The Ties That Bind

Prof. Tommy Koh and his grandson Toby bring public diplomacy to a personal level. They often greet foreign workers and strangers when they go on their walks.

As Singapore closes in on its first 50 years of independence, Singapore’s Ambassador-At-Large, Professor Tommy Koh, shares his perspective as a citizen ambassador — on how he has seen Singapore grow over the years and the many enduring friendships he has forged around the world.



ingapore had nationhood thrust unexpectedly upon it when it was excluded from Malaysia in 1965. Small, with little by way of resources and in many ways economically dependent on the prosperity and political stability of its neighbours, it has earned the right to carry its head high as a result of the tremendous success it has achieved in its social, economic and political development and the good relations it has cultivated with the world.

Against this historical backdrop, Singapore’s much-loved Ambassador-At-Large Professor Tommy Koh found that his trainingas a lawyer stood him well in a long career that saw milestones which took him deep into international circles of diplomacy. Down-to-earth and still well regarded today no matter which of his many hats of high office he wears, the man seen as a friend to everyone shares his insights on Singapore’s voice of diplomacy.

SG: How important is ‘public diplomacy’ for Singapore, and what could we do more of to stay relevant in the world?

Prof Koh:Diplomacy is both an art and a science. In diplomacy, we think both with our heads and our hearts. We seek to engage the governments and peoples of foreign countries at all levels: intellectually, culturally and emotionally. People diplomacy, or public diplomacy, is very important in an era of empowered citizens. In this new world, it is not enough to engage the governments of foreign countries. We must also explain our foreign policy to our own citizens and to the peoples of other countries. Technology and globalisation have made it possible for our diplomats and officials to communicate directly to the peoples of foreign countries and to influence their perceptions of us, our policies and actions. A diplomat’s job is therefore more challenging now than before. He/she has to think creatively on how to use the new media and social media. In addition, we have to engage the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders.

SG: How can a maturing country like Singapore better encourage its citizens to be responsible global citizens?

Prof Koh:More Singaporeans are helping our nation live up to our goal of becoming a city of responsible global citizens. For example, Noeleen Heyzer brought us credit when she championed the cause of women’s rights as the head of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) and through her good work as the executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap). Janet Lim has also brought us credit through her work with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Individual Singaporeans are helping the poor, the sick, the needy, and vulnerable women and children, in several neighbouring countries. The Singapore Red Cross Society and Mercy Relief have done us proud. Many of our students are also spending their vacations by doing good deeds abroad.

Through non-profit organisations like the Singapore International Foundation, we encourage our citizens to volunteer abroad, and we have since trained thousands of friends from all over the world in areas in which we have competence and expertise to share, such as healthcare and education.

SG: How do you think the average Singaporean can personally change how others see us at work and/or at play, whether at home or abroad?

Prof Koh:In a sense, every Singaporean is an ambassador of Singapore. Foreigners form impressions of us based on their interactions with us, no matter where we are. My appeal is for Singaporeans to be warmer, friendlier, and more helpful towards foreigners. There are over one million foreign workers in Singapore. We sometimes treat them like they’re invisible. My three-year-old grandson Toby and I often greet foreign workers on the street where Toby lives. In return, they always smile brightly at us, happy to have been acknowledged.

When I see tourists looking lost or puzzled, I always approach them and offer my help. I am paying back the kindness I had received from strangers in my travels abroad. I will never forget the kindness of a Danish woman I once met at a post office in Copenhagen, who invited me home for dinner with her family; or a Hungarian man on a subway in Budapest who went out of his way to show me the way back to my hotel.

SG: What do you think is the most common misconception about Singapore and its citizens?

Prof Koh:It is that we are a cold, selfish and unkind people. On the contrary, I think most Singaporeans are kind and helpful. This has been demonstrated by the random acts of kindness shown by Singaporeans to foreigners. The letters to the Forum page of The Straits Times by foreigners who have received extraordinary acts of kindness by Singaporeans always cheer me up. It is also demonstrated by the outpouring of generosity whenever a humanitarian disaster occurs in an Asian country.


It is a truism that in diplomacy, one has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

SG: Tell us more about some of the friendships you have formed over the years with other world leaders, and how they have been important to you.

Prof Koh:It is a truism that in diplomacy, one has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. But among diplomats as human beings, it has been my privilege to count many colleagues in diplomatic circles as friends.

One was the late Brajesh Mishra, a deputy ambassador in the Indian delegation when I was newly appointed Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, in 1968. He was one of many who helped me to understand how the UN worked and how to be an effective representative of a small and new country.

About 10 years later, we found ourselves back at the UN as our countries’ respective ambassadors. Vietnam had just invaded and occupied Cambodia. The ASEAN countries opposed this and took the diplomatic battle to the UN. Vietnam had the support of the Soviet Union and its allies, India, Cuba and the pro-Soviet wing of the Non-Aligned Movement. Brajesh Mishra was a formidable opponent because of his ability and eloquence. My colleagues in the ASEAN delegations could not understand why I was so respectful of him, referring to him as my older brother and my guru. My agenda was to rebut his arguments but not to repudiate our friendship or to forget my intellectual debt to him.

Our friendship survived. Some years later, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appointed him as his Principal Secretary and National Security Adviser. In 1998, India invited me to deliver the seventh India-ASEAN Lecture in New Delhi. My old friend accepted my request to chair the lecture — our friendship had served as a bridge between India and Singapore.

Back home, the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is very important to both countries because of our proximity, history, inter-dependence and affinities.… I have many friends in Malaysia and good Malaysian friends from my UN and Washington postings.

Tan Sri Ahmad Fuzi Abdul Razak was one of my colleagues at the UN. He became the Secretary-General of the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we were on opposite sides in the Pulau Tekong and Tuas land reclamation case (2002–2005) when Malaysia objected to our land reclamation activities and sought arbitration at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In April 2005, we signed an agreement settling the dispute, witnessed by our foreign ministers. Our friendship was not impaired by being on opposite sides. Two years later, in 2007, we were members of the High-Level Task Force, appointed to draft the historic ASEAN Charter. As its Chairman, I was able to count on Fuzi to support me when we were looking for compromises. Our friendship has been well tested by time and circumstance.

SG: How can social media/technology support public diplomacy activities and how has it influenced the dynamics of the discipline thus far?

Prof Koh:Social media and technology are the new realities which we diplomats have to learn to use in our work. It is both inspiring and challenging. Inspiring in that through social media your message can be communicated instantly to millions of viewers and netizens. Challenging because you have less control over how your message will be received. A critic can put out a competing message which can attract more attention and support than yours. To be an effective diplomat, you have to be fast and nimble and be able to communicate, using different platforms and different media.


To be an effective diplomat, you have to be fast and nimble and be able to communicate, using different platforms and different media.

SG: How do you think Singapore can remain relevant in the global community — economically, culturally and financially?

Prof Koh:Singapore aims to be relevant and useful to the world. We are a regional and global hub for shipping, trade, banking, business, professional services, art, culture and entertainment. As a founding member and a thought leader of ASEAN, we champion good governance, liveable and sustainable cities and good water policy. Given our population’s diversity, we have become a model for countries with populations which are ethnically or religiously diverse. Our experience and expertise are shared with friends from other developing countries.


Given our population’s diversity, we have become a model for countries with populations which are ethnically or religiously diverse.

Prof. Koh at the launch of his book — The Tommy Koh Reader: Favourite Essays And Lectures which covers topics ranging from his family to diplomacy and law.

SG: What are some of the causes that resonate with you, and how do you support them?

Prof Koh:I developed a deep love for nature during my many years in the scout movement, when I was a student at Outram Primary School and then at Raffles Institution. This love has influenced my roles as the former President of the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1981 and 1982, as the Chairman of the Main Committee of the 1992 Earth Summit, and as Patron of the Nature Society, today. I believe in sustainable development and wish to work towards a future in which human beings will live in harmony with nature. My ambition is for Singapore to be an Eco-City, a role model of a liveable and sustainable city.

Apart from issues of sustainability, I champion the arts, culture and heritage as an Honorary Chairman of the National Heritage Board and the Founding Chairman of the National Arts Council. Of course, a precious part of Singapore’s culture is our great hawker food, and it’s something I champion by being a judge of the annual SPH Hawker Food Master Chef competition. The cause of the disabled is also something I support as the Patron of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, the Very Special Arts (Singapore) and of the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind. As for the arts, in my nine years as the Chairman of the National Heritage Board, we opened four new Museums, including the Asian Civilizations Museum and the Peranakan Museum. I was also a member of the team responsible for building the Esplanade, Theatres by the Bay.

Prof Koh’s milestones
1962-1964: Assistant Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University
of Singapore.
1964-1971: Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University
of Singapore.
1968-1971: Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the
United Nations, New York and concurrently
High Commissioner to Canada.
1971-1974: Dean of the Law Faculty at the University
of Singapore.
1974-1984: Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the
United Nations and concurrently High
Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador
to Mexico.
1981: Elected President of the Third UN Conference
on the Law of the Sea.
1984: Received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Law
from Yale University.
1984-1990: Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States
of America.
1990: Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs.
1990: Chief Negotiator, Establishment of Diplomatic
Relations between Singapore and China
1990: Elected by UN as Chairman of the Preparatory
Committee for the Earth Summit.
1990-1992: Chairman of the Preparatory Committee
and the Main Committee of the UN
Conference on Environment and Development
(the Earth Summit).
1991-1996: Founding Chairman, National Arts Council.
1997: Founding Executive Director of the Asia
Europe Foundation and promoted to full
Professor of Law, University of Singapore.
2000: Chief Negotiator, US-Singapore Free
Trade Agreement.
2002-2011: Chairman, National Heritage Board
2002: Agent of Singapore in the dispute between
Singapore and Malaysia over land reclamation
in the Straits of Johor.
2003: Agent of Singapore in the dispute between
Singapore and Malaysia over Pedra Branca,
Middle Rocks and South Ledge.
2014: Great Negotiator Award by Harvard University
for his contributions in negotiation and
dispute resolution.
SG: How do you think Singapore has made a positive impact on the international community?

Prof Koh:At the global level, we have worked with like-minded colleagues to fight for free trade and investment and against protectionism. We have tried to empower other small countries by forming the Forum of Small States and the Global Governance Group. Together with our ASEAN colleagues, we have tried to promote peace, cooperation and mutual trust in East Asia and the Asia Pacific. To promote prosperity, ASEAN has taken the lead to integrate the economies of the region through its FTA policy and through the ongoing negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP). ASEAN has also established the ARF(ASEAN Regional Forum), ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit, to increase mutual trust and understanding and to work for peace between China and the US, between China and Japan and between China and India.

Prof. Koh with Singapore students at the Harvard Law School in April, where he was conferred the 2014 Great Negotiator Award.

SG: What is most challenging about what you do and what inspires you to carry on?

Prof Koh:I have had a very happy life. I enjoy all the jobs that I do now and others I had done in the past, both at the national and the international levels.

As Dean of the Law School at NUS (1971–1974), my dream was that, one day, it will be ranked as one of the top law schools of the world. That dream is coming true. I had dreamt that, one day, Singapore would be strong and prosperous, and be respected by the world. I think that dream has come true.

Looking forward, I have three goals: To persuade Asia to embrace sustainable development; to strengthen the rule of law in Asia and the world; and to fight for a more just and equal world. You could say that these are the ideals which inspire and motivate me, even at 76, to work hard every day.

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