then that the PAP Government needed to learn how to communicate and engage its people, especially the young.

Among other things, he had also talked about the difficulties that people face, such as the rising cost of living and healthcare costs, and pledged that the Aljunied GRC team, if elected, would "be your voice in Government".

The team ultimately lost to the Workers’ Party team led by Mr Low Thia Khiang.

Mr Yeo left politics that year, but he maintained his party membership — though he considers himself as an inactive cadre member now. Overall, PAP suffered its lowest vote since independence at GE2011.

I do sense there is a different mood. MPs are much more sensitive to the ground.
Former Cabinet minister George Yeo

When asked by TODAY if he feels that PAP has transformed itself since his 2011 speech, Mr Yeo, said: "Well, yes, of course."

He added: “I do sense there is a different mood. MPs are much more sensitive to the ground.” 

He noted that the electorate is more educated and sophisticated, and consequently, has more complex needs.

“(It’s) harder to achieve consensus, harder to be minister, to be a Member of Parliament now.

“You also find the ground harder to win over, because people are less awed by the PAP, by the Government. Sometimes unfairly, I think, but that's what it is.”

Mr Yeo, who is a visiting scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore, said that he sees the Government making “strenuous efforts” to try and adjust to this new position.

“So (the repeal of Section) 377A, to me, is a very good example.

"In the old days, (rules on social matters) could be black and white… Now you need to be more nuanced. This, to me, is very healthy.”

Although he is inactive in PAP, Mr Yeo said that he still has friends within the party whom he meets for dinner.

Asked on his views of Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who entered politics the same year he left and is expected to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Yeo said that he does not know Mr Wong well, though he has had occasional interactions with the younger politician at public events. 

GOOD MOVE, BUT PROCEED SLOWLY

On his personal thoughts about abolishing Section 377A, Mr Yeo, who is a Catholic and has worked on the Vatican's Council for the Economy, said that a person’s sexual orientation is “something that you should respect and not stigmatise” and that the repeal was a “very good move”.

The Catholic Church’s position is, we are all human beings and we should love each other as human beings, whether we are homosexual, heterosexual or single, celibate or whatever.
Former Cabinet minister George Yeo

“The Catholic position is different from many Protestant groups. The Catholic Church’s position is, we are all human beings and we should love each other as human beings, whether we are homosexual, heterosexual or single, celibate or whatever,” Mr Yeo added.

“We respect each other's deep identity and for who they are.”

He described Section 377A as an “oddity” that would never have made it into the Penal Code if it had not been in there in first place.

Although some people may feel that homosexuality or pre-marital sex or adultery are sins, he said that they should not be legislated into crimes.

Still, on the topic of same-sex marriages, he demurred.

“For… many people, marriage is more than just a civic union. It is sacred, and its objective must always be to allow for the possibility of children,” he said.

While the concept of family has changed over time, he said that having children to transmit values allows society to enjoy a certain continuity.

“That is something precious, and if you destroy that, you destroy society.” 

He acknowledged that there are those who feel that the concept of family is old-fashioned, and society should move into “a brave new world, where traditional taboos” are cast aside.

This is particularly so with the advancement of medical technology, which opens the doors to more possibilities.

“My own feeling is, on such matters, it is better to make haste slowly, (and) not to be ossified in the past,” he said.

“But at the same time, not to be too experimental in our approach to think that we know everything… There're so many aspects of human life, which we still do not understand, which we have only begun to understand.”

'NOT STANDING FOR PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION'

Aside from his views on the repeal of Section 377A during the interview, Mr Yeo also touched on various topics that included the relations between China and the United States, and putting on record his position on the presidential election, which is scheduled for next year.

TODAY asked Mr Yeo to clarify his position, since he had told Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao that he would not run for elections, but left the possibility open during a recent interview with Yahoo News Singapore.

“I’ve said both privately and publicly, I’m not standing for the presidential elections,” he told TODAY.

Mr Yeo said he was asked by Yahoo News Singapore if there were “absolutely no circumstances” under which he would change his mind and he said that put him in a spot.

“For me to say under no circumstances will I change my mind will sound very arrogant.

“I may be in a wheelchair as a retired general, but if someone asks (me) to do something, I will have to do it.”

Yahoo News Singapore had asked him if “there is anything that might change your mind, (and if) will we ever see you in politics again” and Mr Yeo had replied with an analogy, stating that while he has retired from the Singapore Armed Forces, he will return to serve if he is called to do so during a war. 

IDEAS ON CITIZENSHIP CRITERIA AND SAP SCHOOLS

In his book, George Yeo: Musings, Mr Yeo wrote about having prospective citizens being interviewed by a jury of ordinary Singaporeans, who will be provided with the applicant’s background and allowed to ask “whatever questions they wish”.

Citing a wealthy businessman from China seeking citizenship as an example, he wrote that the jury may ask him about his knowledge of Malays and Indians in Singapore, or if he knows what "halal" means.

Alternatively, if someone from India is the applicant, he could be asked “how he would relate to local Indians, many of whom might have descended from castes lower than his”.

“Of course, words are just words. What have they actually done to benefit ordinary Singaporeans?” he wrote. 

Mr Yeo added in the book that he had floated this idea to his former colleagues in Government.

When asked by TODAY what the response was, he said that “they listened very politely”, but was uncertain if they were receptive to the idea, which is similar to the immigration policy of Liechtenstein, a tiny European country nestled between Switzerland and Austria.

“Singapore is not… Liechtenstein, we have to be more open. But at the same time, we don’t want foreign talent coming here to tell us in our faces that they are helping us and we deserve them,” he said.

“I will say, ‘Yeah, you’re very smart, you’re very connected. But if you behave this way, please go somewhere else’.”

The second idea is related to having Chinese-centric Special Assistance Plan (SAP) tertiary institutions.

As it is, Mr Yeo said that SAP primary and secondary schools are insufficient because students will likely go into a completely “English environment” once they graduate, and will not pursue Chinese language and culture deeply, even if they have some interest.

“The result is, we will have no successors to the Nantah generation,” Mr Yeo said, referring to the former Nanyang University, Singapore's only private university in the Chinese language.

In 1980, Nanyang University was merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore.

He said that without sufficient Singaporeans with a high-proficiency in the Chinese language and arts, problems may arise if China becomes more important to Singapore.

“Then we will be importing foreign talent, and... many institutions like the media, in Parliament, in the ministries... will be dependent on people who are not born here.” 

That is why there is a need to build “our own” core or risk having “something you don’t wish for”.

Mr Yeo also acknowledged that other ethnic groups have their own needs and urged Chinese Singaporeans to recognise that.

For instance, he said that if the Chinese community does not understand the needs of the Malay community, it would not be reasonable to expect them to understand the need for SAP schools.

“If I respect you in your core, you will return the favour. But if you ask why do I need to understand that, you will get an echo, amplified.”

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George Yeo Section 377A Catholic Church LGBTQ GE2011 Politics General Election presidential election

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