Why Singapore is better off inside UN system - warts and all

Then Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam and Ambassador Tommy Koh at the UN General Assembly in 1974. Professor Koh was Singapore's permanent representative to the UN for 13 years, during which he was able to influence important global guideli
Then Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam and Ambassador Tommy Koh at the UN General Assembly in 1974. Professor Koh was Singapore's permanent representative to the UN for 13 years, during which he was able to influence important global guidelines, such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea.PHOTO: UNITED NATIONS

Essays by diplomats show how working with the UN has benefited Singapore's stature

When veteran civil servant Dileep Nair was hired by the United Nations in April 2000 to investigate wrongdoing in the world body, he was warned by a senior UN diplomat that he was "entering a cesspit of vipers".

Four years into the job, Mr Nair, who was undersecretary-general for internal oversight, was anonymously accused on two occasions of graft and misconduct when he tried to tighten supervision of various programmes and rid his department of poor performers.

Eventually, he was cleared of all the charges from both occasions and then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent him a letter of apology.

Mr Nair gives an account of his experience in a new book about Singapore and the UN, but it is not done to denounce the world body.

Instead, he argues that, though dysfunctional, it is "about the only organisation that is so widely respected and has the moral authority to act on behalf of the world".

The point is underlined throughout the book, 50 Years Of Singapore And The United Nations, which is a collection of 45 essays from diplomats and other professionals who had worked with the world body and its agencies.

Besides raising the country's profile, these international efforts have allowed Singapore to achieve a high standing in the international community. Many of the essays list the numerous leadership positions Singapore held or continues to hold in conferences and committees, such as the Earth Summit. It was even president of the Security Council for more than a year, from 2001 to 2002.

Read together, they make a consistent case for Singapore's continued participation in a flawed but necessary - and perhaps necessarily flawed - organisation.

For instance, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Singapore's former permanent representative to the UN, wrote that the UN has made the world a safer place for countries such as Singapore because the standard set in the UN Charter "restrains middle powers from invading small states".

Besides a greater assurance of peace and security, the book provides many other examples of the benefits of active participation in the UN. Being at the negotiation table allows Singapore to shape and influence important global guidelines, such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh played a pivotal role in. Prof Koh was Singapore's permanent representative to the UN for two stints - from 1968 to 1971 and 1974 to 1984 - adding up to 13 years.

Without the UN, it is also much easier for larger powers to ignore the views of a country the size of Singapore.

Indeed, Singapore's diplomats took the initiative in amplifying the country's voice in 1992 by leading the formation of the Forum of Small States, a grouping of nations with populations below 10 million.

This gave the members a collective clout they otherwise would not have, noted Mr Chew Tai Soo, Singapore's permanent representative to the UN when the Forum was formed.

The book - edited by Prof Koh, the Prime Minister's press secretary Chang Li Lin, and former administrative assistant manager of the Institute of Policy Studies Joanna Koh - paints the big picture of Singapore's efforts in multilateral diplomacy.

Its involvement with the UN's agencies, from the prominent International Monetary Fund to the lesser-known UN Environment Programme, is comprehensively covered. There is even a chapter on why Singapore advocated for World Toilet Day to focus attention on the need for clean toilets, despite the risk of the topic being seen as distasteful.

Besides raising the country's profile, these international efforts have allowed Singapore to achieve a high standing in the global community.

Many of the essays list the numerous leadership positions Singapore held or continues to hold in conferences and committees, such as the Earth Summit. It was even president of the Security Council for more than a year, from 2001 to 2002.

In explaining how Singapore punches above its weight, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Second Permanent Secretary Albert Chua said the island "occupies an unusual niche at the UN" as it is "not beholden to any country for aid", and so "we are free to speak our minds and take positions of principle".

Although the book gives a lot of details, one gets bogged down, at times, in the bunching of too many facts. Some passages read like an official report of Singapore's international activities. Several of the essays could have been enlivened with more anecdotes, especially as they relate to matters of human interest.

Ms Janet Lim gives a good sense of the global humanitarian issues owing to war and strife, but readers are left wondering about her front-line experiences during her 35 years with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

This is particularly so as the book has a photograph of her meeting women refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but no reference is made to it in her essay.

One particular piece that stands out for its engaging storytelling is by Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, who points out the UN's blemishes in his typically frank and hard-hitting manner.

He recounts how, in the late 1970s, there was a Singaporean who had acquired Canadian citizenship and then joined the UN, only to declare himself a Singapore citizen to his employer so as to secure home leave to head for Singapore.

When Mr Kausikan, who was working as a stringer for The Straits Times, tried to expose the man, the UN personnel department threw him out of the office and tried to get his press credentials revoked.

But he, like many of the book's contributors, is quick to point out that Singapore is better off inside the system, warts and all, than out of it.

"Sometimes, toleration for some degree of shenanigans is the necessary price for having any kind of system and, sometimes, the only sort of system possible is a compromised system."

  • 50 Years Of Singapore And The United Nations, published by World Scientific, is sold in major bookstores for $70 (hardcover) and $36 (paperback).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Why Singapore is better off inside UN system - warts and all'. Print Edition | Subscribe