On the cusp of 80, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh shows no signs of stopping

Censorship is a reality, but he thinks that Singapore on the whole is moving toward a greater acceptance for alternative views.

By Jeanette Tan | November 8, 2017

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Holland Road is a sprawling complex one would not be able to navigate unaccompanied.

Its façade conceals a hive of hallways and doors, some of which are not immediately visible, and even though I’ve been there a few times before, I always get the feeling that I don’t know exactly where I am — although the rooms I have been brought to for the meetings I attended were always high-ceilinged, brightly-lit and ornately decorated.

These, presumably, render them suited for visits by and meetings with foreign dignitaries and officials — essentially people far exceeding us in importance — but there we were on a Monday morning, being led down hallway after hallway, past door after door.

This time was different, though — we did indeed end up in a very elegant room, but thanks to the person we were meeting, we got a rare glimpse of the bustle behind the pristine.

Talking to Tommy

Koh with one of Singapore’s late former presidents, Benjamin Sheares, in 1974. (Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

We found Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh in his office, just off a hive of cubicles, after an MFA staffer was instructed, likely by him, to lead us up there.

It can be difficult to remember that this man has met world leaders and has countless people in high places in both the U.S. and China (and of course, many, many other countries) whom he counts as “good friends”, when he was the one who walked up to us to shake our hand and said hello, remembered our names and asked us about various details we shared before with him about our work.

And it’s not just in the world diplomatic arena where Koh has for decades been a key player — a keen academic, the full professor and former dean of Singapore’s flagship NUS Law faculty continues to write books, lead numerous academic advisory committees, and also contribute essays on various topics from time to time for various newspapers. He’s also still the rector of an undergraduate NUS college.

Now the above is, of course, a rather simplistic and reductive summary of all he has achieved. Yet, the very affable 79-year-old, who turns 80 on November 12, always says he was “lucky” to have been able to do everything he did.

In fact, when we met for this interview, Koh wanted more to talk about a recent book on ASEAN he collaborated on with another two writers than about himself, and had no plans to take stock of his career — even as he stands poised now at the cusp of an admittedly significant age milestone in his life.

And even when we asked him outright about it, he told us about another upcoming book — four ladies who have worked with him professionally for a number of years now, are basically doing the taking-stock job for him by interviewing people who have worked with him throughout his professional life for a “report card” on him, which he jokingly hopes to get “a pass grade” for.

“Because I’ve had so many jobs in my lifetime, you know?… yeah but, I like to say always that I’m a lucky leader, basking in the glory of my team’s good work! It was never a solo achievement, you know, it was always a team effort. So I’m lucky that I’ve always had good people on my team, both locally and in the UN.”

But of course, we would not give up on this worthy endeavour, given this arguably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak to him and unpack more than half a century of worldly wisdom gained from being on the inside of public service and outside our little island-state.

On censorship and liberalism

Koh at the Singapore Art Fair in 1991. (Photo via
Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Interestingly, we didn’t start out talking about the arts — as a matter of fact, Koh’s enthusiasm and passion for them drove him to spontaneously bring them up when we opened our conversation discussing a 2009 essay he wrote about his dreams for Singapore.

And certainly, it shows — Koh was the founding chair of the National Arts Council, sits on the board of the Esplanade and was a big lobbyist in making our National Gallery happen, just to mention a few things he’s done for the arts. He’s still the Honorary Chairman of the National Heritage Board, by the way.

For him, the aspiration was to make Singapore a renowned collector and keeper of art from around the region, to help with preserving it — in his words, to make us “the New York of Southeast Asia”, but with the ultimate aim of benefiting Singaporeans.

Beyond the big-ticket things, though, Koh was certainly all too aware of the issue of censorship, especially where it happens today. He shares candidly that as NAC’s chairman, he walked the tightrope balancing the pressure of placating upset conservative audiences with the duty of nurturing young talented Singaporean artists:

“When I first became chairman of the National Arts Council, the public opinion in Singapore was very conservative, very conservative. And many of the older, more conservative citizens felt outraged by what these young artists were doing. And they want me to beat them up, you know! But my job was to protect them (the artists), not to beat them up… I had to navigate this journey that I have to protect the artists, encourage them but at the same time I must respond in a reasonable way to conservative elements in our society and to our political leaders.

Wasn’t an easy journey, you know, but when I look back on the last 25 years or so I would say the trajectory has been positive. I think we have moved towards and continued to move towards greater freedom for the artists, greater space for the intellectuals, and we try to grow the culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversities.”

But that said, he personally disagrees with a couple of recent incidents where our artistic work was censored in one way or another — he specifically named the banning of Tan Pin Pin’s “To Singapore, With Love”, and the withdrawing of the S$8,000 grant given to Sonny Liew for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye — which, by the way, he pointed out was a book that he submitted a blurb for in support of the work.

“If I were chairman of the National Arts Council I would have fought against it. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in this day and age to ban a film in Singapore, or withdraw an $8,000 grant from a graphic novelist doesn’t make sense lah, you know. I thought we were past all that already.

But as I said, censorship will never go away… it just reflects the reality of our society.”

When it comes to contentious issues like the repeal of Section 377(a) of the Penal Code, Koh said he appreciates PM Lee Hsien Loong’s position too.

“We, the more liberal citizens, feel that they (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and queers) are fellow human beings and they have human rights, you know, and we should not discriminate against them, but the majority of our fellow citizens don’t share our views.

But I can understand the PM’s position. Because it’s an issue on which there is no consensus. And if you look at the public opinion poll, the majority are in favour of retaining it, the minority are in favour of deleting it… he’s in a no-win situation you know. So the best thing he could do is keep it in the book, don’t enforce it and hope that as time progresses, we will reach a point where there is a consensus in Singapore to say ‘this is a disgrace, you know. We’d better delete that.'”

The need for more naysayers

Photo via SMU

One of the things Koh does very often nowadays is speak on panels at conferences, and he, alongside fellow ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee and other established members of the intelligentsia like Kishore Mahbubani, who recently announced he is stepping down from his dean post at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, form a group loosely referred to by political watchers as “the usual suspects”.

Make no mistake, he and these others are widely respected and highly sought after for their views, but the question does come up — who will succeed them in the next generation of public intellectuals?

Recent run-ins by public affairs commentators like Donald Low and Yeoh Lam Keong with the establishment and the authorities respectively, had given rise to some concerns of a shrinking public discussion sphere, but Koh opines that Singapore on the whole is moving toward a greater acceptance, and also more space, for alternative views.

“I think as far as books are concerned I’m happy to say the government has not banned any of the books written by historians, intellectuals, you know — I mean all these books are available on the market. And some well-known critics of the government like my good friend Professor Chua Beng Huat has just published a book. Yeah? I mean, he gets beaten from time to time but he just continues to hold his views, his position and explain in a very nice way his views. And I think that a lot of people hold him in very high respect.

I think both Lam Keong and Donald are strong enough and courageous enough not to self-censor themselves or to stop presenting their view. I think in fact we should welcome people like them, you know. We should welcome people who have the courage to say in a rational way that yes, we’ve done very well in general but there are a few areas in which we haven’t done so well, you know. And I think we should acknowledge and welcome these people. So I admire both Lam Keong and Donald and I would be very disappointed if they were to feel intimidated.”

One thing we’ve done right: leadership succession

Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Having lived through the full terms of our first two Prime Ministers, as well as the full term (thus far) of current sitting PM Lee Hsien Loong, Koh, we knew, would have significant insights into Singapore’s leadership throughout our 52 years of independence.

And Koh gave a generous appraisal, noting that Singapore was blessed with a group of leaders who not only led the country well, but also groomed a successor generation who could step up and take over the reins when it is time to.

“When I used to travel quite a lot with (the late) Mr Lee Kuan Yew, he always made the remark to me that ‘you know, the trouble with great men like Nehru and others is that they do not groom their successor’. So when they pass away there’s a vacuum, you know. And he was very conscious that it was his job, his responsibility to Singapore, to ensure that there will be a successor generation and there would be another team of good leaders to lead Singapore forward. That’s become part of our political tradition.”

He shared that he realised this was really quite an exceptional aspect of Singapore’s government leadership after a meeting he had with a French ambassador to Singapore, whom he said was impressed by the fact that he didn’t meet any Singapore ministers who were “idiots”.

“I guess one reason is that in many countries, when you have a coalition government, the prime minister doesn’t have the prerogative to pick a team, you know, because you must allow your coalition partner to put forward people to hold office. So very often in a coalition government, the prime minister may be very good, like Manmohan Singh in India, very good, but because he is leading a coalition government he has no choice but to accept not so good people, you know, some corrupt people, to be in his cabinet because he needed the support of the party, you know. I think that often happens.”

Still a “very conscientious grandfather”

Koh with his wife (in red) and two sons, Aun and Wei, as well as Mrs S Rajaratnam, in 1976. (Photo via the S Rajaratnam Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Two years ago, Koh wrote a very meaningful letter to his grandchildren Toby and Tara, with qualities he hopes they will possess by the time Singapore turns 100 in 2065.

This, we will admit, made us wonder if with all the things Koh is still so busy doing at work, and all the places he continues to travel to, he’s been able to find time to be with his family.

Right away, Koh showed us that somehow, he’s still remarkably in touch with his sons, Wei and Aun, as well as his grandchildren — kept in check, he always adds with a laugh, by his faithful doctor-wife, Poh Siew Aing.

“I’m a very conscientious grandfather you know! I see my two grandchildren every other day and all my weekends; I’m not allowed by my wife to accept any other invitation. The weekends are reserved for her and the two grandchildren. I go to their home, play with them, take them out, they are good… although they are so young, six and two, they are already good Singaporeans, they love to go out to eat haha. So we ask them what do you want to eat, where do you want to eat? Sometimes we’ll meet in the Botanic Gardens.”

On his sons, Koh reflectively shared that he is happy they have both found their paths in life — pretty successful ones too, at that: 47-year-old Wei founded two high-end men’s magazines, Revolution and The Rake, while Aun, 45, blogs for Chubby Hubby and founded local communications conglomerate the Ate Group. Koh said he also meets Wei and his wife every Saturday for lunch, apart from all the hanging out he does with Aun and his family.

Health-wise, Koh showed no signs of slowing down either — he insisted he’s not diabetic, and indulges in the occasional chendol, laksa and his true weakness: ice cream now and then, to his wife’s chagrin, and also swims or walks at least once a day.

“I have no choice, my wife is such a disciplinarian. I think she’s going to quote PM’s speech to beat me up and say ‘you see, PM says you should eat brown rice not white rice and no ice cream!’ No ice cream, no chendol! I say, then what’s the point of living so long??”

The affable Koh may still not be interested in evaluating his 80 years of a life larger than anything most of us could hope to lead, but coming away from our conversation, you wouldn’t need us to tell you it looks like he’s truly living it to the fullest.

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Tommy Koh is still Chairman of NHB. He has stepped down from its Board a few years ago and is now Honorary Chairman, NHB. We have updated the article to reflect this.)

Top photo courtesy of the Institute of Policy Studies

About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to Hakuna Matata and a host of other Disney songs. She holds out hope to someday be talent-spotted to do voice-overs for documentaries, lifts and automated telephone answering systems.

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