Sunday 26 January 2020

Moral leadership in a fragmenting world: George Yeo

This is an edited transcript of the 24th Gordon Arthur Ransome Oration by ex-foreign minister George Yeo in Singapore last week
The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2020

This oration was originally planned to be held in Hong Kong last December in conjunction with an event co-organised by the Academies of Medicine of Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, that event had to be cancelled because of the unsettled situation in Hong Kong.

No one expected the protests which began in June last year to become so big and to last so long. As a legislator of many years, I decided to download the Extradition Bill and read it for myself. Frankly, I did not find the proposed amendments to existing laws unreasonable. It did not seem right that one could commit rape or murder in China and find sanctuary in Hong Kong.

However, most Hong Kongers viewed the Bill differently and were outraged that Chief Executive Carrie Lam was determined to get it passed despite mass opposition. Looking back, the Bill was only the spark that set off a forest fire. For many years after the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the fuel load in the forest had been building up. Social injustice had gotten worse. Most parents no longer believed that their children could do better than them. As a result, there is not a sense of hope and, without a sense of hope, society turns sour.

After leaving government in 2011, I joined Robert Kuok in Hong Kong. My wife and I shuttle back and forth between the two cities. Hong Kong has become for us a second home. We now have our own social circle there, including a number of young Hong Kongers interested in politics. Some of them are yellow, some are blue; all feel deeply for Hong Kong.

We ourselves have developed an affection for Hong Kong and its people, and decided, after my retirement as chairman of Kerry Logistics last year, to buy an apartment near Hong Kong University. Like many others, we were shocked by the rapid deterioration of Hong Kong in the past eight months. Unlike many others, we remain cautiously optimistic for Hong Kong's long-term future because of its special position half-in and half-out of China and the resilience of its people.

It is, however, not my intention to talk principally about Hong Kong today. The reason for my raising Hong Kong is because there are larger, deeper forces at work in Hong Kong which affect the whole world. We have to be mindful of them because they affect us in Singapore too. These forces are unleashed by technology and challenge us morally.

I would like to highlight four in particular - the social media revolution, fragmentation and reconfiguration of human society, growing wealth and income inequality, and mass manipulation by new masters of the universe.


When the Internet arrived in the 1990s, many saw it as liberating. It became much easier to access information. Patients now google their symptoms before seeing doctors and everything the doctor says and prescribes can be counterchecked on the Net.

In the same way, teachers are challenged by students, and government leaders by the citizenry. The social media revolution has disrupted old relationships. Everywhere, we see hierarchies breaking down. Old institutions, once preserved and sustained by ritual, secrecy, information asymmetry, hypocrisy, deception and force are being corroded. When Pope Francis smacked an Asian lady twice on the arm after she grabbed him by his sleeve in St Peter's Square and refused to let go, it immediately became news. The Pope apologised the day after. A mainland Chinese friend of mine told me it made the Pope look quite good because it showed him to be human. It is just as well that Francis, since becoming Pope, frequently declares himself a sinner.

Old leadership models have become obsolete. Whether it is Pope Francis, President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Elon Musk or Greta Thunberg, we are in a new situation. It sometimes seems as if a necessary qualification for leadership is to be publicly a sinner. The term used nowadays is "authenticity" although that too is often manufactured.


Human society takes time to adjust to new technologies. The IT revolution shows no sign of abating. In fact, it is setting off concomitant change in other technological fields like biomedicine, material science and manufacturing. These changes in turn act upon one another, often in unexpected ways, causing even further disruption to the old order.

In his analysis of economic cycles, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote about creative destruction. What we see all around is the destructive phase of the technological revolution which is fragmenting human society. This fragmentation... defines the age we live in.

Going back to Hong Kong, what characterises the protest movement is its fluid, leaderless, organic character. Social media reinforces beliefs and biases. Those who are yellow watch yellow sites, get angrier and become more yellow. For many, police officers have become the villains and even their family members are targeted.

For those who are blue, the demonstrators are cockroaches to be smacked down. Views become highly, absurdly polarised. Unmediated positive feedback loops quickly become unstable. The same phenomenon is evident in the US, Taiwan during the recent elections, the UK when the Brexit debate was raging, and in many other countries.

Fragmentation is, however, not the end state. Gradually, the fragments recombine in new ways, similar to the pattern of neural networks. Nodes grow and compete with other nodes with which they are linked through multiple pathways. There is a biological quality about these new forms of organisation.

It is almost as if we are witnessing a Cambrian explosion of diverse organisational species. Those which successfully adapt to the new environment proliferate while others reach dead ends. Apple, Samsung and Huawei have very different organisational structures and systems. Which will still be successful 10 years from now, no one can foretell but for sure there will be new winners and losers.

Losing faith in existing institutions, there is at one level a reversion to tribal networks of trust. Some of these networks are based on ethnicity and religion. We also see new tribal networks forming around specific causes, such as LGBT rights, climate activism, even veganism.

Positive or negative, politicians everywhere are quick to pick up populist causes to win votes, undermining the civil society which is the bedrock of democracy.

Political systems are subject to the same creative destruction. Western democratic systems no longer function well. Established political parties are fissuring. In many democracies, domestic political debate has become toxic.

At all levels, from the family to companies to political structures, we see continuing fragmentation, experimentation and reconfiguration. The process can be described as Darwinian.


The third force impacting society today is growing wealth and income inequality.

The impact of technological change on individual fortunes is uneven. Once upon a time, hardworking, responsible employees could expect their lives to improve year by year. Today, many feel they are struggling to run up a downward-moving escalator. Those whose work is repetitive are at great risk. Their jobs can be outsourced to countries where labour is cheaper. Or be replaced by robots and algorithms.

In contrast, those who are well placed to seize new opportunities created by fragmentation prosper. For example, among new graduates, computer engineers command among the highest salaries. When we look at the league table of the most successful companies in the world, the top positions are increasingly held by those in technology. In Singapore, Sea, which is a company specialising in gaming and e-commerce - a company which most Singaporeans have not heard of - has quite suddenly become one of the top companies, with a capitalisation half that of Singtel.

Growing inequality of wealth and income exacerbates existing class and ethnic divisions in society. The "yellow vest" protests in France are part of this phenomenon. There are eerie similarities between the protests in Hong Kong and those far away in Barcelona and Santiago.


The fourth force challenging us is the way big data and social media are being used to manipulate the way we think.

The first phase of the Internet revolution opened the floodgates to information access and eroded old power structures. For a short while, there was an exhilarating sense of equalisation. That phase has ended. We are discovering how our minds are being manipulated by new masters of the universe.

Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Alibaba and Tencent make use of the enormous data they collect to squeeze out competitors and influence our preferences, often without our knowledge. In Singapore and elsewhere, a very high percentage of ad revenues is cornered by Google and Facebook because of the eyeballs they have captured.

A few weeks after the HK unrest started, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, in quick succession, blocked hundreds of sites which they claim besmirched protesters, giving the reason that these sites originated from China. Sites which supported the protesters were untouched. It is unclear who made these decisions but I don't think they were made in Hong Kong. There is no doubt that the way friction is increased or reduced in different parts of the Internet can significantly sway public opinion. Trapped in an old mindset, the Hong Kong government was unable or unwilling to intervene.

Other governments have no such inhibitions. India routinely shuts down the Internet in various cities when there are riots. When mass demonstrations erupted in Iran after fuel prices were raised, the government switched off Facebook, causing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to threaten sanctions on those responsible. In the battle for hearts and minds in Iran, the US actively intervenes in the way Facebook, Twitter and Instagram cover developments in the country. The big powers devote considerable resources to the exploitation of social media for political purposes.

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the existence of Prism, an incredible system developed by the US National Security Agency to collect Internet information worldwide. All governments would love to have such a capability but none can hope to, and certainly not on the same scale as the US except, possibly, China one day.

A key reason for the US campaign against Huawei is the fear that China may not only develop a similar surveillance capability but that Chinese equipment and Chinese systems will make it harder for the US to maintain the same surveillance reach. For some countries, like Singapore, the only safe assumption is that all systems expose us to external intelligence penetration. We have to find ways to protect ourselves and accept that nothing is foolproof. The challenge is made much harder with increasing dependence on clouds.

China makes no pretence about controlling the Internet. In fact, China is probably the first country to make extensive use of big data for national governance. Big data analysis has enabled China to overcome a problem which afflicted its governance system over the centuries. Because of the size of the country, there are many layers of administration, making it hard for Beijing to know what's happening on the ground. Corrupt officials often succeed in covering up problems by working with counterparts one level above to suppress complaints. When problems do reach the centre, it is because they have already become big and serious.

To overcome this defect, Chinese dynasties developed elaborate systems of inspection. Wrongs did get righted but they were so rare, the stories are immortalised in Chinese operas. With big data analysis, it is easier for Beijing to be alerted earlier.

For many Westerners, China has become George Orwell's 1984. For many Chinese, the loss of privacy is a price worth paying for safety and convenience. There is probably no safer big country than China today. But will the centralisation of control lead to massive abuse one day? The Chinese Communist Party is not immune to the same forces of change in the world. It has to evolve in response to new circumstances. By cracking down on corruption and re-establishing moral authority, President Xi Jinping has bought time for China and the Communist Party.

In the US, what intelligence and law enforcement agencies are allowed to do is the subject of a raging debate. In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation provides some safeguard to the misuse or abuse of data collection. This may make it more difficult for Europe to catch up with the US and China in AI. But the use of facial recognition technology is not likely to be held back because it is simply too useful.

Thus we see in the world today a range of responses to the challenge of big data, in particular, the loss of privacy and the mass manipulation of public opinion. In Singapore, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, commonly known as Pofma, is a brave attempt to stem the same incoming tide. It is not easy but we should not stop trying.


The IT revolution is enabling the collection, storage and processing of data on an unprecedented scale. It is almost as if nothing that happens will ever be forgotten. This leap in the collective intelligence of human beings has a god-like quality about it. What the technological revolution has unleashed is two-edged. There is always a temptation to weaponise the newest technology in order to gain a military advantage. It takes time for the moral sense of human beings to catch up with new technologies and to tame them. In the last century, mechanisation, mass production and nuclear energy led to the slaughter of over a hundred million people.

There is an air of hubris in the way the new masters of the universe view their growing capabilities. This hubris infects us at all levels - state agencies which are carried away by the use of technology; politicians who rely on clever data analytics to manipulate voters; generals who fantasise about unstoppable spears and impregnable shields; economists who believe the manipulation of money supply can rid us of economic cycles; corporate leaders whose ambitions know no bounds; successful tribes and wealthy individuals who are convinced of their own genetic superiority; scientists who tinker with germ lines to improve the quality of human beings; and computer engineers who see AI as the ultimate.


It is said that in Roman times, a victorious general in a triumphal procession would have behind him a slave whispering into his ears "memento mori", which means "remember, you will die". It is a warning against hubris.

Whether as parents, teachers, doctors, government ministers or corporate leaders, we must not lose our moral sense in the pursuit of achievement and success. It is important to contemplate human weakness, and the meaning of suffering and death. It is in pathos that we forge group solidarity. In an age of fragmentation, solidarity is vital. In everything we do, we must not ignore those who are wounded or have fallen by the wayside. Without this social glue, civilised society breaks down.

Tectonic change has caused the old edifices to crumble into smaller pieces. We must rebuild but with the expectation that the ground will continue to quake. Above all, we need solidarity which is the instinct to connect and bond.


Human society cannot be organised on the basis of law and the market alone. Laws only mark outer boundaries. Laws can require parents to look after children. Laws cannot make parents love their children, or vice versa. The market is a powerful way of allocating resources in a complex economy. But the market alone cannot solve many human problems. Human society needs solidarity as a cohesive force to bind human beings together in cooperative effort. In Confucian teaching, stress is put on five core values: benevolence, justice, proper behaviour, wisdom and trust. All moral systems incorporate and elaborate these values. These values are deep in our nature and probably encoded in our DNA.

To remain relevant, these moral systems, which include religion and ideology, must adapt to new challenges thrown up by technology.

Take proper behaviour as an example. For human beings to interact, we need protocols facilitating communication and cooperation. When individuals are masked, whether in public or on the Internet, protocols are hard to establish. In anonymous settings, individuals become irresponsible and abusive. Without a moral sense, the new freedom which technology offers destroys itself.

In all fields, we need moral leadership. The great danger is the revolution in technology outpacing the evolution of our moral sense. Whether in the private, public or people sector, in grappling with economic and technical questions, we should never de-emphasise moral considerations.

It is common nowadays for decisions to be taken in an amoral way. An indifferent, amoral approach in a period of rapid technological change is possibly the greatest danger to humankind today. We must not be beguiled by a so-called, post-truth world. The more complex the world becomes, the more must we affirm that which is at the core of our humanity.


No comments:

Post a Comment