SINGAPORE: As Dr Yaacob Ibrahim arrives for our interview, it becomes clear that old habits die hard.
My colleagues and I address him as “Minister Yaacob” several times.
After all, he was first appointed Acting Minister for Community Development and Sports and Acting Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs in 2002.
The following year, he became a minister and went on to serve in various ministries for the last 16 years.
Still, Mr Yaacob corrects us.
“I’m no longer Minister,” he says, laughingly.
The recent Cabinet reshuffle saw him stepping down as Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs and Cyber Security to allow younger, fourth-generation leaders to take on more responsibilities.
But he is still very much a Member of Parliament. And while he has said in previous interviews that he will use his free time to catch up on his reading among other things, he points out that his work on the ground as MP for Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) continues.
To listen to the full interview, click here.
“WE ALWAYS ANTICIPATE A FIGHT”
In fact, some analysts are saying that Jalan Besar GRC is likely to be hotly contested in the next election as it will be one of those left without an anchor minister. I ask him if he envisages an erosion of support from the ground as a result.
“We just have to be ready,” says Dr Yaacob confidently.
“We always anticipate a fight. Whether an erosion of support will happen or not, we have to prevent it from happening. We have to work hard."
He says he has briefed all his key grassroots leaders.
“Between now and the next election, I have to prepare the team. The most important thing is just to make sure that when the button is pressed, we are ready to go.”
His next statements, however, suggest some uncertainty as to whether he will even run.
“Whoever takes over my place, he will know that the system is in place. Everything is there for him or her to take over and I’ll be there to guide him or her to make sure we win the next election. Whether I’m around or not, that’s immaterial.”
STEPPING OUT OF POLITICS ALTOGETHER?
When directly asked if he will be running as an MP, his initial reply is brief.
“You have to ask the Prime Minister that.”
But as we continue talking he admits that while he does not know for certain if he will run, he has other considerations.
“I’ll be very candid. My family wants me to step down. They think I’ve been there for a long time and I need to look to other things to do in my life. They all know that I work very hard. They’ve seen how it has stressed me out in the last 22 years. I suppose they feel that now it’s time for me to do something else that will be more relaxing.
“But I’m a party man. I shall wait on instructions from the Prime Minister. Whatever comes my way, I have to make all the evaluations and re-prioritise accordingly,” he says with his signature good-natured laugh.
While his family wants him to step down, I wonder what he himself wants.
“I want to continue to contribute. I have always been that person who cannot stay idle. I don’t imagine myself sitting by and watching history go by. If I continue as MP, I will play my role as MP. If not, I will have to find other roles for myself.”
As we continue talking, it’s clear he still sees a role for himself, and he is keeping his options open.
“I’m not retiring as a member of the Muslim community. There’s a new Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. I will not get in his way but I will find a space where I can operate, to continue to contribute my part.
“At the national level, I think the digital economy and digital transformation is an interesting evolution that is taking place. I’ve been a part of it for the last seven years as Minister for Communications and Information. How can I play a role to see that transformation taking place?”
A QUESTION OF TRUST
In the meantime, he speaks fondly about engaging the residents in his constituency as an MP, which he has been doing since 1997.
He admits he had concerns initially about not being able to connect with the majority Chinese community because of the language barrier.
He has picked up some Mandarin over the years.
“Yi dian dian (a little bit),” he says to prove it.
Dialects were the other challenge.
“In a way, by saying a few words in the dialect, I can break the ice. It helps. I cannot pretend that I know the language well, but I think they know who I am.
“I’ve always believed one of the lessons I’ve learnt from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He said that what you want is to be able to shake hands with the person and have the person look into your eyes and say, 'I trust this chap to look after my affairs'. I think that’s what’s important.”
Language was not the only barrier. He also had no idea what living in an HDB estate was like.
Dr Yaacob’s father worked as a lawyer's clerk and his mother was a housewife.
The family was large – nine children in all and couldn’t afford a home till Dr Yaacob was in secondary school.
They lived in kampungs for all his growing-up years.
“My sister moved to landed property at some point, but that was the time I left and went overseas to do my PhD. When I came back, I lived in university housing.”
To familiarise himself with HDB living before his first election, he made sure he visited every block twice.
Nevertheless, I point out the oft-heard criticism that ministers are out of touch with the ground.
“I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. I think our ministers are plugged in. You can check. Almost every weekend, all of us are down on the ground.”
But can they relate to the realities of ordinary Singaporeans?
I point out how, for example, whenever there are issues with the public transport system, many say our political leaders are not able to relate as they don’t make an effort to experience first-hand what it’s like to deal with such issues on a daily basis.
“I appreciate where that’s coming from, but I don’t quite agree that is the yardstick that you should use. I would use this argument that I’ve used before: you want me to be a communist before I appreciate communism? I know what public transport is all about. I used to take public transport. Now, because of the nature of my job I have to move from place-to-place, so I have to take the car. I think the measure by which we must judge is how well can you relate to the minister and how well the minister can relate to his constituents.
“I think we have to look at the totality of things that we do rather than whether we take the bus or not. I think that’s a bit too minutiae to use as a criteria. I don’t have to experience everything to appreciate the problem. I think the Ministers are concerned when there is a big problem and that we need to tackle that problem.”
He maintains that ministers are fully cognizant of the importance of engendering trust.
“At the end of the day, it is the ground that will vote for us. We can have the fanciest policy but if the ground doesn’t trust us, that’s the end of it. We know that.”
He admits that not everyone trusts them and some have been quite unrestrained in conveying that message. He has had his share of doors slammed in his face during house-to-house visits.
“WE’RE NOT GOD”
During the 2011 election, he admits that at least one resident brought up the issue of high ministerial salaries.
In light of this, some might say the electorate’s high expectations are justified.
He thinks expectations should be high regardless of salaries.
“We expect people, including the ministers, to work their best. I’ve always believed that we are a small country with no margin of error. If you’re given a position or responsibility, you’d better do your job right and do the best that you can, but sometimes things may not work out. That’s the reality of life. I think what’s important is how we respond. The way we respond to a crisis has to be professional and constructive. You've seen incidents in other places where the agencies couldn't deal with the situation and the population gets inundated by other crises.”
At this point, he raises several incidents that occurred under his watch which he seems to regret.
One occurred in 2013 – the fire at Singtel's Bukit Panjang Internet exchange that affected banking and telecommunications services for eight days.
“I was in-charge of telcos for the last seven years. When the fire took place, I couldn’t sleep because it meant that our system is vulnerable.”
Since then, the Infocommunications Media Development Authority (IMDA) has imposed new standards on Singtel to prevent a recurrence.
“You have to do the best you can but can you anticipate every problem? It’s not possible. We’re not God. I am confident that at least for the ministry that I’ve been overseeing, the IMDA knows what needs to be done.”
The flooding of Orchard Road in 2010, when he was Environment and Water Resources Minister, is also something he wishes had been avoided.
Many often recall how seven months before the flooding, he had described a flood along Bukit Timah Road as a "freak event" that happened once in 50 years.
I ask him if he regretted making that statement.
“I regretted not explaining that statement. People forget I’m an engineer by training. One in 50 is a probability concept for hydrology. I learnt that in school. It’s just a probability that this event can occur. But it doesn’t mean that it cannot happen tomorrow. I should have thought through more carefully how to explain that concept.”
He admits that the incident taught him a lesson.
“Nobody in PUB expected such a rainfall to happen. If you look at the chart of rainfall data that we have in PUB, that data point didn’t exist. One of the things we need is imagination, to think of the impossible and if it is really impossible, can it still happen or not? You have to plan for it.”
Various anti-flooding measures have since been rolled out.
I ask him what his sense of the ground is today, how happy or unhappy the electorate may be.
“I think more positive compared to 2011. I think people understand where we are coming from. At the end of the day, we can alleviate some of the transport woes. I think all the ministers including current Transport Minister Mr Khaw Boon Wan showed that they are working very hard to try and solve the problem.
“I think the concerns now are about the whole economy. People are worried about jobs. The Government is trying its very best to grow the economy. There are some concerns about cost of living but I think generally, they know that we are trying our very best.”
A QUESTION OF RACE AND RELIGION
Another role which he has found challenging is that of Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs.
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US, when the Malay-Muslim community was under the spotlight, was especially tough for him as he had only just taken the helm then.
The discovery of the Jemaah Islamiyah plot in Singapore soon after exacerbated matters.
"For us to be in that type of limelight is never pleasant but it is something which is part of leadership and you have to deal with it."
Today, he is encouraged by the strides that have been made in Singapore especially in terms of inter-faith dialogue and understanding, but he says the work has to continue.
There were numerous other issues that proved challenging over the years.
“There was a growing concern amongst some segments of the Government that we’re becoming conservative and we were becoming exclusionary. It cast a perception that the Malay community wants to be isolated. But when I went down to the ground, I could see integration taking place in everyday life. Sometimes we are the victims of one or two people who are louder than others.”
He saw it as “a very important challenge to educate the Government that that’s not what we are all about”.
But he also had to explain to the community why the Government was concerned.
“Sometimes when the Government raises these concerns, it’s not because there is a denial or suspicion about the community, but they are worried about the larger picture about how we can hold the nation together. They are not opposed to Muslim religious practices but we want to see how we can find that balance. The issues of tudung, handshaking and greeting and the issues of whether more Malays want to go to madrasah and so on - those were the issues that I had to confront and they are not the easiest of issues.”
He appreciates the fact that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had several sessions with the community to understand the issues.
But this is not to say all the issues are resolved.
“I think this tension will always exist and we will always have people who will come out with different ideas. It is a continuous balancing act.
"I always saw myself as that person in the middle, balancing between the concerns of the Government and the needs of the community. I always felt that it was my job to make sure that I articulate both points of view so that the Government can understand better."
I suggest however that some within the community might feel as if he did a better job of representing the Government’s interests than of standing up for the community’s interests.
“There will always be suspicion because I’m a Government man, I have to speak the Government lingo. But I’m also a community man. My heart is always with the community. I hope that in the last 16 years I’ve been able to convince them I have their interests at heart. We may differ in our approach, but I think the intent is the same. I would say, let history judge. I can’t say anything else.”
Another issue that became a lightning rod for criticism was that of the reserved Presidential Election. It brought the Malay-Muslim community under the spotlight as last year’s Presidential Election was reserved for Malay candidates.
I put to him that many within the community felt that it implied that Malays could never be president on their own merit.
“When the idea was first discussed, I was uncomfortable for those very reasons. But having thought through all the implications and reasons and why it goes beyond the individual, I realised it’s about the institution and how we need to preserve the multiracial character of the institution.
“Sometimes in life, you cannot go on a perfect trajectory. You need to intervene.
"Our talent pool is not deep. That’s the honest truth. We have talented people, but we don’t have that depth of other communities like the Indian or the Chinese communities.
"So I decided on balance that this was the better approach and the most important thing is that the person must meet the criteria set out for any presidential candidate.”
He notes that President Halimah Yacob meets the criteria and is “more than able to do the job”.
“We may disagree with the circumstances in which she became President but she is now President. The hope is that six years later, people will forget that she is a Malay and only see and respect her as our President.”
He has mentioned before that he hopes “the President is so good” that his or her race becomes a non-issue.
But I ask him how confident he is that this will happen, since some still question the President’s legitimacy, despite her capabilities.
“I’m not sure whether it’ll be enough but I think it’s necessary for any one of us who are given a position to influence public life, public policies, to do the best job we can.”
As to whether he will ever consider running for President, he says he has “not thought about it yet” and that “it all depends on what I do in the next phase of my life” which he isn’t certain about at this time.
I wonder if he envisions a day when race truly becomes a non-issue in politics.
“I think the issue of race will not go away as some of us would like it to. But at the same time, the question is about how is the issue framed as we go forward.”
He points to the rise in inter-racial marriages.
“We have seen more convergence of the various communities. Will the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) racial categorisation model still be operable? So whether race will matter in future or not is for the next generation to decide.”
DEALING WITH PREJUDICE
Dr Yaacob often talks about the progress the Malay-Muslim community has made over the years in terms of education and socio-economic status.
When he was growing up, he often felt the community was in the spotlight for the wrong reasons and the negative stereotypes affected him personally.
“I was good at mathematics. But we had a Chinese math teacher who was very nasty, who basically degraded the Malay community and every time we went to class, we were told that we are only good at playing guitar or sitting at the void deck. So I was really upset. I continued to do my best to prove otherwise.
“The world is filled with different people. People who are prejudicial carry on all these stereotypes. The most important thing for me is really to look forward on how you can use those learning experiences.”
He feels that as the Malay community progresses, such incidents have become far less common.
His own consciousness about the issues surrounding his community became more acute in university.
“When I entered the campus in 1976, a few Malay-Muslim students from the Muslim society had petitioned the late Dr Goh Keng Swee to see whether the Government could recruit more Malays into National Service. The issue at that time was that some Malays were not asked to serve National Service and it had some implications on their employment. Those concerns were what shaped me as a person.”
He suggests that today, even this situation has improved markedly.
“We see Malays serving in all sorts of roles. Some of them have risen through the ranks and become officers. I think Malays are now participating fully in the armed forces. We even have several candidates now going through naval training to become naval officers.
“I think this is a healthy evolution of how the various communities have come together to trust one another. We share this island and we have to protect it together as one nation.”
I wonder if that spirit can be extended to other areas of community life.
For instance, the social and educational issues that exist within the Malay-Muslim community also exist in other communities. Why should they be tackled in the framework of racial groups? Could that end up being divisive and in fact have the effect of negatively singling out certain communities?
“Frankly, I used to hold that view. But when I got involved with self-help groups, I realised that there is a value in having a community approach because when I reached out to my fellow Malay-Muslims, I could talk to them, I could understand the cultural nuances. For example, you must also know how to empower Malay-Muslim parents who may not be familiar with the latest curriculum in mathematics or familiar with what’s going on with the world. It’s a lot easier for me to go in and to speak to them in a language they can understand.”
But he points out that the self-help groups have come together in recent years to run a common tuition programme for all races.
“We have to continue to find ways in which we can evolve that model so that we can be more inclusive.”
He might have achieved a lot in his 16 years as a minister, but there are two initiatives that he wishes he had seen to fruition.
One is his wish to set up an Islamic college in Singapore to train a new generation of religious teachers who understand Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious context.
“We spent a lot of time developing the model. Hopefully, when it gets approved and it gets launched I can find a way to play a part to make that dream a reality.”
He also mentions the Broadcasting Act that is due to be updated to take into account changes to the media landscape.
I point out that recently, legislative changes related to the media have attracted criticism from some quarters who perceive it as the Government’s way of silencing dissenting voices.
Several years ago, a licensing framework for online news media sparked similar criticism. He maintains there are good reasons for this.
“If you are reporting on Singapore, we have to hold you accountable just as I hold the mainstream media accountable for their reporting. You can criticise the Government, but you must give us a right of reply.”
He singles out the 2015 case of the now-defunct sociopolitical site The Real Singapore (TRS) as being different.
An article it published claimed that a Filipino family complained about noise resulting in a scuffle between the police and participants at a Thaipusam procession.
While this did not actually occur, the article had the potential of inciting hatred against the Filipino community in Singapore.
“If you say something that is really untruthful, then we really have to come down hard on you. In this case, the intent was to peddle fake news so that they could attract eyeballs.”
I ask him what he thinks of Singapore’s poor rankings in the World Press Freedom Index.
“I have not gone into depth on their criteria. All I would say is that we are a different country. We’re a small country that was never supposed to be a country. We have fault lines that can be exploited – race, language or religion and we are such a small society that we hardly have a margin of error.
“I’m not apologetic about what the Government has done.”
But can’t Singaporeans be trusted to be discerning media consumers? Is the Government being paranoid, as some critics suggest, I ask him.
“There has been a lot of content we’ve allowed online. It’s only when you cross certain red lines, that we come down hard because we have to protect the larger interests.”
Another controversial issue that arose under his watch involved two gay-themed children's books. The National Library removed them from the children's section and planned to pulp them.
Members of the public were divided on this. Some supported the move. Others bristled at the censorship.
Later, the titles were moved to the adult section.
“Our instincts were different at that time. In hindsight, we could have been more enlightened in our approach.”
Today, his advice to younger Ministers is to “not just meet your grassroots leaders who always agree with you, but meet the people who disagree with you” so that “they can hear where you’re coming from and you can hear where they are coming from”.
He claims that during his years in politics, he has done this several times.
SINGAPORE IS WORTH FIGHTING FOR
When asked how he would like to be remembered, he says with a smile: “He did his best when he was given the opportunity. He made a couple of mistakes and he tried to move on and do whatever he could to make Singapore a better place for everyone.”
One of the most vital tasks ahead for Singapore he says is to “empower generations of Singaporeans to really believe that Singapore is worth fighting for.”
But he concedes that nation-building is a complex process.
“At the end of the day, this is the only country we have and if we don’t do something to make sure this country continues to survive, continues to thrive, I think we would have lost the battle.
“When I meet young people, I try to inspire them in some way, to show them that they have a role to play. We have to give young people a stake in Singapore’s future. We are asking for young people to take it upon themselves to do something to create a better future for themselves and their children.”