Most difficult moment not politics: Foreign Min. George Yeo


Mr Yeo said the toughest moment of his life was when he found out that his youngest son had a relapse of his leukemia. (Yahoo! Photo).

For Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo, the toughest period of his life was not his time at the helm of one of the highest profile ministries in Singapore, nor the battles he had forged in the political arena.

His most difficult moment was when he discovered that his youngest son had a relapse of leukemia.

Having taken over the reigns of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) from incumbent Mr S. Jayakumar in 2004, Mr Yeo told Yahoo! Singapore it was a challenging period for him and his family when he received the news of his son's health condition.

The only way for him to save his son was to undergo a bone marrow transplant, and he was admitted to the St Jude Children's Research Hospital in the US for treatment. His son had a one in four chance of surviving, said Mr Yeo, who is married to lawyer Jennifer Leong. They have two other sons and a daughter.

It was at that time that they made the decision to uproot his wife, his three other children and mother-in-law to the US where they stayed for nine months while he remained in Singapore due to public duties.

However, one of his next big tasks was to oversee the renovation of the family home, as his son needed a clean environment for recovery upon his return to Singapore.

"That was quite a stressful period for me. I didn't notice it but people who saw me said I looked a wreck. I must have," quipped the 56-year-old Minister.

"So I am glad he is well. There are issues you can manage but when something so personal hits you, then it's a different order of difficulty, completely."

Challenges Singapore faces

Turning his attention to the challenges Singapore faces in terms of its foreign policies, Mr Yeo singled out the importance of adjusting to changing power relationships.

"We can't just solve the problems of Singapore by looking inwards, we can only solve the problems of making a living by looking out, knowing what are China's strengths, India's strengths, strengths of the US, Japan and Europe," he said.

"So we've got to be very alive to the changing reality and make sure that how the world is changing and how we make a living are consistent. "

Mr Yeo also pointed out that another challenge was for Singapore to "ride the current" and be aware of global changes, adding that the country's antennas must be quick to spot dangers and opportunities alike.

Citing the example of the integrated resorts, Mr Yeo said that he had floated the idea in parliament but was severely criticised by both MPs and the public.

"They know the problems which it can cause. My own father used to gamble so I know how difficult it can be for the spouse, for the children," he said.

But the Minister said that Singapore's tourism industry was affected by the changing trends in the region and that it was in danger of becoming boring. Thus, it was important to not just introduce casinos, but to extend it to a larger development.

These include having a conference centre at Marina Bay Sands and Universal Studios at Resorts World Sentosa.

However, he also acknowledged and felt guilty of the social problems which gambling could cause. This is why the government imposed a S$100 levy, to limit the ill-effects of casinos and make it harder for Singaporeans to gamble, especially those from lower-income groups.

"I mean I still feel guilty about the problem which gambling causes to particular families but very often public policy are a trust of evils, you can't have it all ways.

"So whatever it is, whether we decide to do something or not do something, it should be based on an explicit analysis and an objective analysis of what's going on in the world," he said.

WikiLeaks a threat to national security

Minister also addressed the concern on whether whistle-blower website WikiLeaks was a threat to national security. Mr Yeo said that it is a phenomenon which "we cannot hold back".

"And that's the reality of the world that we live in. For a time, we thought in an urban environment, we are anonymous, we have complete privacy, but with new technology, it will no longer be the case," he added.

This was the candid view of the minister even after some of Singapore's top diplomats were embarrassed after WikiLeaks leaked confidential diplomatic notes containing unflattering assessments of key figures in the Asian region.

Mr Yeo added that it is difficult to prevent confidential information from leaking unless one disconnects himself from the rest of the world, which he said, is impossible.

"It's very difficult to think of ways to escape this. Unless you completely disconnect yourself but how do you disconnect yourself, you may disconnect yourself but other people would not," he said.

Singapore-Malaysia ties at all time high

Mr Yeo also gave updates on Singapore's current relationship with Malaysia. He said that with Prime Minister Najib Razak at the helm, relations of both countries are at an all time high, albeit the fact that both countries have had tense moments in the past.

In particular, he highlighted the strong relationship between Mr Najib and PM Lee which he described as 'not just of friendship, but one based on the common view of how both countries should seize the future together'.

"And because of that I see more co-operation between the two sides which will benefit both sides, and which should benefit Singaporeans in so many ways."

"I think all of us know that when we have good relations with Malaysia, there are so many more things we can do together," said Mr Yeo.

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