Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Tommy Koh: Reflections of an octogenarian

Three lessons from a man who helped make Singapore and the world better
By Tommy Koh, Published The Straits Times, 7 Nov 2017

In 1965, when Singapore became independent, the life expectancy here was 67 years.

According to the World Health Organisation, Singapore's current life expectancy of 83.1 years is the third highest in the world, behind Japan (83.7) and Switzerland (83.4).

The increase in our life expectancy over the past 52 years is a reflection of the progress we have made in human welfare, and also because we have a good healthcare system, brilliant doctors and excellent hospitals.

On Nov 12, I will turn 80 and join the Eighties Club whose unofficial chairman is my good friend and lifelong mentor, Professor Wang Gungwu, who is 87.

Straits Times Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong has asked me to reflect on the past 80 years and to distil some lessons from my life and career for those who are younger. I will try to do so.


My first observation is that success in life does not depend on who your parents are or the circumstances of your beginning.

Consider the lives of our fourth, sixth and eighth presidents.

President Wee Kim Wee had to leave Raffles Institution after only two years in order to help support his family. His first job was that of a lowly clerk at The Straits Times.

President S R Nathan had a traumatic childhood because his father committed suicide, leaving the family penniless. After being unjustly expelled by two Singapore schools, Mr Nathan ran away to Muar in Malaysia. His first job there was that of an assistant to a Malay hawker in a school canteen.

President Halimah Yacob also had a difficult childhood. Her father died prematurely. She had to wake up early every day to help her mother prepare and sell nasi lemak.

My advice to young Singaporeans, especially those who come from poor or fractured families, is not to be fatalistic and feel defeated. The future is what you make of it. Work hard, think positive and seize the opportunities which come your way.

In your dark moments, feel inspired by the lives of presidents Wee Kim Wee, S R Nathan and Halimah Yacob.


My second piece of advice to young Singaporeans is to have a positive mindset, be willing to leave your comfort zones and take on new challenges.

The only job I ever applied for in my life was to teach at the NUS Law School. In 1968, when the Singapore Government asked me to leave my comfort zone and become Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, I could have said no.

Many times in my life, I have been asked to take on new challenges, such as negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States, negotiating an agreement with China to establish diplomatic relations between our two countries, establishing the National Arts Council and the Asia Europe Foundation, leading the Institute of Policy Studies think-tank and transforming Singapore's museums. I have always accepted the challenges.

At the international level, I could have said no when I was asked to chair the Law of the Sea Conference and the Earth Summit, chair two dispute panels at the World Trade Organisation or serve as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to make peace between Russia and its three Baltic neighbours, because the tasks were hard and success was not assured.

I took on all those challenges because I wished to be of service to my country and the world.

My philosophy in life is to have a positive and optimistic mindset and a can-do spirit. Life is a learning journey. I have enjoyed all the jobs given to me.


My third piece of advice to young Singaporeans is on the importance of making friends and building relationships.

Most of us are social animals. We are happiest when we are in the company of friends, especially old and good friends. We enjoy working as a member of a team rather than as a solo player.

Because of my work, I have made many friends, both in Singapore and in many foreign countries. My friends have brought joy to my life. They have also helped me to succeed in my assignments, especially those involving working with foreign countries or international organisations.

To succeed in life, we need at least three kinds of intelligence, namely, cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence.

Singaporeans are admired for their high cognitive intelligence. We are less admired for our emotional intelligence because we are often perceived as cold, arrogant and condescending.

We must try to change this negative perception by being more modest and humble and more respectful of others. We should always remember that people think with their heads as well as their hearts. If they do not like us, this can become an obstacle in our work. Our ambition should be to win the hearts and minds of our regional neighbours and other interlocutors.

Why is cultural intelligence important? It is important because it helps us to understand our foreign friends better and to manage our relations with them more smoothly and effectively.

When I was asked to chair the first Asia-Middle East Dialogue in 2005, I spent several months studying the histories and cultures of our Arab, Iranian and Turkish friends. I encouraged the chefs of the caterer we engaged to learn to cook Arab, Iranian and Turkish food. I learnt to avoid serving spicy food to our Middle Eastern friends.

In my work as a diplomat, when I have to entertain a delegation from India which includes several vegetarians, I usually pick a vegetarian restaurant. When I entertain a delegation from a Muslim country, I usually take them to a halal restaurant.

Singaporeans are not in the habit of embracing each other or kissing each other when we meet. At the UN, I observed that my Arab male friends kiss each other on the cheek when they meet. In order not to offend them, I conformed to their ritual.

I also observed that my African friends had the habit of hugging each other. In order to be accepted as a "brother", I was happy to be kissed by my Arab friends and hugged by my African friends.

On one occasion, I observed that a visiting African head of state wanted to hug his Singapore host at the Istana before he left. Instead of hugging him back, the Singapore leader stepped back in order to avoid being hugged. After the African leader had departed, the Singapore leader asked me whether he had made a mistake. I said yes and explained the hugging ritual of African men and the kissing ritual of Arab men.

I shall conclude by recapitulating the three lessons which I would like to share with young Singaporeans.

First, the future is what you make of it. Do not feel that you have no chance in life because of your difficult circumstances.

Second, have a positive mindset and be willing to leave your comfort zones and take on new challenges.

Third, develop your cognitive, emotional and cultural intelligence and make lasting friendships.

The writer is a professor of law at NUS and an ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Singapore's Tommy Koh, Asia's professor
The central message of his life that Asia must heed is 'seize the day'
By Ravi Velloor, Associate Editor, The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2017

Anyone who's travelled to the wetlands of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal could not have missed the signs announcing that dung beetles have right of way. Supremely important to the ecosystem, the beetles roll dung into balls often bigger than themselves, cleaning up the mess others leave behind while quietly improving the soil structure and its nutrients.

Unlike the wise people in the African bushveld, however, the powerful who occupy Asia's urban spaces tend to be not sensitive enough - or are all too frequently indifferent - to the sentiments and security of those they take for granted, or routinely tread underfoot.

One personage on whom that charge will never stick is Asia's Tommy Koh.

In 1984, Professor Tommy Koh was Singapore's ambassador to Washington when his private secretary-designate, arriving to start her assignment, was surprised to see not one but two embassy cars waiting for her at the airport. The envoy had sent along the second car, aware she had a family of four and would certainly have a lot of luggage. At the time of that simple act of thoughtfulness, he had already won global acclaim for successfully chairing the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Similar instincts had prompted him, decades earlier, to pen an indignant piece in his school magazine, The Rafflesian, querying the arrests of street hawkers and asking if it were not possible for the colonial government to provide them with a place to ply their trade. In short, the teenage Koh was asking for the "hawker centres" we know today.

It might seem odd that a cantation on Singapore's most distinguished serving diplomat - for, in addition to being professor of law at the National University of Singapore, where he once was dean of the law school, he remains Ambassador-at-Large and the designated interlocutor for semi-official talks with Asia's three most important powers - should begin with anecdotes of his social sensitivity and conscience.

Yet, it is entirely fitting in the context of the region and this little Republic's reputation for brusque efficiency and relentless pursuit of self-interest. For Prof Koh, who turns 80 this Sunday, has shown through five decades of personal example that in diplomacy, displaying sensitivity is not weakness, that a disagreement does not need to be a fight, and consensus is worth striving for because it provides the most durable result.

Most important of all, he has exemplified belief in a rules-based order and the conviction that while a measure of flexibility is a virtue, core principles are important and must be maintained.

This is perhaps why Prof Koh got to chair two major conferences involving UN member states. A decade after his triumph at Unclos, he chaired the Rio Conference, officially called the UN Conference on Environment and Development (1990-1992). Most diplomats would feel privileged to have served on a single international panel. And this is not to mention other achievements in diplomacy, dispute settlement, the arts and a variety of other areas that are too numerous to recount.

Noted China scholar Wang Gungwu, who is seven years older than Prof Koh, sums it up best when he describes him as the international voice of his multicultural city state, "the gentle face of a state that punches - and sometimes punches hard - above its weight".

Some might think Prof Koh a softie or, as the late minister Lim Kim San put it, a "Boy Scout". While it is true that he is more taiji than karate in approach, the Boy Scout put-down does a disservice to his personality and style. Indeed, the so-called soft approach may even be a deliberate personal statement to an island raised on tough love because, when required, Prof Koh can convey a hard message without ambiguity.


Years ago, I observed him lancing economist Paul Krugman with a few well-chosen words that firmly expressed Singapore's poor view of Mr Krugman's dismal analysis of its economic model. The Nobel Prize-winning economist simply lowered his eyes in response.

Visibly Chinese in appearance and pan-Asian in orientation, he often leaves you with the thought that there is a lot of the Hindu Vedanta philosophy in him, especially in the way he backs, and sometimes practises, respectful dissent towards the masters.

In a Facebook post last week, he took note of the recent works of professors Chua Beng Huat and Cherian George, academics whose unflinching gaze makes some on this island uncomfortable, framing them as "two critical lovers of Singapore". He then lent them additional air cover by calling them "brilliant scholars and friends". Clearly, he believes that while cynicism is a waste, a critical outlook is healthy for society's progress. This is one lesson from the "Prof" that must be heeded by anyone who has accumulated vast power, including those running governments in Tokyo, Beijing or New Delhi.

It is always tempting to ponder what might have been if such a man as this, with his egalitarian and inclusive instincts, tolerance of dissent, love of cultures and pan-Asian perspective, entered the political fray in Singapore. Scholar-statesman George Yeo, Singapore's former foreign minister, says that as a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1970s he had heard rumours that Prof Koh might be a potential prime minister.

The question is now of course moot but if he did not have an appetite for domestic politics four decades ago, he would have certainly done magnificently had he chosen to return to the global stage with which he is so familiar. In the mid-2000s, Singapore did consider fielding him as a candidate for UN secretary-general, and he would easily have won, seeing it was Asia's turn to hold the post and all key stakeholders would have backed his nomination. Prof Koh chose not to bid for that responsibility, apparently for family reasons.

Would the South China Sea's contemporary history have been differently scripted if the man who chaired Unclos had been UN secretary-general between 2007 and 2017? It is a question to ponder.

Since this column has an Asia focus, it is worth recounting two events involving Prof Koh that would influence the Singapore, and ASEAN, projects.

As Singapore's permanent representative to the UN, Prof Koh was a big voice in campaigning for democratic Kampuchea and attacking the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan the following year. No surprise there. Singapore was close to the United States, after all. The difficult move that speaks for strong conviction was his strong criticism of the US itself for its invasion of Grenada in 1983, criticism that vexed many in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who worried it might affect the tight bilateral relationship.

Prof Koh's statement to the Security Council on Oct 28, 1983, on why Singapore could not acquiesce to the invasion succinctly underscores the bedrock on which a lot of current Singaporean external policy is based. "To do so will, in the long run, undermine the moral and legal significance of the principles which my country regards as a shield," he said. "This is why we must put our adherence to principle above friendship."

Likewise, his contributions to Asean, including applying his vast legal knowledge and experience to help draft its charter - the first formal document to institutionalise the 10-nation body - are well documented.


Less known is his flanking manoeuvre to outwit then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had proposed an Asia-Pacific community encompassing Australia, the US, Japan, China, Indonesia and India, but crucially omitting ASEAN, thus cutting its strategic relevance.

As former ASEAN secretary-general Ong Keng Yong tells it, Mr Rudd raised his idea at the Apec CEO Summit held in Singapore in 2009. Prof Koh, chairing the session featuring Mr Rudd, popped three questions to poll the CEOs present. First, whether the existing architecture for political and security dialogue was successful. It got an 80 per cent "yes". Second, did the region need a new institution? The CEOs voted 55 per cent in favour.

Then came the killer question: Should ASEAN's role as the region's facilitator and catalyst be preserved? The response was 75 per cent "yes"!

Earlier this year, when Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop fervently pitched for America to recognise ASEAN centrality in Asian affairs, Prof Koh could have been permitted a smile of satisfaction.

Still, the bigger lesson taught by Asia's professor is perhaps about how to live a full life. Staying fit, wasting not a moment, keeping updated on contemporary affairs, revelling in the diversity of society and nature, accessible to the lowly and the powerful, his life is like an Ernie Els golf swing whose swift pace is masked by a remarkable cadence and fluidity. Those who know Latin will recognise his central message as "carpe diem". For the rest of us in Singapore, ASEAN and wider Asia, it is: Seize the day!

The author acknowledges that some of the quotations and anecdotes cited are extracted from Tommy Koh: Serving Singapore And The World, to be officially released on Saturday by World Scientific Publishing.

A book on Tommy Koh as he turns 80
DPM Tharman talks of the 'Tommy Koh blend' at launch of collection of essays on his impact
By Danson Cheong, The Sunday Times, 12 Nov 2017

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh represented Singapore on the world stage, but was also known as a man of humility and humanity, who made time for everyone.

Associate Professor Robert Beckman of the National University of Singapore's Centre for International Law, recounted an incident when he took a group of students to the United States for a school trip in 1990. They were to meet Professor Koh, then Ambassador to the US.

"One of the students took ill on the plane and almost lost his voice," recalled Prof Beckman."The Ambassador of Singapore showed up at the hotel, carrying a pot of soup made by his wife for the young law student from Singapore."

He was one of seven friends and former colleagues of Prof Koh who spoke at the launch of a new book, Tommy Koh - Serving Singapore and the World, yesterday, a day before Prof Koh turns 80 today.

Containing over 40 essays, it celebrates Prof Koh's achievements and the impact they had on Singapore and the world. The pieces are written by contributors who knew Prof Koh or worked with him.

Prof Koh has had a distinguished career spanning five decades as one of Singapore's leading diplomats.

At the age of 31, the law don was appointed Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He would go on to helm panels such as the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, and the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

He was also chief negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, and was on the team that successfully argued the case for Singapore's claim to Pedra Branca at the International Court of Justice.

At home, Prof Koh is known for his contributions to the arts and in building a compassionate society. He was founding chairman of the National Arts Council, sat on the Esplanade board and chaired the National Heritage Board.

Prof Beckman said Prof Koh was also someone who had empathy for others, from junior diplomats to cleaning ladies. "He makes everyone feel that they are welcome."

Emeritus Professor Koh Kheng Lian from the NUS Law Faculty said when Prof Koh was dean from 1971 to 1974, he would make it a point to "know the names of every single law student". There were some 40 students per cohort then. Ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee said Prof Koh helped Singapore "establish a model of diplomacy" that diplomats continue to adhere to today.

Mr Arun Mahizhnan, Special Research Adviser at the Institute of Policy Studies which Prof Koh once led, said he was someone who was not afraid to voice his thoughts on issues like capital punishment, artistic freedom and the environment.

The book launch at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia was attended by some 200 guests, including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, and members of the arts community.

Mr Tharman said Prof Koh had succeeded in advancing Singapore's interests and earned the trust of the international community because of a distinctive mix of qualities, which he called the "Tommy Koh blend". He described this as "your standing by the interests of Singapore as a small country, your ability to master and synthesise the most complex facts in a negotiation, and equally too your humility, and the disarming way in which you win people over."

The event was capped off with a birthday cake, and actress Selena Tan led guests in a birthday song.

Prof Koh told The Sunday Times he was bowled over by the praise. "I'm lost for words," he said. "We need someone to criticise me to balance this, maybe my wife should've spoken," he added with a chuckle.

The book is available at bookshops for $36 (excluding GST).

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