Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh receives special tribute at ST Global Outlook Forum

Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore's Ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore's Ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. PHOTO: TOMMY KOH

SINGAPORE - As a diplomat, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh was a tireless champion for Singapore, standing up for his small country in a chaotic world.

For his lifelong efforts, Professor Koh was on Tuesday (Dec 5) given a special tribute by the editors of The Straits Times when they announced its Asian of the Year Award at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum.

The Straits Times editors paid tribute to Prof Koh's indefatigable defence of a rules-based global order, noting that he has also championed the arts, environment, and civic engagement during his long career in the public service.

In a statement, the editors said Prof Koh deserves a special tribute "for the way he has brought the best of humanity to his country, even as he took the best of Singapore to the world".

"He has stood up for a rules-based order in a chaotic world. He displayed a tireless readiness to work toward compromise in the most difficult diplomatic situations, able to make his points unambiguously without leaving lasting wounds. This has won him both admiration and respect from his friends and adversaries around the world," they said.

Prof Koh has chaired two United Nations panels of global importance - the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea that concluded in 1982, and, a decade later, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Conference.

His skills in negotiation are internationally recognised - Harvard University gave Prof Koh its Great Negotiator Award in 2014.

Prof Koh was chief negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, and was on the team that successfully argued the case for Singapore's claim to Pedra Branca at the International Court of Justice.

At home in Singapore, he is a key figure in the Republic's semi-official strategic dialogues with Asia's three most powerful nations - China, Japan and India.

In a recent interview with ST, Prof Koh said when he negotiates, he tries to develop a relationship with the person he is dealing with.

 
 

"At the end of the day, we are human beings, so let's be friends first, try to develop a relationship, some trust in each other. Don't see each other as an adversary, but if we have a difficult problem, let's look at the problem," he said.

 

Beyond the field of diplomacy, Prof Koh has also been a champion of the arts, the environment, civil society and an outspoken advocate of civic engagement.

He was the founding chairman of the National Arts Council from 1991 to 1996, sat on the board of the Esplanade, and chaired the National Heritage Board.

"In a nation raised on tough love, he has shown that a softer approach could be just as effective; in his approach, the easier way of entering a locked door is not to crash the woodwork but perhaps by turning the right key," read Prof Koh's Special Mention award citation.

Prof Koh, who turned 80 last month, is also a frequent contributor to the national broadsheet, which called him a "star guest columnist" who uses the platform to share his wisdom on a wide range of issues.

His topics range from hard ones like international relations, to softer ones like values and beliefs he hopes his two grandchildren will grow up with.

"Prof Koh has never been short of accolades, both at home and abroad. But on the occasion of his 80th birthday, the editors of The Straits Times think it is befitting to pay special tribute to him for his outstanding lifetime contributions to Singapore, Asia and the world," said the ST editors.

ST Citation for Professor Tommy Koh

On turning 80 this year, Professor Tommy Koh – Singapore’s well-known and well-loved diplomat and public figure – is deserving of special mention for the way he has brought the best of humanity to his country, even as he took the best of Singapore to the world.

As a top diplomat for Singapore, he has stood up for a rules-based order in a chaotic world. He displayed a tireless readiness to work towards compromise in the most difficult diplomatic situations, able to make his points unambiguously without leaving lasting wounds. This has won him both admiration and respect from his friends and adversaries around the world.

He has chaired not one, but two United Nations panels of global importance – the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea that concluded in 1982, and a decade later, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Conference.

Harvard University has given him its Great Negotiator Award. At home in Singapore, he is a key figure in the Republic’s semi-official strategic dialogues with Asia’s three most powerful nations – China, Japan and India.

Beyond the field of diplomacy, he has also been a champion of the arts, the environment, civil society and an outspoken advocate of civic engagement. In a nation raised on tough love, he has shown that a softer approach could be just as effective; in his approach, the easier way of entering a locked door is not to crash the woodwork but perhaps by turning the right key.

At The Straits Times, we consider it a privilege to have him as one of our star guest columnists, a platform he often uses to share his wisdom both to elucidate issues and educate Singaporeans on a wide range of subjects.

Prof Koh has never been short of accolades, both at home and abroad. But on the occasion of his 80th birthday, the editors of The Straits Times think it is befitting to pay special tribute to him for his outstanding lifetime contributions to Singapore, Asia and the world.