Reflections with Dr Yaacob Ibrahim

By Joyce Er and Elysia Tng

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim is a veteran politician with the People’s Action Party. Over the years, he’s helmed many ministerial portfolios including the Ministry of Communications and Information, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, and been Minister for Muslim Affairs from 2002 to 2018. In his free time, he can be found enjoying a read or two – though his wife will probably say it’s more than that, since he buys more new books than new shirts. Prior to entering politics in 1997, Dr Yaacob was approached about entering politics in 1991 though he declined that invitation then, and remained in academia, as an engineer by training.

Dr Yaacob: I see public life as community service, a way of giving back and doing something to make a difference in the lives of others. I’ve always been active in this sector. As a student, I volunteered for Malay-Muslim organizations, which I continued even in university.

When I entered public life, I saw it as extending what I was already doing. I wasn’t sure whether I could make a difference in the lives of others because I wasn’t sure what politics was about, but I gave it a shot because of the opportunity to make a difference at the highest level. And I haven’t been disappointed. You can’t afford to spend most of your time politicking. Instead, most of the time, you need to be working on the ground to find solutions to help people.

As a Member of the Parliament, you really have two roles. One is managing a spectrum of issues in your constituency, from littering, cleanliness, congestion, traffic flows, lack of buses, to social problems. You need to take care of this whole spectrum of things through various means, and you can also organise your own programmes with government agencies.

The other role is basically amending laws in Parliament. You need to understand Bills and bring to the attention of Ministers some issues that you feel the Ministry needs to look at. As a backbencher, I found it very interesting that I was able to do that.

Then I moved to what we call the front bench and became a part of the Government. I started as a Parliament Secretary, and I rose through the ranks to become a Minister. Once you’re on the front bench, it becomes your job to understand government policy and explain government policy to the parliamentarians. That gave me insight into the workings of the civil service. When you’re a back bencher you hardly interact with the civil servants, but when you’re in a ministry, you have access to the civil servants. You know what’s going on. That’s when you can do a deep dive into the policy: what’s right, what’s not right, and what needs to be done.

Only when you become a Minister do you realise that the buck stops with you, and you have to decide whether a policy is worth doing. Of course, you have to convince your cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister. Again, I find that very interesting because you have some levers with which to make a difference. But you have to understand people; that enables you to better inform your policy. All in all, I have, frankly speaking, no regrets having gone into public life. I’ve not done all I think I wanted to do, but I’m quite satisfied with what I’ve done in my 16 years as a Minister and 22 years as a Member of Parliament.

Dr Yaacob: It’s very daunting because you know that if you make a wrong policy, you’ll affect the lives of so many people or the whole industry structure.

For example, one of the things we had to decide on was whether we needed a fourth telecommunications company besides Singtel, Starhub and M1. Of course, the incumbents would say we don’t need another competitor because it would cannibalize the market share. But we did a market study and found that Singapore actually has the capacity for a fourth telco. They’ll be rolling out next year, if I’m not mistaken. We will have to see if there are any unforeseen consequences that will have to be addressed.

I find a bit of scepticism useful, that you always doubt and question, “Is this really the way to go?” Your civil servants will convince you with all the great arguments that they’ve marshalled – and they’re all very bright – but your job as a leader is not just to look at those arguments, it’s to look at the impact of those arguments on the lives of Singaporeans. That is an important role. My job, as a parliamentarian, is to see what impact those policies have on the lives of ordinary Singaporeans. To be honest, I always reflect on this deeply because any mistake can cause a lot of harm, so I take it with a lot of responsibility and reflection. At the end of the day, it’s something I’ve found very fulfilling – though it has given me a lot of sleepless nights.

Dr Yaacob: One of the skills I’ve found most useful is your ability to communicate. I’ve found that a challenge sometimes, because policies are so complex in their details, that communicating it to people to understand is not easy. It’s taught me that you need to be a great communicator. I take, for example, Lee Kuan Yew’s ability to communicate to be the best – his understanding of issues and policies, and cut-to-the-chase explanation.

I would say one of my lowest moments was my inability to explain the flood in Orchard Road in 2010. I tried to communicate it in language that was familiar to me, as an engineer by training. I said that this was a ‘one in 50 years’ kind of storm’. The next thing you knew there was another storm the next day. People said: “How can it be a one in 50 years thing?” But that’s a probability concept. It’s difficult to explain a probability concept – even to journalists. I deeply regretted using that statement because it did not help to clarify things or reassure the public.

Another challenging moment was connected to my other portfolio as Minister for Muslim Affairs. I took over the job at a most challenging time, because that was when issues of terrorism were at the forefront. I became Minister in March 2002, just after we discovered the Jema’ah Islamiyah group in Singapore. It was a few months after 9/11 in New York, so the whole issue of whether there was trust in certain communities, to be very candid, was a huge challenge. It gave me sleepless nights and toothaches because I ground my teeth in my sleep.

It was very difficult, but that difficulty also gave me the impetus to do my best. I look back with some pride to say I’ve done well enough to reassure the wider community that you can trust Muslims in Singapore, that the vast majority of Muslims in Singapore are peace-loving, and what we need to do is isolate the fringe element and insulate the wider majority so that they don’t get influenced. And so we’ve put in a series of programmes and initiatives by the Islamic Religious Council in Singapore to ensure that the vast majority of Muslims understand that Islam in Singapore is different from Islam in the Middle East in how you practise it and so on.

On the other side of the spectrum, the whole idea of the Smart Nation was something that I was very optimistic about. Actually, the idea of the Smart Nation came from the ministry first. In 2011, when I first moved into the ministry, what was then IDA, proposed the idea of a Smart Nation. I was a bit perplexed, but on further reflection, I realised it’s about how you deploy technology to improve the quality of life. I thought it was the right move, and what you’ve seen since then in terms of the economic transformation to digitalise every sector is a move in the right direction. I’m quite happy to be associated with that movement and to play a small role in the whole digital transformation of Singapore. I’m happy with the outcome so far, but there’s a long way to go. We’re on the right track; we need to digitalise and deploy technology as much as possible to make our lives, workers’ lives and families’ lives better.

Dr Yaacob: When I first started in 1997, I had a very young child in the family. I was an academic, teaching and doing research, before I joined the government. It was a challenge. But I decided I needed to carve out time for the family to ensure I had dinner at home. No matter what I had on outside, I had to try to have dinner at home. When the kids were going to school, I made it a point to prepare their breakfast. And there was no school bus so I sent them to school. So, I carved out moments in my life so that I could give that attention to my children. Both me and my wife read a lot, so we spent a lot of time talking about books we’ve read when we are free.

Also, in my constituency, we have a policy to stop everything on Sunday at 1pm. Sunday afternoon and evening is family time. The only person who can drag me out on a Sunday night is the Prime Minister for the National Day Rally. I worked with my grassroots leaders to ensure that we had the right balance.

Every Sunday night, my family – my brothers and sisters – all gather at my mother’s place for dinner. This is something we cherish and have kept going for more than 20 years. And we feel that’s important. So, I approach work-life balance by seeing what can be appropriately done to give attention to your family, rather than the other way around.

Dr Yaacob: I read – a lot and widely. I love to read. I am, by nature, a curious person. If something sparks my curiosity, I’ll pursue it more to understand it further. I do have a specific range of topics I’m interested in – though one regret is I don’t read a lot of fiction, partly because I don’t have a lot of time. And I’m quite an active person. I like walking and exercising. Those are the two things I do a lot.

But I do a lot of reading, and learning something new is fascinating. You come across something new and you say, “Wow! I never knew that before! That’s interesting.” I find that very satisfying. If I’m reading a book and learning something new from it, I will hold on to that book till I finish it. Some books I read and put aside because I’m not learning anything new and it’s all motherhood statements. My wife will tell you that I am not a shopaholic but I will buy lots of new books. I’m old-school—I don’t have a Kindle, I prefer a physical book that you can mark and dog-ear.

When I learn something new, I like to share. You can ask my staff at the ministry and when I was chairman at Mendaki. Before our monthly meetings started I would mention books I’d read and things I’d learned. I think it’s nice to learn something new. I find that very inspiring and very fulfilling.

Being a Muslim, I also read a lot about my own religion, and I’m always learning about the meaning of this verse in the Quran and this point in history. Now, believe it or not, I’m trying to build up my understanding of Singapore’s history. I have a bit of understanding but I don’t understand some parts, so I have to read and discover more, which is fascinating. So, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Parliament library and the National Library borrowing books.

 Dr Yaacob: You must love the job – this applies to every industry. Perhaps at my age it’s easier for me to say this, but at the end of the day there’s no point doing something you don’t enjoy, and you suffer. It’s not good for your mental health. It’s better to go into a job you enjoy doing. It may not pay as well but it gives you the satisfaction of doing something useful.

Life as a politician is challenging. You’re on the job 24 hours a day. Now with WhatsApp, I know what’s happening in the constituency 24-7. This morning, there was a fire at a coffeeshop, and immediately I got a picture. This is the world of social media—everyone’s connected. You’re always on call, so you need to enjoy doing it.

If you go into politics, it’s about dealing with people. It’s the art of communicating with, and helping people, because, to put very candidly, I need their votes every five years. What does that mean? It means they must like me! It means they must like our policies and our party. It’s a lot of work. You meet a whole range of people.

I’m very open and relaxed with people. And I think most of my other colleagues do exactly the same thing: we head off to the market and sit down, have breakfast and mingle. That ability to mingle with people from different walks of life is very important.If you’re uncomfortable with dealing with people, then it’s going to be very painful for you, basically.

 Dr Yaacob: What’s changed in Singaporean politics reflects what’s changed in Singapore. A simple, anecdotal answer: when I entered the 1997 election, several seats were not contested. It was a walkover. I had colleagues who’d never had to contest an election.

Now, every seat is contested. There’s greater political consciousness, and young people are interested in having a say in how society is being run, so expectations have grown tremendously. As a politician, you need to slog your guts out to meet those expectations.

For people still in politics, keeping your seat is going to be challenging. I think you cannot assume that any seat is safe. You have to work hard to ensure that the electorate is prepared to give you another five years. Take the view that nobody owes you a living, and if you want to be a politician you have to work hard to deliver on what you’ve promised. The electorate will question what you’ve done for the last five years at every election.

I’m old-school because I believe in one-to-one engagement – through meeting people, having a cup of coffee, shaking hands with them. It’s the best way to win hearts and minds. I am always reminded of what Lee Kuan Yew used to say: “I should be able to shake your hand, look you in the eye and know whether I trust you to look after my life.” When I am sitting here, talking and chatting with you, you can make an assessment as to whether you can trust me or not. Is he faking it? You will know that.

Dr Yaacob: I’ve had three portfolios. I’ve been with the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, and Ministry of Communications and Information. But I have been Minister for Muslim Affairs for 16 years. For 16 years, I’ve been responsible for the Muslim community. And I will say this on record: the challenges of managing the Malay/Muslim community are different as compared to the other portfolios. Let me explain.

One is that we are a minority community, that is often talked about with the other communities. If you ask me about one success I’d like to be associated with for the Malay-Muslim community—and I’m not going to take full credit for this—it’s that today, the idea of education as an important way for advancement for the family is actually embedded in the community. Today, you can go to any Mendaki event and see parents who want their child in school and are proud to see their children getting awards. That shift in the community has been the greatest shift, that education has such a high value that the parents are prepared to make sacrifices. I’m proud to be associated with that, for the community.

On the other hand, the more difficult challenge is the issue of religion and religiosity, and how you balance your religious identiy with being a Singaporean in a multicultural society. Many different clerics have opinions on issues like whether I can shake your hand, as a Muslim to a non-Muslim, and if women should wear the tudung or not. There are varying opinions on these. Finding that common ground within the Muslim community so that we move forward as a community is a bit more challenging.

This challenge is further complicated by religious scholars whose opinions don’t follow the mainstream and can undermine living full lives in our multicultural nation.

I think we have succeeded in trying to help Muslims in Singapore have a balanced life with the early building blocks, but there’s a way to go. Now, we see young people wearing tudungs and going out with their non-Muslim friends. We’ve opened up our doors during fasting month to break our fast with non-Muslim friends – we’ve never done this before, because the thinking was that this is a religious practice and if you didn’t fast why are you breaking fast? So, there are a lot of things that have become new norms. Now we’ve opened up – and for this to be accepted by the community – has been a great achievement. They realize that a non-Muslim friend eating the same food they do does not compromise their beliefs or undermine their religiosity. This is another thing that I find has been challenging, but fulfilling.

Dr Yaacob: I think the best way is to dip your toes into the water a little. You can do an internship or an attachment. In a way I’ve been lucky because I’ve been involved in community service since I was a student. If you want to get a sense of what it’s like, go and volunteer in your constituency and observe. I was an active volunteer at Mendaki. I ran programmes and dealt with people and MOE. That gives you some insight into public policy. Academia is a little different because you cannot simply become an intern. You could sign up to be a research assistant and get a feel for it, and you might decide that you’d rather go out into practice than be an academic.

The best advice I have for young people is to get the experience so you can make the assessments. All the stuff you read in books and stuff people tell you is just theory. Nothing beats experience.

Dr Yaacob: When I was first offered the option of entering politics in 1991, I had just come back from overseas, and I turned it down because I felt that I wasn’t ready. I had been away from Singapore for six years, and I could not pretend to know the issues well or to stand on a podium and say, “I am your representative”, so I said, I couldn’t. But, then 1997 came. I was still hesitant, but the one piece of advice my wife gave was, “Go and do it, if you think that 30 years later you will regret that you didn’t do it.”

 Dr Yaacob: Keep your options open. If you’re still 15 years old, the world is before you. Don’t con or blinker yourself into a small area and hold yourself back. The world is your oyster. It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth.

I think there are great opportunities out there. With the gumption or drive, you can do a lot. I think for young people at this age, the opportunities are fantastic. The world is changing rapidly. When I was growing up in school, you either went into arts or sciences. Now it’s a mixed bag, with intersecting streams of knowledge. It’s an exciting time to be in, and young people should not hold themselves back. I think they should seize every opportunity out there, examine what life is about, and what it has to offer them.

My other piece of advice is that if you’ve decided to go for it, do the best you can. If you do everything half-heartedly, I think it’s not worth the effort. You want to be an engineer? Be a good engineer. You want to be a politician? Be a good politician.

But take your time. Before you arrive at a decision you should give yourself time and space to examine all the options out there. Nobody should tell you what you should be doing. You should be telling yourself: that’s what I like. 

My advice to parents is that we should be giving space to kids to discover themselves. I think that’s the best gift we can give young people so that they can discover their own potential. What we need are young, adventurous Singaporeans who want to dream big. If you go back to your tried and tested jobs, and staying in that job for the rest of your life, Singapore will be doomed. You need young people who are prepared to change industry, relearn new things, try new things and move on. I believe that we must always invest in young people and give them these options.