Former MP and diplomat Joseph Conceicao dies, aged 95

Joseph Conceicao speaking about two novels he published in a picture taken in 2011. The former Member of Parliament and diplomat died on Tuesday (Aug 13).
Joseph Conceicao speaking about two novels he published in a picture taken in 2011. The former Member of Parliament and diplomat died on Tuesday (Aug 13).PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Mr Joseph Conceicao, a former Member of Parliament and pioneering diplomat, died on Tuesday night (Aug 13) from a heart attack.

He was 95.

An MP for Katong from 1968 to 1984, he was also a diplomat between 1977 and 1994, serving twice as Singapore’s ambassador to Russia, as well as ambassador to Indonesia and high commissioner to Australia.

In an interview with The Straits Times in 2001, he recalled a planned meeting between founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1990.

Mr Lee had waited in his hotel for three hours but the Russian leader, who was in his last year in power, did not appear.

“Everyone panicked, including the Russian protocol officers, who disappeared from the hotel because they knew Mr Lee as a hot-tempered man,” he said.

But Mr Lee told him coolly: “Don’t be agitated, Joe. You must realise this is a great opportunity for us. We are sitting and watching the vanishing of an empire!”

The two leaders finally met and the following year, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. He was ambassador to Russia until 1994.

Mr Barry Desker, non-resident ambassador to the Vatican and Spain, remembers Mr Conceicao for his sound grasp of Singapore’s key foreign policy interests, and having the confidence of Mr Lee and former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee.

Mr Desker, who succeeded Mr Conceicao as ambassador to Indonesia in 1986, added: “He had built excellent ties with the Indonesian military, in particular, General Benny Moerdani, the commander-in-chief of the Indonesian armed forces.”

Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh said his friendship with Mr Conceicao went back to the 1960s. “He was a very good diplomat and made many friends for Singapore,” said Prof Koh. “And as a pioneer, he had helped to build the Singapore of today.”

Mr Desker also remembers Mr Conceicao as a dedicated teacher, who began his working life teaching O and A Level English Literature at St Patrick’s School.

“I was one of his students from 1962 to 1964. He was particularly effective in my case in promoting an interest in literary criticism,” he said.

Mr Conceicao pursued his literary interest after retiring from the foreign service in 1994. His 2004 autobiography, Flavours Of Change: Destiny And Diplomacy, Recollections Of A Singapore Ambassador described his experiences of the Japanese Occupation.

He also chronicled Singapore’s racial riots in the book Singapore And The Many-Headed Monster.

A linguist, he learned Russian in addition to English, Malay, Mandarin, Latin and his native Kristang, a Portuguese-Malay patois spoken by Portugese Malaccans.

He was a former director of the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation and was also involved in the then-Adult Education Board, then-National Museum Board and the People’s Association.

To the Eurasian community, he was simply Uncle Joe because of his caring and jovial nature, said president of the Eurasian Association Alexius Pereira.

“As trustee of the association, Joe was always concerned about the welfare of the community. He wanted to make sure that our programmes to help the needy were targeted and efficient.”

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post that Mr Conceicao was always generous with his time and a fount of sound advice.

Former foreign minister George Yeo shared on Facebook a photo of their last breakfast meeting in June, with veteran civil servant J Y Pillay also present. The trio would meet over breakfast or lunch every few months.

Mr Yeo told ST: “In the last year, his health was visibly getting frail. But his mind remained acute. He never lost his impish sense of humour.”

Vice chairman of racial harmony advocacy group Gerald Singham said Mr Conceicao engaged young people through racial harmony camps, with personal recollections of how people living in Chinese and Malay kampong came together to protect one another during the racial riots in the 1960s.

His nephew John Conceicao told ST: “He was the patriarch of the large Conceicao clan, loved his siblings and expressed it in words and actions.”

The wake will be held at 5000K Lagoon View from 1pm on Friday and from 10am to 10pm on Saturday and Sunday. After mass at the Church of the Holy Family next Monday at 10am, he will be cremated at Mandai Crematorium at 12.05pm.

Mr Conceicao is survived by his wife Anita and three children.