In his younger days, former Singapore minister George Yeo came to the notice of the Internal Security Department (ISD), Singapore’s domestic intelligence agency, partly due to his association with the late Malaysian civil society activist Martin Khor, he disclosed in his Facebook post on April 1.
On Facebook, the 66-year-old Yeo described his time as an undergraduate at Cambridge University with Martin Khor: “Martin became like an elder brother to me in Cambridge. Through him I was introduced to Marx, Lenin, Mao and the Communist Manifesto. In my second and third year, after Martin had left, I became a student leader in the Cambridge University Malaysia Singapore Association. Martin was my first political mentor. Partly as a result of his influence, I came to the notice of Singapore’s Internal Security Department.”
The ISD, which is under Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs, performs some functions of a national security agency and is authorised to detain without trial people suspected of endangering national security. In 1987, the ISD arrested about 22 people as part of what the Ministry of Home Affairs said was a Marxist plot to overthrow the Singapore government.
Yeo declined to elaborate on his Facebook post. His brush with the ISD did not hurt his political career, as he was a minister for more than 20 years, holding various portfolios like health, information and the arts, trade and industry as well as foreign affairs.
In 1983 when he was a major in the Singapore Air Force, he followed his parents to visit his grandparents in Shantou, Guangdong province, China, Yeo said in his speech on August 18, 1994 when he was Health Minister as well as Minister for Information and the Arts.
“In the past, all those with family links in China had to be carefully investigated,” said Yeo who is Teochew, a Chinese dialect group whose home base includes Shantou (Swatow).
“I was interviewed for one hour by the Internal Security Department (ISD) for one hour before I left and debriefed by ISD for one hour after I came back. There is nothing unusual about this,” he added.
Yeo made his Facebook post for the one-year anniversary of Khor’s passing on 1 April 2020. He also posted on his Facebook a video of a Zoom meeting on April 1 that commemorated this anniversary. In that Zoom meeting, Khor’s daughter Rebecca said Yeo and his wife, Jennifer, were a great source of comfort to Khor and his family in his final months.
The Malaysian-born Khor could have been a Singapore minister under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, according to Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram.
Khor, who was born in 1951, was Lee’s classmate at National Junior College in Singapore, then both went up to study at Cambridge University together, Jomo wrote in an article in memory of him.
“Khor subsequently spent a few months in Singapore’s civil service during 1974-1975, which almost surely would have led eventually to a cabinet position in Lee’s cabinet. Instead, Martin ‘broke his bond’ to return to Malaysia to start teaching for a pittance at the Science University of Malaysia (USM),” said Jomo’s article which is posted on the website of the Third World Network, a Malaysian-based nonprofit international research and advocacy organisation focused development and developing countries.
Khor was formerly a director of the Third World Network and research director of the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP). He was also formerly a member of the United Nations (UN) Committee on Development Policy, the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on Environment and Development and a Vice Chair of the Expert Group on the Right to Development of the UN Human Rights Commission.
Yeo recalled on Facebook, “When I became Minister for Trade and Industry, we found ourselves on opposite sides. Representing Singapore, I was a strong advocate of trade liberalisation while he led Third World groups opposed to unfettered free trade….When Singapore officials complained to me that he cheered the collapse of WTO trade talks, it did not diminish in the slightest my respect and affection for him.”
Canadian Senator Woo Yuen Pau told the Independent, “I interned for Martin Khor at the Consumers Association of Penang in the 80s and also took part in a number of Third World Network activities which he organised.”
“I did not agree with some of his views but I had great respect for him and for the intellectual diversity that he brought to what was at the time a rather sterile environment of public discourse in Malaysia and Singapore,” said Woo, who was born in Malaysia.
James Gibbons, executive vice president of Discovery, a US documentary television company, worked for Khor at CAP in the late 1980s, researching articles for various campaigns of CAP.
“A man of integrity and an effective change agent. Sad to lose him,” Gibbons, who was born in Malaysia but now lives in the UK, told the Independent.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy. Follow us on Social Media
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