Speech of Chief Minister
George Yeo Book Launch
4 January 2016 at St. Giles Wembley Hotel @ 4.30pm
Good afternoon and happy new year to all.
I am honoured to be here today to launch this very meaningful book. It is a book by someone whom I respect deeply, and whom I am proud to call a friend. We all remember George Yeo as a statesman, a sterling Foreign Minister for Singapore, a prolific speaker and writer who would constantly surprise and enlighten us with his ideas that span a great variety of topics, both worldly and esoteric. It is therefore most appropriate that some of his best speeches and writings over the years have now been captured in this book entitled, “George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan and Tao.”
Ladies and gentlemen,
I think the unusual title of the book says it all. It is certainly difficult to classify George Yeo. As a student leader, he was described as both radical and conciliatory. In the Singapore Armed Forces, he had moved from the Army to the Air Force before becoming Director of Joint Operations and Planning. In politics, he has been called both a liberal and a conservative. As a public intellectual, his speeches touch on a wide range of issues. As a person, he is fondly regarded by everyone, from politicians on both sides of the divide to diplomats, journalists and his constituents.
George Yeo served under the late Lee Kuan Yew early in his political career in the 1980s, and held four ministerial positions over 23 years. In his maiden Parliamentary speech, he spoke of the importance of democracy but has repeated many times that democracy is only a means and not an end in itself. He has played a key role in shaping the city’s development during a crucial period in its history. He is also seen as Singapore’s thinker politician – a man with a curious and effective mind.
In the book, the bonsai and the banyan are metaphors George Yeo uses for Singapore. According to him, Singapore is a city-state which must never have an inflated view of itself. The bonsai describes Singapore modestly, but he also adds that the bonsai can be intensely interesting and valuable. The banyan provides shade and Singaporeans are grateful for it, but too much of it will make her weak. As for the Tao, that perhaps is what gives unity to his many interests.
In his book, George Yeo also describes Singapore as a “little speed boat” needing to nimbly navigate the potentially treacherous waters between “supertankers” such as the US and China. His best-known speech, reflected in the title of the book, is from 1991, when he was the Minister for Information and the Arts. He spoke of the need for Singapore’s banyan tree to be pruned – in other words, for the state to take a step back and allow civil society the room to grow. I believe that is an important notion that we can relate to here in Penang and Malaysia. In Malaysia we may have freedom of speech but only in Penang do we have freedom after speech.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As a matter of fact, Penang and Singapore have very similar roots and humble beginnings. Both were once part of a colonial territory called the Straits Settlement alongside Melaka. Both were prosperous entrepots, though in the 1960s, both ventured down different paths. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Singapore is now a highly developed and modern city-state, while Penang is still an adolescent, albeit one with a dream of becoming an International and Intelligent City. Since 2008, we have made great strides, and today we are Malaysia’s most liveable city, producing 7.4% of Malaysia’s GDP, 12.3% of Malaysian foreign tourist arrivals, 22% of Malaysia’s balance of trade surplus, 25% of Malaysia's total imports and exports besides having the lowest unemployment rate in the country and the highest recycling rate of 32.8%.
Similarly with Singapore, Penang does not have any natural resources. Thus, our human talent has become our most treasured resource. Therefore, in order to win our future, we have decided to invest in our future. Investing in the future means investing in education, public infrastructure and innovation. In this case, our young talents. Last year, we instituted the Penang Future Foundation, a scholarship programme that will enable many young Malaysians to fulfil their academic ambitions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and accounting, with only one caveat – they need to work in Penang after they graduate.
In an effort to further increase our talent pool, we have also recently launched the Penang Science Café, Penang’s biggest and most sophisticated Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and innovation centre at Wisma Yeap Chor Ee. Science Cafés will soon be spread out around the whole of Penang to impart STEM knowledge to the community throughout the year, especially to the kids.
In addition, we have launched the first German Dual Vocational Training (GDVT) Programme in Malaysia, which is designed to bolster vocational training in Penang and to up-skill the local workforce with internationally recognized skills. This is another step to enhance our talent pool to face the upcoming challenges as the AEC Economic Community comes into fruition.
Looking back at how Singapore developed herself over the last 50 years, human capital and public infrastructure are among the key focus in their development. Penang, blessed with a superior quality of human talents – as Singapore has undoubtedly benefited from, now faces the challenge to develop first class infrastructure.
However one very important feature is the need to have sound institution and the ability to bring about institutional change. In his Nobel lecture for economics in 1993, Douglas North identified three lessons that policymakers should draw from his research. First, what determines economic performance is the mix of “formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics”. Second, politics have a major impact on economic performance because they “define and enforce the economic rules”. And, finally, adaptive efficiency (how the rules are changed), not allocative efficiency (the most effective rules right now), is the key to long-term growth.
Unlike Singapore, Penang faces many hurdles in terms of transportation and infrastructure development. With very limited funds available and just as limited authority due to the over-centralisation of power in the hands of the Federal Government, Penang has been at their mercy in terms of large-scale infrastructure and public transport development. However, we have decided that we will no longer be held to ransom. We have since launched the RM27 billion Penang Transport Master Plan project to develop a 5-in-1 transport solution involving buses, taxies, LRT/monorail, water taxies/ferries and cable car. Having appointed the Project Delivery Partner in August last year through an open competitive tender, we hope to see the roll-out of this project by 2017.
I believe this book is extremely timely. There is much for us to learn from George Yeo’s writings about the development of Singapore. Although the situations differ in our two states, there are many lessons to be gained and much food for thought, especially where the principles and approaches to government and governance are concerned. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I officiate this event.