George Yeo on Wikileaks — full transcript

The following is the transcript of Foreign Minister George Yeo’s Interview with the Media on Wikileaks at the Eurasian House on Sunday 12 December 2010 at 5.00pm.

Q: Minister, with regard to the recent comments that there were some comments made by Ministry officials about other countries like Malaysia, what are your comments on these things that came out on Wikileaks?

A: 250,000 emails, reflecting the views of US diplomats, have been leaked. I’m quite sure that there will be a few which emanate from Singapore. These are interpretations by US diplomats of what they have heard, their conversations. I don’t think it is right of us to comment on these, because these conversations were confidential, some might be informal, but we don’t know the context, so I would not go beyond that. But it is bad practice to me for such confidential communications to be leaked, because it makes future confidential communications that much more difficult. It is almost as if when we talk, we have to talk on the basis that there is a camera in the room recording everything we say. Then we lose something when that happens.

Q: Has the Foreign Ministry been in touch with the diplomats named in the cables? Have you had any correspondence with them since the story broke this morning?

A: Which story broke this morning? About comments made by Bilahari and Tommy Koh?

Q: Yes.

A: [Laughs] I’m quite sure they make worse comments about me. [Laughter] No, no, these are in the nature of cocktail talk, people say things in a blunt, forthright way. I don’t think we should divorce… even if true, we should not divorce what is said from the context.

Q: Are you saying that they are not true?

A: I have no idea. [Laughs]

Q: The Australian newspapers claim that this will spark political controversy in the region.

A: No, this whole Wikileaks saga will run on for some time, and it will be worldwide. No doubt so far the juicier bits, supposedly, have come out. But there will be more coming out in the future, “Oh, you said this about me, I said this about you”, and it goes on. I think it is best that we respect the confidentiality of diplomatic communications.

Q: Do you see this affecting any relations?

A: Relations with?

Q: With the countries involved.

A: No, I don’t think so. I’m quite sure that others may say things about us which we may find perhaps unsurprising, in confidential diplomatic communications.

Q: So this Wikileaks saga is pretty damaging to the diplomatic world. How do you see this panning out?

A: Well, it is American law, because if confidential information falls on your laps, then you have the freedom to spread it. This is not the case in many countries, not in Singapore, where you have the Official Secrets Act. If you are in receipt, however accidentally, of confidential information, disseminating it is a crime and you will be prosecuted. It is the case in most countries. But the US takes freedom of information to a point where you can’t stop these things from happening. And it goes back to the Vietnam War, when because of the release of the Pentagon papers, a political change happened in that country, and there was a certain loss of faith in the institutions. They are quite determined to maintain that right, even though many of them know that there is a cost to be paid for maintaining that right.

Q: Sir, sorry, I just want to confirm something. So what do you think is the impact of this latest string of comments that our senior staff and Cabinet [members] have made on diplomatic relations? Did you say that there was no impact? What sort of impact will there be?

A: I don’t know what impact there will be, or how others will interpret it. But because of the nature of diplomatic communications, taking it out of context, that, “look, so and so said such and such a thing”, at a cocktail, about a particular incident, and it gets reported, I don’t think we should over-interpret such communications.

Q: So the Foreign Ministry has not received any communications from these countries that were named?

A: Oh, I only saw it this morning in the Sunday Times.

Q: So, so far nothing yet, right?

A: No, I don’t think we want to comment on what others say about us. It’s not for us to say, “yes it’s true” or “yes, it’s not true”. Then it’ll be endless.

Q: But Sir, this is what we said about others, not what others said about us.

A: That is what certain individuals said about others, there could be a diversity of views. As I said, they probably said things about me which I may not agree with. But that’s fine, that’s to be expected. If you want to hear everything which others say behind your back and take offence at it, you’ll be a very unhappy person.

Q: Do you think this Wikileaks saga has had a very negative implication on US diplomatic relations?

A: I think it will have an impact on diplomatic communications where it involves American diplomats, because, well, you can never be sure. So since you’re not sure, you’ll err on the side of safety and manage the risk.

Q: Will that then affect relations with America?

A: No, the diplomatic work will still have to continue, hard subjects will still have to be addressed. People will find ways to convey messages and points so that if they are released, then the entire context is clear. I’m always wary about taking a sentence or a phrase out of context, out of time and space – but, when, how, what did I say before, and what did I say after? What’s your overall presentation?

Q: Have you had a look at the actual cables yet, at what was inside?

A: The American cables?

Q: Yes.

A: No, I’ve only seen what the Sunday Times has put up. I’m not quite sure if Sunday Times should be putting up all these things, because you are really adding to the general melee. It is gossip, and does it help?

Q: So it is gossip and quoted out of context.

A: It is always out of context, and is it right to ask people to confirm, “Was this what you said? It was reported.” Then it is endless.

Q: So have you asked the people to confirm if that was what they said?

A: No, no, I have no intention of asking. These are confidential communications. Thank you.