Rebuilding Society from the Bottom Up |

Rebuilding Society from the Bottom Up


As old power structures based on hierarchies break down, human cooperation and division of labour will take new forms more suited to the technologies and needs of the times. Mr George Yeo, Visiting Scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) and former Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, shared his thoughts on these changes and how trust in institutions could be rebuilt. The talk was chaired by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of LKY School.

From hierarchies to network societies

New information technology is eroding the old structure of organising knowledge. “This technology has liberated human beings” and allowed lines of traditional hierarchy to be bypassed, said Mr Yeo.

Yet, social values and habits remain based on hierarchies. This can be unsettling, especially for authorities and institutions as the tendency is to “censor and block”.

He pointed out that this method of access cuts both ways. For instance, whistleblowers such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden – the new heroes for the young – are examples of renegades against attempts to retain access and hold over information. However, he questioned the futile attempt of total surveillance and authority.

Employing the vivid metaphor of an old crumbling cathedral, Mr Yeo made reference to the efforts of institutions such as the United Nations, European Union and G20 to increase jurisdiction to maintain their legitimacy. He said: “The bedrock on which the old cathedral was built is cracking and shifting. To build stable structures, to create spaces for human beings, one has to accept that the ground has changed. Human relationships and institutions must be in accord with these forces.”

Trust remains an imperative

While some may find this “creative destruction” exhilarating, Mr Yeo cautioned that negativism does not build civilisations; trust and cooperation continue to be necessary. 

He compared the current changes to the seismic shift when societies moved from nomadism to agricultural. While strong strictures were once necessary to maintain “tribal order”, today’s notion of kinship and affinities is organised in vastly different ways, irrespective of distance. This “new nomadism” impacts state structures, where being small is an advantage, he said. Distance matters much less as members of a group can be emotionally synchronised in different continents.

Leadership driving solutions requires trust, and to gain trust, leaders have to be authentic and acknowledge their frailties.  Without this, there can be no moral authority. China clearly illustrates the need and struggle for authenticity in its drive to weed out corruption, even as its culture puts a high premium on form and guanxi, Mr Yeo noted. He highlighted the use of Sina Weibo microblog to cover the trial of disgraced politician Bo Xilai as a deliberate step by the Chinese government to shape public opinion. 

 On 3 September 2013, Mr George Yeo, Visiting Scholar at the LKY School, gave a lunchtime talk titled “Rebuilding Society from the Bottom Up”. The talk was chaired by Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, LKY School. Mr Yeo served 23 years in the Singapore government (1988–2011), where he was Minister for Information and the Arts (1991–1999), Minister for Health (1994–1997), Minister for Trade and Industry (1999–2004), and Minister for Foreign Aff­airs (2004–2011). Prior to that, Mr Yeo had served in the Singapore Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence, where he attained the rank of Brigadier-General.

By Melanie Chua, LKY School


With the IT revolution, old power structures based on hierarchies are breaking down. Everywhere we see mass discontent. But this is only the first phase of creative destruction, a clearing of the ground for new growth. Out of this chaos, human cooperation and division of labour will take new forms more suited to the technologies and the needs of the times. Society will then be re-created from the bottom up.


Mr. George Yeo, Visiting Scholar, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Tuesday, 03 September 2013
12:15 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.

Lobby, Oei Tiong Ham Building,
NUS Bukit Timah Campus,
469C Bukit Timah Road,
Singapore 259772

WordPress Video Lightbox Plugin