Speaking Of Asia

Singapore's Tommy Koh, Asia's professor

The central message of his life that Asia must heed is 'seize the day'

Anyone who's travelled to the wetlands of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal could not have missed the signs announcing that dung beetles have right of way. Supremely important to the ecosystem, the beetles roll dung into balls often bigger than themselves, cleaning up the mess others leave behind while quietly improving the soil structure and its nutrients.

Unlike the wise people in the African bushveld, however, the powerful who occupy Asia's urban spaces tend to be not sensitive enough - or are all too frequently indifferent - to the sentiments and security of those they take for granted, or routinely tread underfoot.

One personage on whom that charge will never stick is Asia's Tommy Koh.

In 1984, Professor Tommy Koh was Singapore's ambassador to Washington when his private secretary-designate, arriving to start her assignment, was surprised to see not one but two embassy cars waiting for her at the airport. The envoy had sent along the second car, aware she had a family of four and would certainly have a lot of luggage. At the time of that simple act of thoughtfulness, he had already won global acclaim for successfully chairing the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Similar instincts had prompted him, decades earlier, to pen an indignant piece in his school magazine, The Rafflesian, querying the arrests of street hawkers and asking if it were not possible for the colonial government to provide them with a place to ply their trade. In short, the teenage Koh was asking for the "hawker centres" we know today.

It might seem odd that a cantation on Singapore's most distinguished serving diplomat - for, in addition to being professor of law at the National University of Singapore, where he once was dean of the law school, he remains Ambassador-at-Large and the designated interlocutor for semi-official talks with Asia's three most important powers - should begin with anecdotes of his social sensitivity and conscience.

Yet, it is entirely fitting in the context of the region and this little Republic's reputation for brusque efficiency and relentless pursuit of self-interest. For Prof Koh, who turns 80 this Sunday, has shown through five decades of personal example that in diplomacy, displaying sensitivity is not weakness, that a disagreement does not need to be a fight, and consensus is worth striving for because it provides the most durable result.

Most important of all, he has exemplified belief in a rules-based order and the conviction that while a measure of flexibility is a virtue, core principles are important and must be maintained.


This is perhaps why Prof Koh got to chair two major conferences involving UN member states. A decade after his triumph at Unclos, he chaired the Rio Conference, officially called the UN Conference on Environment and Development (1990-1992). Most diplomats would feel privileged to have served on a single international panel. And this is not to mention other achievements in diplomacy, dispute settlement, the arts and a variety of other areas that are too numerous to recount.

Noted China scholar Wang Gungwu, who is seven years older than Prof Koh, sums it up best when he describes him as the international voice of his multicultural city state, "the gentle face of a state that punches - and sometimes punches hard - above its weight".

Some might think Prof Koh a softie or, as the late minister Lim Kim San put it, a "Boy Scout". While it is true that he is more taiji than karate in approach, the Boy Scout put-down does a disservice to his personality and style. Indeed, the so-called soft approach may even be a deliberate personal statement to an island raised on tough love because, when required, Prof Koh can convey a hard message without ambiguity.


Years ago, I observed him lancing economist Paul Krugman with a few well-chosen words that firmly expressed Singapore's poor view of Mr Krugman's dismal analysis of its economic model. The Nobel Prize-winning economist simply lowered his eyes in response.

Visibly Chinese in appearance and pan-Asian in orientation, he often leaves you with the thought that there is a lot of the Hindu Vedanta philosophy in him, especially in the way he backs, and sometimes practises, respectful dissent towards the masters.

Noted China scholar Wang Gungwu, who is seven years older than Prof Koh, sums it up best when he describes him as the international voice of his multicultural city state, "the gentle face of a state that punches - and sometimes punches hard - above its weight".

In a Facebook post last week, he took note of the recent works of professors Chua Beng Huat and Cherian George, academics whose unflinching gaze makes some on this island uncomfortable, framing them as "two critical lovers of Singapore". He then lent them additional air cover by calling them "brilliant scholars and friends". Clearly, he believes that while cynicism is a waste, a critical outlook is healthy for society's progress. This is one lesson from the "Prof" that must be heeded by anyone who has accumulated vast power, including those running governments in Tokyo, Beijing or New Delhi.

It is always tempting to ponder what might have been if such a man as this, with his egalitarian and inclusive instincts, tolerance of dissent, love of cultures and pan-Asian perspective, entered the political fray in Singapore. Scholar-statesman George Yeo, Singapore's former foreign minister, says that as a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1970s he had heard rumours that Prof Koh might be a potential prime minister.

The question is now of course moot but if he did not have an appetite for domestic politics four decades ago, he would have certainly done magnificently had he chosen to return to the global stage with which he is so familiar. In the mid-2000s, Singapore did consider fielding him as a candidate for UN secretary-general, and he would easily have won, seeing it was Asia's turn to hold the post and all key stakeholders would have backed his nomination. Prof Koh chose not to bid for that responsibility, apparently for family reasons.

Would the South China Sea's contemporary history have been differently scripted if the man who chaired Unclos had been UN secretary-general between 2007 and 2017? It is a question to ponder.

Since this column has an Asia focus, it is worth recounting two events involving Prof Koh that would influence the Singapore, and Asean, projects.

As Singapore's permanent representative to the UN, Prof Koh was a big voice in campaigning for democratic Kampuchea and attacking the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan the following year. No surprise there. Singapore was close to the United States, after all. The difficult move that speaks for strong conviction was his strong criticism of the US itself for its invasion of Grenada in 1983, criticism that vexed many in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who worried it might affect the tight bilateral relationship.

Prof Koh's statement to the Security Council on Oct 28, 1983, on why Singapore could not acquiesce to the invasion succinctly underscores the bedrock on which a lot of current Singaporean external policy is based. "To do so will, in the long run, undermine the moral and legal significance of the principles which my country regards as a shield," he said. "This is why we must put our adherence to principle above friendship."

Likewise, his contributions to Asean, including applying his vast legal knowledge and experience to help draft its charter - the first formal document to institutionalise the 10-nation body - are well documented.


Less known is his flanking manoeuvre to outwit then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had proposed an Asia-Pacific community encompassing Australia, the US, Japan, China, Indonesia and India, but crucially omitting Asean, thus cutting its strategic relevance.

As former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong tells it, Mr Rudd raised his idea at the Apec CEO Summit held in Singapore in 2009. Prof Koh, chairing the session featuring Mr Rudd, popped three questions to poll the CEOs present. First, whether the existing architecture for political and security dialogue was successful. It got an 80 per cent "yes". Second, did the region need a new institution? The CEOs voted 55 per cent in favour.

Then came the killer question: Should Asean's role as the region's facilitator and catalyst be preserved? The response was 75 per cent "yes"!

Earlier this year, when Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop fervently pitched for America to recognise Asean centrality in Asian affairs, Prof Koh could have been permitted a smile of satisfaction.

Still, the bigger lesson taught by Asia's professor is perhaps about how to live a full life. Staying fit, wasting not a moment, keeping updated on contemporary affairs, revelling in the diversity of society and nature, accessible to the lowly and the powerful, his life is like an Ernie Els golf swing whose swift pace is masked by a remarkable cadence and fluidity. Those who know Latin will recognise his central message as "carpe diem". For the rest of us in Singapore, Asean and wider Asia, it is: Seize the day!

• The author acknowledges that some of the quotations and anecdotes cited are extracted from Tommy Koh: Serving Singapore And The World, to be officially released on Saturday by World Scientific Publishing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's Tommy Koh, Asia's professor'. Subscribe