A Conversation with Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh
October 1, 2014
The Asia Foundation’s director of Regional Cooperation Programs, John J. Brandon, recently spoke with former Foundation grantee, Tommy Koh, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former ambassador to the United States. Koh also served as the Foundation’s Southeast Asia Chair for the “America’s Role in Asia” project in 2004 and 2008.
As an accomplished diplomat, looking back, what do you consider the highlight or most remarkable moment in your career?
It is difficult to identify one highlight in my career, so I’ll mention three. First, I will always remember the 30th of April 1982. I was the president of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. On that day, I brought the conference to a conclusion after nine years of negotiations and adopted the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The second date I will always remember is the 10th of June 1992. From March 1990 to April 1992, I chaired the preparatory committee for the 1992 Earth Summit. At the Summit, I was elected to chair the main committee that oversaw the negotiations. On the 10th of June, I chaired the final meeting of the committee that began at 8 pm and ended at 6 am the next day. The third date I will never forget is the 23rd of May 2008. On that day, the International Court of Justice awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Putih to Singapore and sovereignty over Middle Rocks to Malaysia.
In your view, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities that the future holds for Singapore?
The rise of Asia offers the biggest economic opportunity for Singapore. The second biggest opportunity is for Singapore to champion good governance, livable and sustainable cities, and sustainable development in Asia and the world. The third biggest opportunity is for Singapore and ASEAN to promote peace, cooperation, and mutual trust in East Asia and to avoid a new Cold War between the U.S. and China. Our biggest challenges are to retain our economic competitiveness and social cohesion; keep ASEAN united, independent, and prosperous; and respond creatively and proactively to fluid and uncertain external environments and events.
Based on your leadership experience, what advice would you give young leaders in Singapore today?
First, to pay more attention to the growing disparity of income and wealth in Singapore. We have one of the highest GDP per capita incomes in the world. At the same time, we have one of the highest GINI coefficients, which measures the extent to which income is distributed among individuals or households, in the world. Second, we need to have a deeper understanding of the history, culture, and heritage of each of our nine ASEAN partners. We need to engage them intellectually, culturally, and emotionally. Third, Singapore is one of the most globalized countries and economies in the world. We must therefore have a good understanding of the world and be viewed as a responsible global citizen.
As a former grantee of The Asia Foundation, what are your recollections about the experience and how did it help to shape your career?
In the summer of 1964, between Harvard and Cambridge, I was an intern at the UN. The Asia Foundation gave me a grant, which enabled me to live in New York. My UN internship probably caught the eyes of Singapore’s leaders when we were ejected from Malaysia in 1965. In 1968, when I was only 30 years old, I was appointed as Singapore’s ambassador/permanent representative to the UN.
As The Asia Foundation marks its 60th anniversary, what do you regard as the Foundation’s main contribution toward improving lives and expanding opportunities in Singapore, and what role might the Foundation play to best support your country’s progress going forward?
I think The Asia Foundation’s greatest contribution to Singapore is in the field of tertiary education and the training of our human resources. For a small country like Singapore, which has virtually no natural resources, our only resource is human resources. Educating and training our people well is one of the keys to the Singapore success story.
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