Book of essays, lectures shows Tommy Koh's many dimensions

Professor Tommy Koh signing his book for Professor Kishore Mahbubani. The book, launched yesterday, contains insights into his career, his take on issues on diplomacy and law, and tributes to former presidents. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Professor Tommy Koh signing his book for Professor Kishore Mahbubani. The book, launched yesterday, contains insights into his career, his take on issues on diplomacy and law, and tributes to former presidents. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

The Singaporean diplomat valued for his views on a wide variety of issues says people should not be afraid to speak up about things they care about, provided they do their homework.

Professor Tommy Koh, 75, speaking at an event to launch a book of his favourite essays and lectures, said: "My advice... is to be brave, but to do your homework first, so that you are able to stand your ground and defend yourself when you're attacked, and not to be intimidated."

His book - which covers topics ranging from his friends and family to law, diplomacy, his pet issues of culture and heritage - illustrates the many dimensions of Prof Koh, who has contributed to different fields in his roles as the dean of the National University of Singapore law school, Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations, and the chairman of the National Arts Council among others.

From a speech about his student days at Raffles Institution to his essay defending the idea of a minimum wage, the writings show Prof Koh's idea of a "good" society that is gracious and just.

In an essay titled The Singapore Of My Dreams, the Ambassador-at-large writes about his wish for Singapore to have an ombudsman with the power to investigate complaints by citizens who feel they have been treated unfairly by public service agencies.

Yesterday, answering reporters' questions, Prof Koh said that as a young lawyer, he had represented clients who suffered such "maladministration".

In one case, his client, who had received a scholarship to study in New Zealand, was denied a passport without any explanation and had to forfeit the chance to go to school.

"These cases are burned in my memory," he said. "Although I think we have a great public service, very little corruption, but even a great public service sometimes makes mistakes... In a good society sometimes the administration makes honest mistakes, sometimes they are prejudiced, sometimes they act inappropriately and there should be some process of review."

In another essay, written one Sunday afternoon in defence of economist Lim Chong Yah, who caused a stir with his proposal to push up the wages of the lowest- paid workers, Prof Koh said "what we have achieved so far is a prosperous but unfair society".

Talking about the rich-poor gap yesterday at the book launch, he said "it is certainly a source of concern to our moral conscience... a good nation is one that doesn't tolerate such a high degree of disparity".

As such, he was glad the issue of poverty is now on the "national agenda".

On defending his friend, he quipped: "I felt Professor Lim Chong Yah had no defender, and although I'm no economist, I decided this is a good man and somebody must defend him."

During the event at the National Library, Prof Koh presented copies of his book - The Tommy Koh Reader: Favourite Essays And Lectures, published by World Scientific - to his personal assistants through the years, who were among the 150 invited guests.

The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, relating three stories about Prof Koh, said he "combines humility, with good grace, and the ability to use his influence to good effect, on a range of causes".

yuenc@sph.com.sg