Book review: Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao by George Yeo - insights on Singapore and the world

This collection of speeches and essays by Yeo focuses on the city-state he calls a 'little speed boat' and its navigation of a rapidly changing world.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 1:48pm

The death of Singaporean founding father Lee Kuan Yew in March prompted much reflection on the city-state's achievements, shortcomings and challenges as it celebrates 50 years since independence.

George Yeo, who served under Lee early in his political career in the late 1980s and held four ministerial positions over 23 years with the ruling People's Action Party, has played a key role in shaping the city's development during a crucial period in its history. Described as an iconic product of Singapore's meritocratic but authoritarian system and as a "liberal conservative", Yeo is also seen as the city state's thinker politician.

This tome, a collection of 91 speeches and essays from 1988 to 2014, sees him searching for solutions to some of the biggest problems facing a world in transition. We move from the collapse of the Soviet Union, to globalisation, the rise of China and the digital revolution.

Yeo subjects these developments to rigorous analysis. His thinking is clear, consistent, and, at times, controversial. It is underpinned by a deep knowledge of history.

Throughout this journey his prime focus is Singapore, which he describes 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 minister for information and the arts. Yeo 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.

Not everyone will agree with Yeo's views, especially some of those on censorship, the role of the media and one person, one vote. But Yeo articulates his arguments well.

There are also moments which surprise. In the introduction, he talks of the need to engage the young, whom he sees as important agents of change. Yeo says: "I feel a certain empathy with Hong Kong students in their desire to improve social and political conditions despite the limitations of one country, two systems. If youth has no passion, society has no future."

Yeo left politics in 2011 after suffering a "painful" election defeat. After deciding against standing in presidential polls, he came to Hong Kong to join the Kerry Group, which publishes the South China Morning Post, and is chairman of Kerry Logistics.

This collection of speeches provides timely insight into the development of Singapore - and food for thought on some of today's most challenging issues.

Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao by George Yeo, edited by Asad-ul Iqbal Latif & Lee Huay Leng (World Scientific)