Like father, like son: Bilahari Kausikan is known to speak his mind, like father P. S. Raman

Retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan is known to speak his mind, like his father P. S. Raman

Some diplomats specialise in being nice and tactful. Others adopt the tough approach.

Retired Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan falls into the latter category. The 64-year-old, who had an eventful 37-year career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is known to speak his mind fearlessly about issues confronting Singapore.

Almost certainly, he got his unconventional and independent streak from his father, the late Mr P. S. Raman, Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia in 1968 during the hanging of two Indonesian marines who planted a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

It was one of the most delicate moments in Singapore's history, one that required nerves of steel and all of Mr Raman's diplomatic skills.

Exactly two decades earlier, a disillusioned Mr Raman had landed in Singapore from Madras on his way to Indonesia to join the nationalist revolution. But having run out of money here, he decided to stay on.

Why Indonesia?

Said Bilahari: "I think it was just the tenor of the times. India had disappointed him due to Partition. He was looking for a cause and eventually found it in Singapore.

Mr Bilahari Kausikan got his unconventional and independent streak from his father, the late Mr P. S. Raman, Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia in 1968 during the hanging of two Indonesian marines who planted a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Roa
Mr Bilahari Kausikan got his unconventional and independent streak from his father, the late Mr P. S. Raman, Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia in 1968 during the hanging of two Indonesian marines who planted a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Road. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

"My father was an Indian nationalist who studied philosophy at the Madras Christian College. When World War II broke out, he was in two minds whether to join Subhash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army or the British. He finally decided to join the British and served as an RAF radar operator in Burma.

Mr Bilahari Kausikan got his unconventional and independent streak from his father, the late Mr P. S. Raman, Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia in 1968 during the hanging of two Indonesian marines who planted a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Roa
A file photo of retired Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan's family (clockwise from left): Bilahari, his father, the late P.S. Raman; sister Kalyani, mother Lim Eng Neo and younger sister Kamala. PHOTO: KALYANI

"But when World War II ended and India was partitioned, he got fed up. Because this was not his idea of India. He decided he didn't want to have anything to do with India anymore and made up his mind to leave.

"He was so fed up with India that the first thing he did in Singapore was to eat beef and pork. He never went back to India except once, when his father died."

Even the name he gave to his newborn son was unconventional - Bilahari Kim Hee Papanasam Setlur Kausikan. "Bilahari Raman should have been my name. But he was so fed up with India that he decided to change the whole concept.

"Bilahari is the name of a raga. Kausikan, as he told me, is a clan name. Setlur is a Brahmin sub-caste. Papanasam is the village he came from (in Tamil Nadu).

"Kim Hee is the Chinese name given by my mother. I don't know how they chose it, I wasn't conscious."

Mr Raman, who had two sisters in India, initially taught at St Andrew's school. Shortly afterwards, he started his own tutorial institute in Mount Sophia for those whose education had been disrupted by the war.

It was at the institute that he met and later married Madam Lim Eng Neo, a Peranakan Chinese. The couple (Madam Lim is 92 now) had three children - Bilahari, and his younger sisters - Kalyani, 60, a retired teacher, and Kamala, a teacher, born in the year Singapore became independent.

"It was at the institute that he probably met Mr S R Nathan (former Singapore president)," said Bilahari. "Then somehow he got into broadcasting, I don't know how. He started with the Tamil section initially, and then moved to English. He was effectively bilingual. At that time, there was the Central Production Unit. Then he became the director of broadcasting."

It was during his tenure as director of broadcasting that he famously told Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister, that a television clip showing him tearing during a press conference in 1965 announcing Singapore's separation from Malaysia should not be edited out.

Mr Lee recounted that incident in his memoir The Singapore Story.

He said: "Before noon, I arrived at the studios of Radio & Television Singapore for a press conference. It had an unintended and unexpected result. After a few opening questions and answers, a journalist asked, "Could you outline for us the train of events that led to this morning's proclamation?

"I recounted my meetings with the Tunku in Kuala Lumpur during the previous two days... At that moment, my emotions overwhelmed me. It was only after 20 minutes that I was able to regain my composure and resume the press conference.

"It was not a live telecast, as television transmissions then started only at 6pm. I asked P. S. Raman to cut the footage of my breakdown. He strongly advised against it. The press, he said, was bound to report it, and if he edited it out, their descriptions of the scene would make it appear worse. I had found Raman, a Tamil Brahmin born in Madras and a loyal Singaporean, a shrewd and sound adviser. I took his advice.

"And so, many people in Singapore and abroad saw me lose control of my emotions. That evening, Radio & Television Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur telecast my press conference, including this episode. Among Chinese, it is unbecoming to exhibit such a lack of manliness. But I could not help myself. It was some consolation that many viewers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand sympathised with me and with Singapore."

Like many older Singaporeans, Bilahari remembers the incident well. "My father did not say much about it. All he told me was to switch on the TV and watch. Once later, in the late '60s, he did tell me that he told LKY not to cut that crying scene."

Then, in June 1968, Mr Raman was appointed Singapore's first ambassador to Indonesia.

Singapore had become independent in 1965, the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation had ended in 1966 and diplomatic relations between Singapore and Indonesia were officially established on Sept 7, 1967, barely a month after Asean was created with Singapore and Indonesia among the founding members.

It was a period of heightened tension as a bomb exploded in the MacDonald House building on March 10, 1965. The explosion killed three people and injured at least 33 others. It was carried out as part of Indonesian's Confrontation with Malaysia, which at the time included Singapore. Two Indonesian marines were arrested and after a trial, were found guilty of the bombing.

"How my father was roped in to become the ambassador, I don't know. We became unexpectedly independent and had to start a foreign ministry.

"There were a lot of people who were educated and could speak and write English. But nobody had embassy experience. I guess he had some experience with politics and diplomacy because he worked at the Central Production Unit and was director of broadcasting.

"Indonesia was in a mess as I could see when I went there for a visit. Sukarno (the first President of Indonesia from 1945 to 1967) was under house arrest and Suharto (who held the office for 31 years) had taken over. My father had come back to Singapore on leave, when he got word that the two Indonesian marines were going to be hanged at Changi Prison. He rushed back to Jakarta as he had to be at his post."

The two men were hanged on Oct 17, 1968, and it led to a souring of diplomatic relations between Singapore and Indonesia as they were regarded as war heroes.

In Jakarta, public anger saw a mob sacking the Singapore embassy and the residences of Singapore's diplomats. They burnt the Singapore flag and threatened to kill Mr Raman, who had to operate, along with his staff, from Hotel Indonesia.

"After things settled, he asked me to come to Jakarta. He wanted to show defiance, so he took his entire family there. I spent a miserable month there. Could not go out of Hotel Indonesia. Had to skip school a bit."

Mr Raman suffered a heart attack during his tenure in Jakarta. When he recovered, he became high commissioner to Australia for a year and a half. Then he was made ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1971. He served there until 1976 when he passed away after another heart attack, in an underground station in Moscow. He was 56.

"My mother was there. I was in the army, but they were kind enough to give me leave to go there and help my mum pack up. We brought his body back and cremated it under Christian rites. When he met my mum, he converted to Christianity. But I don't think he took it seriously."

Bilahari was "quite close" to his father.

"My dad was loving. He played with us when we were kids. When I was small, he used to tell me stories from the Ramayana. We used to celebrate Deepavali in our grandmother's house at Hillside Drive, Upper Serangoon. We put a kolam (a floor drawing made from coloured flour during traditional Indian festivals) in the house."

But Bilahari also points out that he is "not very Indian actually". "I regularly go to Madras New Woodlands to eat idli. But I eat everything. I don't think all of us are very Indian. All I know about Indian customs is from what I read."

• This article first appeared in the Nov 23 edition of tabla!, a weekly English language newspaper published by Tamil Murasu.

The accidental diplomat

Bilahari was a naughty boy who was expelled in primary school and caned at Raffles Institution. "I got caned only once in RI. After that I became cunning enough not to get caught.

"When my father was in Canberra, my sisters did their education there. But I stayed back because I was in RI. I did not want to leave my friends and Canberra in the 1970s was deadly boring. I lived with my grandmother."

He took Chinese as his second language in primary school, but switched to Malay when he went to RI as he found it easier.

"My father also tried to get me to learn Tamil. But I failed completely. The Tamil teacher was well known in the Tamil literary community and tried his best. But one day, he came apologetically and told my father that 'your son cannot learn Tamil'.

"I could not distinguish one curve from another. I found Chinese easy. In Tamil, if you get one small curve wrong, then the thing makes no sense."

After "six years of fun at RI", Bilahari went to the University of Singapore to do political science before returning to complete his national service. "I was an infantry officer and I liked the army. I wanted to sign up. But then to get a scholarship you needed three As. I had only two As and a B. I got a scholarship from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to do a PhD, so I got bonded to the Singapore University to teach."

He went to Columbia University to do his PhD in international relations. "I started doing my dissertation and then I realised that it is pointless to do a PhD unless you want to teach. Academic life is good except for one small inconvenience called students. I did enough of the PhD to show the PSC that I can do it.

"But I didn't really want to do it."

He returned to Singapore and "got threatened by the PSC". "They said you are breaking your bond. I said please listen, watch my lips, 'I said I will serve my bond but won't teach'.

"They wanted to send me to the army and the Institute of Management. I said fine, but I don't know anything about management. If you want me to screw up the place, okay. The board then asked me where I wanted to go. The only place I knew was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), so I said MFA."

Bilahari did not intend to stay long at the MFA. "I wanted to serve my bond and do something else. I had vaguely wanted to be a journalist."

He used to write for The Straits Times under a variant of his name - Bee Kim Hee. "I was on a scholarship and not supposed to work. But ST paid me well. I wrote about the United Nations. I made enough in three months to live the rest of the year comfortably.

"I was interested in international relations and wanted to be a foreign correspondent. But ST didn't have a place for me. I didn't intend to stay at the MFA. But I was having fun. So I forgot that my bond had finished and continued working there. I joined the MFA by accident, stayed in the MFA by accident and also got promoted by accident."

It was 1981, and Mr S. Rajaratnam was the foreign minister. Mr S. Dhanabalan was the second minister and Mr Nathan, the permanent secretary.

"It was a very small MFA, very different from what it is now," Bilahari remembers. "It just so happened that the top three people were Indians. The rest were diverse."

He was posted to the Middle East desk as an officer. It lasted 40 minutes. "Mr SR Nathan found out about my posting and said - 'give the boy a proper job'. Then, we had no real Middle East policy and I became a desk officer for North America."

Bilahari believes he was "one of the SR Nathan group of MFA officers". "He (Mr Nathan) started the MFA, went to Mindef and then came back and recruited a lot of young graduate officers. Almost all of us are retired now.

"I worked for him a year and a bit. Then he left for ST. I think he had the most influence on MFA. He actually shaped the MFA - not the policy, but the organisation.

"He was very smart. He had little formal education because of World War II. But he had intellect. He understood people and international politics. He had the art of going straight to the core of the problem."

Bilahari also got to interact with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. "I only took notes from LKY. But once I kena (got) scolded by all the MFA people because I wrote a brief for LKY. It was cleared by the MFA and I sent it off to LKY. But then he came back with some questions. I just answered and sent it back.

"Later I mentioned this to my elders and they were shocked. They said you cannot anyhow answer to LKY. Normally there is a committee to decide the answers to his questions. But all his questions were of a factual nature. I didn't see how facts could be improved by a committee."

On Mr Lee, Bilahari said: "He was an open-minded person, always wanted information. He didn't particularly care where he got it from. Only thing I learnt from him was not to bluff him. If you don't know, just say I don't know."

Bilahari was then appointed Singapore's Ambassador to Russia and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. "I had an unusual MFA career, only three postings," he said. "One in Washington as junior diplomat and two as ambassador.

"After the UN stint, I came back and was made deputy secretary, South-east Asia, for three years. Then I became second permanent secretary and then first permanent secretary. Then I happily retired. I was then re-employed for five years as ambassador at large. So, in all, I worked for 37 years for the MFA."

Today, he is the chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. "It's a research institute I started 12 years ago to find out more about JI (Jemaah Islamiah) and the influence of Middle-East types of Islam on South-east Asian Muslim communities. I took my eye off it when I was permanent secretary and it went off on a totally academic direction.

"The idea of this institute was not to provide policy advice but give alternative perspectives on issues that are relevant to Singapore. So when I retired a second time, I decided that I will drag it back in the right direction before I really retired for the third time."

These days he travels "a fair amount" attending conferences and giving lectures. "I do some writing. I like to walk. I actually have no problem not doing anything," said Bilahari, a father-of-two who is married to a former MFA officer.

Unlike most Singaporean diplomats, he is known to mouth the occasional expletive.

"When you are too polite, nothing gets done. I think the civil service has become too accommodative. Nobody wants to offend anybody. So I made my views known even when I was in service.

"I didn't really care what they would do to me. 'Sack me? Okay, sack lah', that was my attitude. In the civil service, it is very hard to sack people. Even if you steal money, it will take at least a year to get rid of you.

"My seniors may not have liked what I said, but I got things done. I don't think my colleagues resented it because we are all still good friends."

Bilahari feels today's young civil servants are different.

"They take a long time to make decisions and are not bold. I think people, to some degree, have become risk averse. But we cannot blame the education system. It is the structure of the service. I don't blame the young civil servants. They take their cue from their bosses."

Jawharilal Rajendran and V.K. Santosh Kuma

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2018, with the headline Like father, like son: Bilahari Kausikan is known to speak his mind, like father P. S. Raman. Subscribe