review: musings series two by george yeo (2023)

Musings is a book that just sailed into my life one day and I’m so happy it did for it’s a remarkable work with a wealth of fresh observations of life, politics, culture, religion and a whole lot more that gets you thinking about how good life on this earth could be if we were all a bit more reasonable. It’s filled with well written prose rich in delicious detail most of which is drawn from the personal experiences and interpersonal exchanges of the author, George Yeo, a former Singapore politician who served as Minister for Trade and Industry and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

A friend from Singapore gave me a copy of the book one day, wishing to show me a passing reference to her father, a successful Singaporean businessman who later moved to Hong Kong. But there was so much more to the book that this curious detail. With the help of veteran media practitioner, Woon Tai Ho, the format of the book is a series of open-ended questions followed by Yeo’s anecdote-rich reflections and recollections. In the introduction to the book, Woon describes Yeo as ‘an envoy of history, an incomparable scholar of our common past and a judicious thinker of our future.‘ I concur!

The first question posed to Yeo is: ‘How did you come to meet Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI?‘ His reply was the start of a fascinating and disarming analysis of the state of religion in the world today. Unaware of Yeo when I first received the book, I was taken in early by these religious discussions. While he declares himself a practising Catholic, I was impressed by how he appeared to mix and work so closely with people of so many other religions, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and nonbelievers as if they were people who simply wore different clothes but who all shared so much in common, such as the respect and concern for all human life as well as the highest national interest. At that point, I had to label him an enlightened Catholic. But that was only the first part of the book. He moves on to offer insight into so many areas of international politics and world affairs.

Yeo is an embodiment of the model Singapore citizen. Singapore is a small country that flourishes through its astute engagement with nations all across the world. Yeo was born in Singapore of southern Chinese heritage, he served in the army, was educated at Cambridge University and Harvard Business School, then went on to be a successful politician, benefiting from the guidance of Lee Kuan Yew in the early part of his career. Yeo shows himself to be a deep thinker and a wonderful communicator as well as an adventurer who loves to travel and meet people of different backgrounds, though I have no doubt he loves his home as well for most of his energy is spent on the promotion and development of the Singapore nation.

In such a short review I cannot do justice to the breadth of subjects he covers in this book, and this is only one of a series of three! His takes on Europe, China, Russia, India and the United States are sober and refreshing. And then there is the detailed analysis of ASEAN and its member states as well as other countries in the region. The book could almost serve as a primer on how to deal with the different countries of South East Asia, taking into account their different histories and concerns. He delivers some stark reminders of what factors we must consider as we face the impending future.

As an Australian, I am happy that our former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was asked to review this book and was effusive in his praise for it. Though I am bemused by the observation, that there is not a copy of this work in a public library in Australia at the time I write this review. This is particularly revealing when we read in Woon Tai Ho’s introduction how bookshops in Singapore couldn’t keep up with demand for the book after it was released. We only need to be reminded of how Indonesia, Australia’s nearest neighbour, is set to become the fourth largest economy in the world, and here is such a brilliant interpreter of the Indonesian people and yet Australia remains in a type of intellectual slumber. Again, Yeo’s passing comment that by 2050 one in every two people born on this earth will be born a Muslim reminds us how more sharing of knowledge and experience with people of different backgrounds is an important ingredient to any peaceful and prosperous future. Yeo’s story is a powerful argument that insularism is just not going to cut it for any country in the future and Singapore, under the guidance of its outward looking leaders, is a fine example of this.

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