Pioneer generation diplomat Maurice Baker dies at 97

Mr Baker, then High Commissioner to India, with Singapore President Yusof Ishak at the Istana in the 1960s. He was later also appointed ambassador to Nepal and the Philippines. Mr Maurice Baker, who was high commissioner to Malaysia from 1969 to 1971
Mr Maurice Baker, who was high commissioner to Malaysia from 1969 to 1971 and 1980 to 1988, helped "steady the relationship" at critical times in Singapore's ties with Malaysia, says Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong.ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Baker, then High Commissioner to India, with Singapore President Yusof Ishak at the Istana in the 1960s. He was later also appointed ambassador to Nepal and the Philippines. Mr Maurice Baker, who was high commissioner to Malaysia from 1969 to 1971
Mr Baker, then High Commissioner to India, with Singapore President Yusof Ishak at the Istana in the 1960s. He was later also appointed ambassador to Nepal and the Philippines.ST FILE PHOTO

He played key role in building ties with Malaysian leaders after Separation

Pioneer generation diplomat Maurice Baker, who helped Singapore build ties with key Malaysian leaders after Separation, died yesterday.

He was 97.

Mr Baker, born to an English father and Indian mother, was high commissioner to Malaysia from 1969 to 1971, and from 1980 to 1988.

His first posting to Kuala Lumpur was at a momentous time, shortly after the May 13 race riots in 1969, when Malaysia was in a state of emergency.

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With bilateral ties still shaky after Separation, he was appointed high commissioner because of his close friendship with Tun Abdul Razak Hussein from their student days in England. Tun Razak became prime minister in 1970.

Mr Baker's first diplomatic post was to India as Singapore's first high commissioner to New Delhi. Later, he was ambassador to Nepal and the Philippines.

His younger son Bernard, 60, who is Singapore's High Commissioner to New Zealand, told The Straits Times that his father died at home.

"He had a good innings, he lived a good life," he said.

FORGING A PATH

Neither I nor the civil servants in the Foreign Ministry knew what a mission was supposed to be. We were all novices then. It was left to me to make a go of it.

MR MAURICE BAKER, reflecting on his move from academia to diplomacy in a 1989 interview with The Straits Times.

Mr Baker was born in Malaysia's Kedah state and came to Singapore at age 18 to attend Raffles College. In 1941, he was awarded the Queen's Scholarship, and aimed to be a teacher.

But the Japanese Occupation disrupted his plans and he took up the scholarship at King's College, London only in 1948, graduating three years later with a degree in English.

In his student days, he was a co-founder of the Malayan Forum, which advocated for independence for Malaya and Singapore. Fellow founders were Singapore's late deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee and the late Tun Razak.

Around the same time, he also met his future wife Barbara Balhetchet, a Singaporean teacher studying in London. She was a member of the Malayan Students' Union, of which he was president. They married in London in 1952.

On his return to Singapore, Mr Baker found that the British had blacklisted him for his political activities in London.

Still, he found work teaching in Bartley Secondary and Victoria Secondary schools, before becoming an English lecturer at the then University of Malaya in 1955.

In 1967, he began his diplomatic career with a posting to India.

Reflecting on his move from academia to diplomacy in a 1989 interview with The Straits Times, he said: "Neither I nor the civil servants in the Foreign Ministry knew what a mission was supposed to be.

"We were all novices then. It was left to me to make a go of it."

In Malaysia, his friendship with Tun Razak was helpful. "We were such close friends that as soon as I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, he invited me to his house for tea."

Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong, who was high commissioner to Malaysia from 2011 to 2014, said Mr Baker played a key role in making sense of what the Malaysian prime ministers - Tun Razak and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad - were doing and conveying the big picture to Singapore's leaders.

"He served during two critical periods in our relations with Malaysia, and he was able to steady the relationship and calm things down," he told The Straits Times.

Mr Ong said that when he was high commissioner to Malaysia from 2011 to 2014, people would tell him about Mr Baker. "He was very well liked - even Umno politicians remembered him fondly."

After his last diplomatic post, Mr Baker was appointed pro-chancellor of the National University of Singapore from 1989 until his retirement in 2000.

He also chronicled his experiences in a book titled The Accidental Diplomat: The Autobiography Of Maurice Baker, which was published in 2014.

He leaves behind his wife Barbara, two sons Edmund and Bernard, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

He will be cremated on Saturday.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday that Mr Baker lived a full life and served the country with distinction.

"As we continue to safeguard and advance our national interests in the world, we will always remember the contributions of our pioneers," he said in a Facebook post.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'Pioneer generation diplomat Maurice Baker dies at 97'. Print Edition | Subscribe