The best news I heard this week was the one about Harvard Law School giving its 2014 Great Negotiator Award to Professor Tommy Koh.
I was thrilled for personal and professional reasons. Personal, because I worked with Prof Koh for my first book on Sars, back in 2004, and came to know and like him. We’ve gone on to have lunch at the White Rabbit and tau suan at Tiong Bahru, among other meetings. He’s always great company: interesting, knowledgeable, with a phenomenal memory for names and facts, and even-tempered.
I was glad for professional reasons too, because Prof Koh is a regular columnist for us at The Straits Times. He was among the first to accept our invitation to be a regular columnist for our By Invitation slot, which appears in the Opinion pages of ST on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
An expert on international law and diplomacy, he has dissected conflicting claims in the South China Sea. He’s also written on museums and heritage. He’s also, incidentally, an expert on hawker food, and sits on the Singapore Hawker Masters judging panel.
Congratulating him for his award, Foreign Minister K Shanmugam said: “I am delighted that Tommy’s achievements as a diplomat and negotiator, which were always celebrated in Singapore, have been recognised by the Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government.”
Prof Koh guided the historic 3rd United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea and the Rio Earth Summit to successful conclusion. He was also Singapore’s Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement 10 years ago. “In all of these occasions, Tommy has displayed the tremendous skills and typical grace of the consummate negotiator. The award cannot be more well-deserved.”
Another of our regular By Invitation columnist is Kishore Mahbubani. He was named last week by Prospect, a British current affairs magazine as one of this year's top 50 world thinkers. The former diplomat, who’s now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, is the only Singaporean on a list that includes Pope Francis, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and economist- philosopher Amartya Sen.
Mr Mahbubani is known for his polemical views. Great thinkers cannot fear controversy; and Mr Mahbubani is no stranger to it. I recall a past interview when I asked if he enjoyed taking the West down a peg or two, and he retorted, in words to that effect: One or two? A dozen.
His series of columns featuring Big Ideas for Singapore has attracted many readers. Some love him, some flame him. But as Machiavelli said of leaders that it is better to be feared than loved, so it is true for columnists: it is better to be flamed and criticised, than ignored.
Congratulations to both.
And for those who want to read more of their commentaries, do look out for them in The Straits Times.
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