Diplomat reflects on ties with KL in new book

K. Kesavapany, who was High Commissioner during period of rocky ties, shares his journey

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and veteran diplomat K. Kesavapany (right) at the launch of the former high commissioner's biography. The book is co-authored by applied linguist Anitha Devi Pillai (left).
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and veteran diplomat K. Kesavapany (right) at the launch of the former high commissioner's biography. The book is co-authored by applied linguist Anitha Devi Pillai (left). ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

On arriving in Kuala Lumpur in 1997 to take up his position as Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia, veteran diplomat K. Kesavapany was swiftly made aware of the state of Singapore-Malaysia relations.

As a car took him from Subang airport to his residence, a motorcyclist came close and made an obscene gesture.

"This was the first indication that bilateral relations had taken a sharp downswing," he writes in his memoirs.

Mr Kesavapany, who represented Singapore from 1997 to 2002, also witnessed the Singapore contingent to the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur being booed on entering the stadium.

"The Singapore officials and I stood ramrod straight to cheer our Singapore contingent," he said in his biography, titled From Estate To Embassy, Memories Of An Ambassador. It was co-authored with applied linguist Anitha Devi Pillai and launched yesterday.

In the book, the 82-year-old shares his journey, from growing up in the Malayan plantations to joining the Singapore Civil Service in the 1970s, and subsequently entering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

He also describes his work in the social scene, such as at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore, the Singapore Indian Association and the Inter-Religious Organisation.

In his MFA career, Mr Kesavapany was also Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and was concurrently accredited as Ambassador to Italy and Turkey at one point. He was also Singapore's non-resident ambassador to Jordan.

But it was his time as High Commissioner to Malaysia which earned him kudos from Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at yesterday's book launch, held at the PGP Hall in Serangoon Road.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "It's probably not a state secret that we send our best diplomats into the toughest positions. And a tough position is not just to a specific country, but a specific country at a specific time, when things are toughest.

"If you think what we are having now is exciting... I think things were even more exciting at that point in time," he added, as he referred to the bilateral issues with Malaysia today and during Mr Kesavapany's time.

In the book, Mr Kesavapany recounts the challenging period when bilateral ties were rocked by several issues, including unhappiness over then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's remark in an affidavit that Johor was not a safe place. This was discussed in open court during proceedings against opposition politician Tang Liang Hong, and reported in the media.

Both governments also quarrelled over issues like the relocation of the railway station from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, and Singapore's continued access to water from Johor under the Separation Agreement, he wrote.

During the accompanying panel discussion, moderated by The Straits Times' associate editor Ravi Velloor, Mr Kesavapany referred to the obscene gesture episode, saying he could have taken umbrage but decided to "let it pass".

And during one National Day reception, when Malaysia sent its most junior minister instead of its foreign minister as was the tradition, Mr Kesavapany decided against making a protest but extended warm hospitality instead.

He also related how beyond the formal exchanges between the governments of Singapore and Malaysia, golf was used as a way to build ties with his counterparts.

Said Dr Balakrishnan: "Pany held his own. Maintained our (Singapore's) position with equanimity, and grace and dignity."

Correction note: In an earlier version of the article, we said Mr Kesavapany is currently the non-resident ambassador to Jordan. We are sorry for the error.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2019, with the headline Diplomat reflects on ties with KL in new book. Subscribe