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What George Yeo's loss means for Singapore

Updated On: May 09, 2011

This commentary by Simon Tay was published in TODAY on the 9 May 2011. This article can be viewed at http://www.todayonline.com/Singapore/EDC110509-0000493/What-George-Yeos-loss-means-for-Singapore

One of the most significant outcomes of May 7 has been the defeat of Foreign Minister George Yeo in the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC). It is the People's Action Party's first GRC loss, and Mr Yeo is the first core member of the Cabinet to be lost to the Opposition in a General Election.

Aljunied was considered vulnerable, for this was where the People's Action Party scored its lowest margin of victory in the 2006 GE. And for all of Mr Yeo's many brilliant qualities and strong presence in the new media, when the Workers' Party nominated its star team, led by secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, the contest to secure the ground was always going to be hard.

Yet the result cannot be read simply as a question of personalities and local politics. Nor should the defeat obscure Mr Yeo's many achievements - his electoral loss is a loss for Singapore. Minister for Foreign Affairs since 2004, Mr Yeo was in many estimates possibly the best mind in this job since the late Mr S Rajaratnam. In both Singapore's emergence as a global hub and ASEAN's move to become a community by 2015, Mr Yeo has been a leading architect and a prime mover.

While foreign policy achievements are often hard to measure, Mr Yeo has overseen a sea change to make ASEAN and Asia more central, not just to Singapore's foreign policy but also, in the many connections to our society and domestic policy.

He moulded responses to critical events in the region. On the difficult issue of Myanmar, he shaped the landmark ASEAN condemnation of the crackdown on the saffron revolution led by monks, as well as the response to the tragedy of the Nargis cyclone.

Mr Yeo's work in foreign affairs built on his earlier role as Minister for Trade and Industry, when free trade agreements were negotiated to link Singapore economically and strategically to major partners - the United States, Japan and Australia. Major economies entrusted him to chair difficult negotiations in the World Trade Organization on the critical issue of agriculture.

Mr Yeo has emerged in the international community as among the best-recognised and respected of this generation of Singaporean leaders. The next Cabinet has no ready replacement for him.

NEW LIFE IN THE ARTS

Mr Yeo's domestic legacy, too, is significant. He was a star from the moment he left the Armed Forces to enter politics in 1988 at the age of 34. First appointed Minister of what was then the Ministry of Information and the Arts, he breathed life into what had previously been a marginal portfolio.

The arts scene grew strongly in his time there and he also oversaw the first liberalisation of censorship. He found support and funding for the Esplanade, museums and the National Library - key projects that are enduring foundation stones for today's far livelier arts and culture scene. In 1991, Mr Yeo also spurred discussion of Singapore's political scene, with a speech about "pruning the banyan tree" of PAP dominance. His thinking framed the discussion through the '90s and into the new century for a more liberal politics in Singapore.

Throughout his career, Mr Yeo continued to be one of the more progressive thinkers in the establishment. He foresaw the factors now coming to the fore as demands for greater space for participation and views to be heard.

He himself pioneered the effort to reach out to wider circles through new media, with his Facebook page attracting some 5,000 friends. It is therefore an irony that he should be the first ministerial victim of these very same shifts.

In his last rally speech, Mr Yeo promised to be a voice for reform from within the PAP. While some discounted this as a last-minute tactical pledge, those familiar with his record know it to be a sincere wish. A voice for a more liberal PAP has been lost.

In his concession speech, Mr Yeo was exemplary in his gracious acceptance of the voters' decision. Throughout the campaign, he declined to make personal attacks on the Opposition. His conduct, at perhaps his most trying hour in politics, exemplified the tradition of learned and cultivated gentlemen, of which the Minister often spoke.

WHAT NEXT?

The Aljunied electoral loss should not be the end to Mr Yeo's public life. There are many avenues in which he might yet serve Singapore.

Indeed regional and global institutions would gain if he were at their helm. This includes the Nalanda University project, to revive a key educational institution that existed during the life of the Buddha. Mr Yeo has mentored this proposal as part of a larger aspiration for an Asian renaissance to accompany the region's economic rise.

Mr Yeo himself once mused that he might want a second career in business; after all, he distinguished himself by graduating from Harvard Business School with high distinction as a Baker scholar. He is too brilliant to be lost and will re-emerge in one capacity or another.

While the Workers' Party win will be celebrated by voters who want to see a democratic evolution of the political system, the loss of Mr Yeo as a Foreign Affairs Minister and a core Cabinet member is a cost of this victory - not just for the PAP but for Singapore.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.