Teh Tarik with Walid, episode 1: Yaacob Ibrahim

GE2020, Interviews / Saturday, September 5th, 2020

Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah of Nanyang Technological University spoke to former Minister Yaacob Ibrahim on 16 July 2020, shortly after GE2020, as part of his ‘Teh Tarik with Walid’ interview series. The video and full transcript are found below.

Walid Abdullah: And I think let me just get to it. Let me firstly welcome Dr. Yaacob, Professor Yaacob to our first session in this series, Teh Tarik with Walid. The idea is really to get politicians on so that we will discuss politics and policies, and have an open discussion, and you were the first person who I ever invited as a guest speaker in my class. And I thought I wanted you as the first person for this as well, so thank you for obliging as always. So my plan, just an introduction on the series and then on Professor Yaacob before we get to the questions, so I will hopefully not be asking softball questions like you know, what do you what do you think about before you sleep, if you were not a politician, what would you do. I’ll leave that to Mothership.

But I will hopefully ask tough questions, but fair questions. And I wouldn’t ask gotcha questions. The point is not to ask yes or no questions and not not let you or any guests have time to provide nuanced answers, because politics and policies are complex, often require nuanced answers. So I hope we will have the time for that. So the target is about 40 minutes, because I’ve been told that’s, from my students, that’s  the attention span on a good day. So hopefully, yes, and everybody knows Professor Yaacob. He was the Minister of Environment & Water Resources. His last post was at Information and Communications before it was renamed Information, Communication and the Arts, I think until 2012, right?

Yaacob Ibrahim: Yes, yes.

Walid Abdullah: And you were also Minister if I remember correctly, Community Development and Sports, right?

Yaacob Ibrahim: From 2002 to 2004, yes.

Walid Abdullah: All right. Okay. So and Minister of Muslim affairs as well.

Yaacob Ibrahim: And yes, for 16 years, yes throughout 16 years.

Walid Abdullah: Throughout the 16 years, right. So a veteran and he was also the Vice Chairman of the PAP. So you went through a lot of screening and recruitment as well of candidates, right.

Yaacob Ibrahim: Yes. Yes. Right.

Walid Abdullah: So former Vice Chairman of PAP, so we are and he is recently retired. So today we’ll get the liberated version. Okay, so let’s get to it. My first question for you is on your retirement, should I say congratulations? Or commiseration?

Yaacob Ibrahim: No, I’ve always see these mixed feelings are both sad and happy, sad because you know, I’m leaving 23 years of my life behind in Kolam Ayer, not just in the constituency, but of course 16 years as a minister and 23 years as a backbencher. So there’s a lot of things that have happened in my life. And you know, sometimes you feel all of a sudden there’s a void, you still have attachment for Kolam Ayer, but you know, you can’t go back as there’s a new man and you don’t want to be there when he has to try and build up his base. Happy because now I have more time, obviously, my Sundays, my weeknights are now free, there’s time for me to do other things I always wanted to do, catch up on my reading catch on my writing, of course, catching up my family also, you know, basically because kids have grown and obviously, even though they are older, they still want to spend time, so. And of course, I must not forget my wife, you know, who’s been around with me for the last 30 over years. And I need to spend more time with her and the things that we always wanted to do, basically. So it’s both sad and happy. And you know, I’ll try and find the right balance at some point in time, basically, and I, in fact, promise to my constituents that I’ve met when I was doing, I was helping on the campaign recently, that I’ll be back. You know I go to the market, have food at the hawker center, once in a while I’ll drop by and, just to show my face there because, you know, I know those people. And I know when I when I go to the hawker center, they give me the best food, you know when I ask them, there is no problem. You know, and I’m happy for the relationship I have built up over the seasons.

Walid Abdullah: Right. So there’s a comment that says that he or she took his or her graduation photo with you. So that’s how long you have been there. Okay, so, GE2020. What went wrong for your party?

Yaacob Ibrahim: Ah, no actually what went right is the most important question. We won the elections! We won the elections right, let’s not forget that. You know, it was a hard fought battle and we won 60 over percent. Yes. As PM mentioned on the conference, we hope the numbers could have been better. So obviously, I think there’s a lot of reflection that needs to be done. And this is something which all parties go through. I’ve been involved with five elections and after every election, we do a deep dive to find out where we have sort of done well, and where we need to improve. There’s no doubt about that. I think the conventional wisdom will tell you that, you know, we basically did not get the the voters of the younger population, what went wrong, what happened? I think we have to go and study it. But you know, you read a report today by ST in January or February, and the young was with us, right. So obviously, something shifted right and what caused that shift, you know, something that we have to look back and see whether or not we can sort of prevent that from happening in the future. So I think that’s it. I, you know, I just want to say also that I think the manifesto was actually the right one, because, of course, the economy was very important. Jobs was very important, but obviously, it did not capture everything else that was on people’s minds, basically. And that’s something which we need to study carefully. I think several Ministers have said we have to do some really deep soul searching and I hope we do. We do, so that we can understand it, we can perform better. So all in all, I think, you know, it’s not a bad result, it’s not a great result. Certainly with this result, we can move forward and learn and hopefully you can improve as we go along.

Walid Abdullah: Right, I think that’s a fair assessment. And I wanna unpack that a little because, as you as you rightly said, I think, The Straits Times report today, for those who have not read it you should read it, because it’s an interesting empirical question, if that is true, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. That means the votes were lost during the campaigning.

Yaacob Ibrahim: Yes, yes, I would agree to that, because I was involved in the campaign for nine days, I helped walk around. And, you know, you can simply see that our vote bank is with the elderly, and every elderly home that I go, they would say no problem. Every young person that opened up the door will say, let me think about it, then you know, something is not right. Right? So you get that sense that something has shifted. And so what exactly is it, because of the incident with the WP? Is it because, you know, we appear to be too arrogant or something like that? I think that’s something we have to study carefully. I mean, you know, we have now time to look back. And you’re absolutely right. I think something shifted during that nine days. And I think the party stalwarts and leaders also do that, you could see that we also shifted our campaign towards the end of the last few days, basically, right? So in a sense, in a way we read the ground correctly, we’ve understood it, but maybe it’s a bit too late, but we are able to read the ground and change, you know, and change gear. So, in that sense, the machinery is working, but maybe we could pick up the signals much earlier, that would have been better.

Walid Abdullah: Okay, so there are two things that I wanted to ask you on. One is from my own conversations, I think the younger people and minorities of of all ages, were extremely uncomfortable with what they perceived as the unfair treatment of Raeesah. And as you know, actually, I can speak for the Muslims, at least the median voter for Muslims is quite a conservative voter. Right? But they also felt very uncomfortable at what happened and the younger people of all races, the Chinese as well. Yeah, they were absolutely uncomfortable. And the fact that minister Shanmugam said, acknowledged  that sort of, right. And I think the term soul searching is a huge one.

Yaacob Ibrahim: Yes, indeed. I think that’s, I think that’s a right declaration on the part of the Ministers, that we need to do a deep dive on the issue of the young. You know, I have two young, first time voters at home.

Walid Abdullah: Right. What did they say? What were their thoughts on the entire thing?

Yaacob Ibrahim: To be very candid, they were not happy, no, not happy and how she’s been treated rightly or wrongly, to them, you have to investigate. But when you bring it out in the middle of the election, it doesn’t appear fair. That’s their perception, basically. Right? We had a long family argument, you know, and of course, they’re adults, and they have to know situation. And but I think that caused a lot of it. You know, even even tried the campaign, there was some sense that, you know, we need to basically reach out to the young, because when we did this, I think, you know, it could have been a tipping point for young people, because before that, people did say, yeah, I mean, let me think about what the PAP has to offer. But I think that may have been the tipping point. And people suddenly realise this is not the kind of politics that you need, that you want to have in Singapore. So I, you know, I think that we’ll learn from the experience and tidy that. It doesn’t mean, it doesn’t mean what she said was right, you know, we have to separate that, it has to be investigated. And I also appreciate, Mr. Pritam Singh’s comment that we have to investigate after the election, everything like that, you know, I think that’s fair. But I think at the moment of the battle, when you do something like that, it means that people are uncomfortable and they’re not happy with basically, especially young people, basically.

Walid Abdullah: Yeah, I’ll get to the second thought I had on the younger-older voter dichotomy or cleavage. But now that you mentioned Pritam, would you agree with me that he was the man of the match of this election?

Yaacob Ibrahim: My honest opinion, he came up very well, I have to be fair to him. I have seen all the videos, he appeared very composed, very relaxed. And I think when he fronted the whole incident, if I’m not mistaken, Saturday night, we had a press conference with the whole team. I mean, he showed leadership, I have to give that to him. He showed leadership that ‘I am the leader, I have to take this and I had to tell the way forward’ basically. So all in all, I I thought he did pretty well. That’s my honest opinion. I have to give that to him.

Walid Adbullah: Okay, thanks for your candid, candid answers. And I told you guys, we’ll get the liberated version. But Professor Yaacob has always been fair to me personally, at least in spite of all of our vast disagreements. So I’ve always appreciated that. So the other thing I wanted to say this younger voter thing, although whatever I said earlier, I still stand by, with regards to my interactions with younger voters. But I think there’s more to that as well. Now you’ve shared your family arguments, I want to share a little about my own family arguments. The person, an elderly person in my family, is a lifelong PAP voter. And on the second day of campaigning, he told me that he will be voting for the opposition this time because, because of Tan Cheng Bock, he said, Tan Cheng Bock left the party already and now he’s not a West Coast voter. But he says, so I’m thinking apart from the youngest electorate is there something in Tan Cheng Bock’s defection where Tan Cheng Bock represents the old PAP rightly or wrongly, okay, because I think there are questions that we need to ask of Tan Cheng Bock as well, especially if he’s disavowing the party right? So I would love to have him on and ask him this question, so is there something on the part of voters looking at Tan Cheng Bock as representing—so they like the PAP but they don’t like the 3G or maybe 4G more and Tan Cheng Bock represents a return to that?

Yaacob Ibrahim: Well, I, to be honest, I did not pick up that vibe during that nine years of campaign. And, you know, his name never figured in all our conversations. But among my own circles, there are people who felt that he was a game changer in the West. My honest opinion, I never expected him to do so well, because, even though Dr Tan Cheng Bock was a party member, but he left a long time ago, right? He left a long time ago, way before the 2011 presidential election, right? Maybe I, if my memory serves me, right, he stepped down in 2006. So and then after that he must have parted company for whatever reason, and then he decided to contest the election in 2011. So I wouldn’t consider him as sort of a hangover from the old PAP. Right? And in a way I think the nostalgia among all people who ask me honestly speaking is actually the old Mr Lee Kuan Yew, that came out a lot, you know—

Walid Abdullah: So did Lee Hsien Yang play a part then, if the loyalty—

Yaacob Ibrahim: Hardly, hardly. It was always about, you know, Lee Kuan Yew did a lot, Lee Kuan Yew. So I say, ‘Thank you, ma’am’. You get that kind of feeling, basically, but I can’t, you know, say for certain based on the nine days that there was a Tan Cheng Bock factor, at least in Jalan Basar, I can’t see that basically.

Walid Abdullah: Okay. All right. Thank you. So last one on the election specifically, and then we’ll move to broader issues. This election was built as a referendum towards the 4G right. So how do they move forward? I mean, what are your thoughts on that? I mean, it doesn’t look good for them. And what would your advice be as a seasoned campaigner? What would your advice to them be moving forward?

Yaacob Ibrahim: No, I think, I think the 4G knows what they need to do. And the simple answer is that they have to reconnect themselves with the ground. It’s as simple as that basically, right? You know, I go back to something which MM (Minister Mentor) used to say this, you know, and maybe it’s to say that I should be able to shake your hand and look into your eyes and see whether I can trust you to look after my affairs, you know, in not so many words, but that’s what he used to say. Basically, I think a reconnect between the 4G and the ground has to take place. Having said that, having said that, I think we have to be fair to the 4G. Some of the ministers have done quite well at the ground, I would argue. I’ll be very candid with that.

I think Mr. Lawrence Wong, notwithstanding what people may say about his handling of the COVID, he has come across very well, on top of the situation. And I think, you know, in terms of his personality I do know him quite well. I think he’s basically a sort of person who is prepared to listen more, rather than to tell you that I have the answer and you follow me. Minister Ong Ye Kung, for example, I don’t know him well enough. But I know of him and I’ve interacted with him too, to know that I think he has the ability to connect basically. Mr. Desmond Lee! Mr. Desmond Lee actually is a fantastic minister to be quiet, resolute but capable, done well in the MSF and you ask the social service sector, they they like him because they know that he’s genuine, he’s honest. So I think there are people within the 4G ministers that actually can do that and I’m sure the rest of them, so okay, I think we have to reconnect. And, more importantly, I think there has to be some thing that is associated with the 4G as a vision, right? I don’t know if you remember this when PM Goh Chok Tong was about to take over their vision was Swiss standard of living by 2020. Yeah, there was something that you could pin down the 4G, the PM Goh’s generation that this is what I think you need something like that also for the 4G, and they talk about a crisis of a generation. I think this whole discussion about what a post COVID world will look like, it should be headed by the 4G, it should be the 4G determining what Singapore will be like and then we can then relate to them or at least have a discussion with that.

This is the path that this group of ministers will lead me to basically, I think that it will be an exciting conversation. I hope to see their conversation about what a post COVID world would be like and how the 4G is going to ship that work together with our Singaporeans. I think that would be exciting. And there are many, many opportunities you know, today I was involved in a conversation. You know, on experiential learning, how will experiential learning take place in a post-COVID world? Right? When you actually cannot, cannot go physically resume meetings and so on, right? But there are things that can be done. But you would probably need certain changes, not necessarily policies, but other changes, to facilitate, you know, experiential learning and so on and so forth. So I think that the conversation is quite exciting. I like it, basically. So I like to see the 4G, taking that and using that as the basis on which they engage Singaporeans, I think that would be wonderful.

Walid Abdullah: Okay, thank you. I think that that is very sound advice, and I hope they take it seriously. And interestingly, the ministers you mentioned probably if we were to do a straw pool amongst Singaporeans, most of them will say, Ong Ye Kung—

Yaacob Ibrahim: Ong Ye Kung, Ong Ye Kung.

Walid Abdullah: Ong Ye Kung, sorry. I should know that, he’s a minister of education. Ong Ye Kung, Minister Ong Ye Kung has done really well. Especially his, I absolutely love what I thought was his enlightened policy with regards to the schools. He resisted closing schools, and he said he would hurt the lower income more and I thought they was exactly, absolutely, absolutely wonderful. And Lawrence Wong I think, would be high up on a lot of people’s minds as well. So interesting. I just noticed that I’m really not trying to be naughty. I noticed that you didn’t mention DPM Heng or Minister Chan Chun Sing who are the top two.

Yaacob Ibrahim: But you do realise the reason why I mentioned the other ministers because DPM Heng and Minister Chan received a lot of limelight during the days of campaign, basically, so I think, people can judge—

Walid Abdullah: Fine, okay. Fair enough. Okay. So there are a lot of Muslim specific issues that I will not deal with. Not that because the questions are unfair because you were the Minister of Muslim Affairs and you know, I have asked you many of those questions myself, but I think this is not the platform and majority of the audience are not from, they’re from other faiths and maybe no faiths, but I’ll deal with the, with the broader questions on race and religion, I guess, where everybody can relate to that.

So, this election we saw many people, many minorities leading GRCs and winning. Minister Iswaran, Minister Shanmugam, Minister Vivian, SM Tharman and Mr. Pritam Singh, Masagos. And then you have Mr. Murali in the SMC and you yourself led a GRC twice and won. Yeah. So what’s the relevance of the GRC’s then if the minorities seem to be able to win?

Yaacob Ibrahim: No, I suppose as a concept like any other political concept, you will evolve over time, right? I think PM has made a promise to reduce the average size, so this time round, we have smaller GRCs more SMCs, and as you rightly pointed out the SMCs have done well actually on their own even. You know. Mr. Murali did well in Bukit Batok, and previously of course, Mr. Michael Palmer in Punggol, is to show that minorities can also hold their own in the SMC. So I wouldn’t want to pre-judge what the government would think about how the political structure or the whole constituency structure will take place. But certainly, the data shows that maybe we have arrived at a level of maturity where people look beyond race, right? Maybe when MM conceived the idea of the GRC we were not there yet. Right?

Political maturity takes time. You know, I mean, I’ll be honest about it. I mean, I mentioned this in one of my interviews, somebody asked me what was my greatest achievement in 23 years. I see my greatest achievement in 23 years as an MP is that all of them, never questioned my race. Never questioned my race, right? Because in effect, what we do there as an elected representative, it doesn’t really matter if you’re Malay or Chinese. Everyone is a Singaporean, they deserve help. So I think the GRC concept will evolve over time. I think something they have to look at basically, will we remove it and revert to all in an SMC? I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t want to prejudge that, basically, but I certainly would recommend a re-looking at the whole concept, you know, looking at what we have, because I think it has to be something that we evolve over time as we achieve certain political maturity.

Walid Abdullah: Would you think that, you know, I am quite supportive of the GRCs actually and I still am, although I think I have to rethink that as well, looking at the data we have, especially in Aljunied, we had three minorities, and also if we look at—you mentioned that your constituents never saw you as a Malay leader, they never saw you—yeah, and nobody sees SM Tharman as an Indian leader, or Pritam Singh as an Indian leader, they see him as a national leader. So that tells us something, right, about GRCs and race. So is it true that Singapore is still not ready for a non Chinese PM?

Yaacob Ibrahim: I thought you weren’t going to ask me difficult questions! I wouldn’t say I’ve done a straw poll to come to any conclusion but based on my own interaction, and I will add here with both Malays and non-Malays. Right, I think people feel that SM Tharman is certainly way above everybody else and capable of becoming a Prime Minister. I think we cannot take that away from him. I know him well enough to work with him in the Cabinet and he is a very capable man. So I think it’s, you know, that’s that’s all I can tell you in terms of what I’ve heard, what I’ve shared.

Walid Abdullah: So I would like to maybe push a little bit on that end. Maybe defend DPM Heng on his statement because I don’t think he was not right, actually, when he said, some Singaporeans are not ready. Although, I think as a generic non-Chinese, maybe some Singaporeans are not ready, but for SM Tharman, I think many Singaporeans are ready. So basically, does it mean that a minority always has to be heads and shoulders above everybody else? You don’t think so?

Yaacob Ibrahim: I think the right answer for me is that maybe we’re not ready for a minority PM but we’re ready for Tharman. Right? Because you know, in a way people see SM Tharman as a very capable person. You know and they don’t see his race. So it’s two different things, basically. So I suspect if you do a survey, even among older Chinese, I suspect they’ll say, ‘yeah, Tharman very good’. I may be wrong, so I have to add the caveat. I have not done a poll. I have no idea but that’s how I think should be seen.

Walid Abdullah: Right, okay so on the broader topic of race and religion and especially, Ong Ye Kung, Minister Ong Ye Kung has said just now that schools have to relook and Mr. Shanmugam have said as well. So practically how do we do that without, without always using the harsh stick of the law? Whenever somebody says something wrong, or should we allow for people to make mistakes, when they are discussing race and religion? What do you think? It’s a very tricky situation.

Yaacob Ibrahim: It’s a very tricky situation, a very fine line, and some people will cross the line, mistakes will happen. I think it’s always a question of what we do with the mistakes. You know, and I think more should be done to understand why it happened. And, so that we can, in a way explain to the rest of the community why we think this is not desirable. I think the OB markers or the red line is very difficult to define. But I would welcome what Minister Ong Ye Kung and Mr. Shanmugam has mentioned, that young people are looking at race from a different perspective, and therefore, we need to have a new framework. I welcome that. I think the acknowledgement that we need to sort of have something new is very healthy, right?

If you ask me now, I have no idea how to do it. Okay? You know, me personally, that I can have very private conversation. But publicly, I think it is going to be something be of a challenge, basically. Right? But ultimately, I think when we talk about race and religion, I mean, they are very simple rules that we must abide, if you insult a race or religion, that’s really bad, right? But if you come up and say, I think this is what the Malay community is all about, and I’m not sure whether it is right, then you can debate it based on facts and data and what have you, basically. So I would welcome an honest discussion. Right? You feel that there’s something wrong with the Malay community. Tell me why. Tell me why, based on the facts, then I can bring my facts. We have a discussion. I think that should be healthy. But you start insulting the community, insulting other people’s religions, I think that’s a no no. So I think that line is very clear, right? Because why you want to antagonise people? Why do you feel you know, but if you feel something is not right, and you have a certain view, and you want to advance it, by all means!

And then have a discussion, and then if you’re proven wrong, you should retract your position. I think that is what should happen, but can this happen at every level of society? I am not so sure. Right, because I think this is something has to be an informed discussion, based on data that you have and the facts that you know. I would welcome if any, any non-Malay want to have a discussion with me about the state of the Malay families, for example, I would welcome that. And in fact, people have written about it right, about the Malay community. I don’t find it upsetting I ready to understand, some of which I don’t agree, right, some of which I agree. So I think we can have an honest discussion at that level, I think that that’s okay. You don’t have to agree with everything that you say right but at the end of the day as long as based on facts, data and something which is very clear, I think we can have an honest discussion.

Walid Abdullah: Okay. So, still on that and I wanted to get your thoughts as well because the GRC system is such that a Malay or an Indian is typically elected because he or she is Malay or Indian right. And he or she is expected to represent the Malay and Indian communities but the Malay and Indian candidate is elected by Chinese, essentially, mostly Chinese, majority Chinese. So, the majority of the constituents that you are, that you are elected by, is not the constituents that you are supposed to serve. So, so in the sense that minority MPs have two constituents. So you as ministers, you have three constituents, you serve the entire country as a minister. You serve Jalan Besar or Moulmein-Kallang, or Kolam Ayer as you’re MP, but you serve the Muslim community, a Malay community as a Malay MP. How do you balance that? Because, and I think I never, I never saw the balance, or I never knew where the line was. On one hand, you are supposed to be Malay. On the other hand, you cannot be too Malay.

Yaacob Ibrahim: No, I think first of all, the GRC system was not created so that there is a Malay to represent a Malay community. I think the GRC system was created to allow minority representation in Parliament, so that our Parliament reflects our society, right? That’s the logic. And as you rightly pointed out as an idea, it is definitely something that we can support because we do want our Parliament to reflect our society, right? So that is a balance of different communities in Parliament. So that’s the first thing.

What I do personally, and I think what other Malay PAP MPs, for the Malay community, is because we are part of the community and the community expects us to help them in one way or the other. So, in my case, of course, was slightly different because I have the title of Minister of Muslim Affairs. Every Muslim in Singapore is part of my responsibility in terms of the laws governing them and so on and so forth. So I think by and large, based on my own observation, 23 years, I think all the PAP Malay MPs have In fact, done quite well in terms of balancing that.

So you look at the Hansard and look at the questions raised by let’s say, Mr Saktiandi, Mr. Zainal Sapari, or Dr. Intan, Ms Rahayu and all that, the range of questions raised across the whole spectrum, not just the Malay community, right? If anything, they raise a lot of Malay issues only during the budget debate, only because there is a segment on Muslim Affairs right? So I think that balancing act is all right. And when we go out, you’re absolutely right, we do have the added constituency. So, you know, we have to attend Malay functions, we go to Malay organisations, not because we have to, but we want to also because whether or not, you know, we attend or not, they are still the voters, they’re still part of the constituency, they’re still part of the Singapore framework, a Singapore fabric. So I don’t see that as a problem. But it is, of course, an added burden for all of us but I would gladly tell you that all of my colleagues when I was in Parliament, they look forward to it. They don’t se e this as a challenge. And I think being close to the Malay community helps us also to have ears on the ground to understand what the needs and the concerns of the community.

And I can be honest here when I was minister, when I do receive certain feedback from the Malay ground, which I think requires the attention of our senior leaders, I bring it to their attention, right, that’s my job. So you know, we need to alert what is going on what is unhappiness and so on and so forth so that teenagers can decide whether it needs a policy change or something needs to be done. So for my 16 years as the minister in charge of Muslim Affairs, I always make it a point to make sure that I always brief our senior leaders. So they understand what the Malay community’s going through, what are the challenges. So by and large, I think it’s not a problem so far.

Walid Abdullah: Okay, thank you for that. And last one on race and religion in general. So the Workers Party candidate Fadli Fawzi, he talks about looking at issues, socio-economic issues through a class rather than a racial lens. And I thought this is something you would appreciate as a student of Professor Hussein Alatas and I thought this was something—what are your thoughts on that? This is an audience question by the way.

Yaacob Ibrahim: So no, I totally agree with him. But I have a small caveat. Let me start with that first, but I agree. At the end of the day, we have to look at it not from a racial point of view, but from an economic point of view or social point of view, see what is happening and how we can deal with a problem. But yet at the same time, I think you also need some inputs from the community that may be affected the most. Right? And are there certain factors within that community that need some attention? Right?

Let me give a recent example, which all of us are familiar with, basically. I would say, and I will add a caveat, I don’t have the data, but I would say, you know, predominantly, home-based businesses are largely Malays, right? And we saw this in recent episode. And they were affected by the COVID-19, and so on, so forth. Now, I think it requires somebody who has an understanding of the community, why home businesses are important, so that I can come in and say, okay, I need to do something to help you. We have a national concern, which is COVID-19. How do I deal with this issue and to help you basically, so I think both, sort of lenses, if I use their lenses, help one another, basically, rather than trying to say it is a Malay problem, right? No, it is a problem at the national level, but one part of that national community is facing a lot more challenges, and how do you deal with that? You need policies at a national level, or do you want to go in and say, okay, maybe I need to understand this community better and how I can affect a change in the positive direction. So I would caveat it that way, basically.

So he’s not wrong. But I think at the same time, I think understanding of what is going on and in the community were very helpful for us to formulate policies. I mean, you know, you can look at many policies that has helped the Malay community, even though it was a national policy, like, you know, trying to increase home ownership, for example, right, because there were a lot of Malays in rental blocks at one time, I think has helped a lot from the community and even though it was not seen from a Malay angle, but it was very helpful to the Malay community. And when I was an MP and a minister, I was trying to promote the Malays who were staying in rental books to become home owners as much as possible through the various schemes that the government has planned out.

Walid Abdullah: Right, so I’ll move on because we only have about 10 minutes left, or 15 minutes left, but I think but I think, I don’t know, you don’t have to say anything, but I think the home-based business issue wasn’t well handled from the get go. And that is why President Halimah had to step in as well. I mean, that’s all I don’t, I don’t need a comment. The next question is on the Cabinet, and you held a few positions. And I think probably, is it fair to say that the Minister of—the Ministry of Information & Communications, that was the highest portfolio, you held?

Yaacob Ibrahim: Yeah, first time ever by a Malay.

Walid Abdullah: Right, right. Have you ever gone to the PM and say, ‘I want this’. I mean, I’m just thinking, from an educator to an educator, as a professor, I’m sure you would have wanted the Ministry of Education. It’s natural!

Yaacob Ibrahim: You know, I can’t say all those things because I’ve sworn by the Official Secrets Act, but if you ask me, yeah, I would have loved to be in the education ministry. It’s indeed very challenging, you’re shaping the next generation, but you know, as a Muslim, we have to take what is given, you’re grateful and you do the best you can, basically.

Walid Abdullah: Alright, alright. By the way, I also think we’ve had some fantastic education ministers as well. SM Tharman, DPM Heng and Minister Ong Ye Kung. I’m just wondering if that has been on your mind. Okay, so there was a question on censorship since you were the Minister of Information, Communication and the Arts. There is a saying which goes that, if you want to check the soul of a nation, you check the state of the arts. For me, I agree with that with one caveat. Another way to check the soul of a nation is through the voting patterns, but I definitely agree that the arts is an important part of our society. But with censorship, actual or self-censorship, it’s very difficult for the arts to flourish. So what are your thoughts on this?

Yaacob Ibrahim: No I think when you look back, the honest truth is that when I took over the ministry in 2011, when we look across, 10, 20, 30 years, starting with a report by the late Mr. Ong Teng Cheong to build a renaissance city, I think there has been lots of movement in terms of relaxing. You can never risk it when both sides… that’s the honest truth, right? Let me give one example, which I thought was an interesting example, but it doesn’t relate to the arts, it’s more to the Internet. Because it was my first act when I became minister for communications and the arts, was, we came up with an online licensing site. And there was a big hoo-hah, the Internet community was very upset, and they said this is going to curtail the Internet, it’s a form of censorship, so on and so forth. Through a good friend of mine, I will not mention names, I had a meeting with a lot of these people at an institution, to explain where we’re coming from. They disagreed with me but they appreciated the opportunity to discuss with a minister. After we implemented the law, we only licensed about 10 sites. And then years go by, and nothing has happened to the Internet. So I mean, I met one of them, a couple of years later and said, ‘Look, you remember the discussion we had, right?’

So at the end of the day, the point I’m trying to make of this example is, sometimes when we act, primarily because we think that there’s a certain purpose, so in this case, it was after the 2011 election, and there a lot of sites that were commenting on Singapore affairs and so on and so forth, and they were not licensed. In a way, for them to be held responsible, not like we were going after them, but you made a comment, so you must be held responsible right? So I think in the arts it’s also a similar way, we want to relax as much as possible, but how do we do it? Maybe sometimes we come across a particular show or a film that we feel has crossed the line and we need to deal with that basically, right? And so when we deal with that, people assume we are trying to clamp (down) on the arts.

We’re not, there was a specific problem with that particular script. In fact, you can ask some of the artists, after 2011, Alfian actually had a play. He had a play basically, I can’t remember the title, but it went through, came to my table, everything looked okay and all that style, and we made some minor adjustments, but by and large we allowed it, and it was commenting on the 2011 elections. Right, because we lost Aljunied GRC and all that stuff, so I think to be fair to the government, we’re always trying our very best to make sure that the space for the arts continues to grow.

That I can speak with conviction because I was in the ministry for seven years, and you know, I was in the ministry for the arts and so on and so forth. But we were the regulator, and whenever something come across our table, we always want to see if we can find a way whether or not, for the lack of a better word, to see how we can make sure that the show can go on. Can we work with the producers and whatever, so I’ll be very candid. All my officials in the ministry, the last thing we want is to clamp down. Certain shows clearly, I mean, there are some groups that we don’t allow for obvious reasons, but the vast majority have never been intervened by the government. And I think all of us would like to see a flourishing of the arts. In fact, if you look now, there are a lot of people, who are cynical of the government and policies, but you see has anything ever happened to them? We have not. So you must always understand from the government’s point of view, it’s easier for us to allow everything, you know, it’s less headache for us. But I think we also have to safeguard our multi-racial society, we don’t know how they will react.

You remember the famous Indian-Muslim play Talaq? People forget that I was intimately involved with that play. I went to the opening, I was invited, but over the years, people realised that it was not something that was to be allowed… so on and so forth. And it was not allowed, but at that time, I thought it was a useful play to discuss about what was happening in the Indian-Muslim community. But obviously our Indian-Muslim leaders were not happy, we consulted them and agreed with them, and eventually I think the minister at that time, can’t remember, was it Dr. Lee, made the decision that we shouldn’t allow it. So the point I’m trying to make is that there is always an attempt to reach out to the arts, to understand that we can come to a decision that both can agree to.

Walid Abdullah: Right, it sounds like you’re a fan of Alfian.

Yaacob Ibrahim: He’s… I love his works, I read all his works. I have to tell you this and this is a real story. When I was still a young backbencher, I went to a conference in Trinidad and Tobago, way in the Caribbean. And I brought one of his books, maybe the first one, One Angry Hour or something, and in that conference, there was a Trinidadian poet, who happens to be a politician, and we were talking about poetry and then I said that I had this book from a young Singaporean, would you like to see it? So he took it home and read it and he came back the next day and said this is wonderful, I’ve never seen this writing before and all that stuff, and I haven’t had a chance to tell Alfian that basically, but the point is that, he’s talented! And we cannot take that away from him basically.

Walid Abdullah: So someone who knows Alfian, please pass the message to him, I’m also a fan of his works. And I think he’s a voice that we need. We don’t have to agree with everything he says, but he’s a voice we need in the country. So on censorship still, and it’s beyond the arts right. That may be your position, and that may be the official government position, but with the idea that your plays can be censored, or even with POFMA around, and it’s not just POFMA, there are other laws around as well, the worry is that you do not need to get to the stage where the government censors you. People censor themselves, and I’m going to quote somebody you know pretty, well, Professor Cherian George, he says that a lot of censorship that happens in Singapore is a result of self-censorship. And it’s not directly because of the government, but because of the OB markers, and the ambiguity of what is moral, what is not acceptable, so what is your comment on that, on self-censorship?

Yaacob Ibrahim: I think if it is happening, it is unfortunate. I think young Singaporeans should, in my honest opinion, push the boundaries a bit more. I think in any society, this is basically an ongoing process of negotiation between the authorities and the artists, that’s a fact of life, right? Some people try and then they cross too much, and they sort of get pushed back, others try and they get away with it. So I don’t have an answer for that. But you know, I think that it is a pity that our young, creative talents feel that they need to self-censor themselves. We will lose something, and at this point in time in our society as a nation, where we are developing and I wouldn’t say that we’ve reached a level of 100% maturity between race, language and religion, I think there are still areas in which we can evolve.  And I’d really like to see, not just our artists but young people evolving together with society. It would be a pity, if we lose the potential of a good play, of good writing and so on and so forth. So I would recommend that, don’t hold back, and give your best shot and see what happens.

Walid Abdullah: So we do not have any more time. Do you have any final things you wanted to say that I didn’t get to ask on or anything that you wanted to get off your chest?

Yaacob Ibrahim: No, I’m out of politics, but I’m still a party member, never forget that I’m still a member of the PAP. I think the most important thing to all the young people who are listening in is to appreciate what they feel and how they feel about Singapore, I’m always reminded by MM. MM always says, he doesn’t care who’s in charge, as long as Singapore is safe and can survive basically. Because that’s the most important thing. In all of these things, I think the most important thing is that Singapore is a nation that we know, can continue to thrive, prosper and is led well. So if the PAP cannot run it and it’s another that can run it, you should let the party run it, because it’s the future of Singapore, I think that’s important right? So we are in this together, we’re in the same boat basically, maybe not a sampan, but we’re in the same boat basically. We have to make sure that no matter what our defences are, we can continue to survive. That’s a fact of life. You know people don’t like the PAP talking about jobs, but hey, it’s a reality you know. It’s a reality whether you like it or not. We need to have gainful employment. I’ll be the first to admit that as a society, we can change, how we look at people who are out of work, people who are working, how we can support each other and so on and so forth. I think the COVID-19 (pandemic) has shown that there is something in the Singapore spirit, that we’re capable of dealing under a lot of pressure. If we can ensure that the spirit continues to prevail, I think we’ll have a better Singapore.

So to me, to all the young people out there, let’s work to be a better Singapore. At the end of the day we have to continue to survive as a nation. I think one day the young people will become parents and you’ll think about the same thing! How do I put food on the table, how do I ensure a roof over my head. These are real issues, I agree that some people may be happy away from organised society, but nothing is cast in stone. We cal always evolve and change, and if there’s a better model out there that will give us the same outcome, yet at a lesser price to pay in terms of people’s happiness and wellness, so be it. So I would like young people to be involved in this as I’ve always said, Singapore is always a work in progress. It’s never completed, it’s never done. It’s not about building a new building but building a better society that all of us can thrive in and the human spirit can continue to flourish, that would be my message. Thank you.

Walid Abdullah: Thank you so much, that was lovely and I think it was in that spirit that you see young people still wanting the PAP to be in power but a more diverse parliament.

Yaacob Ibrahim: Yes, yes I accept that.

Walid Abdullah: Thank you so much Professor Yaacob, you’ve always been a gentleman to me and I wanted to acknowledge that. Please ask your teammates to come on my show as well.

Yaacob Ibrahim: You have to ask them, I can’t be your publicity manager.

Walid Abdullah: Thank you so much, good night!

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