Tommy Koh: UN Sec-Gens have offered me top jobs at the UN, but I turned them down. Twice.
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
Speaking Truth to Power: Singapore’s Pioneer Public Servants is a compilation of oral interviews with 11 of Singapore’s pioneer public servants.
Edited by Loke Hoe Yeong, the book features their personal accounts of the civil service’s transition from the colonial era, their relationship with the political leaders of the time, and the rationale underlying the early years of Singapore’s development.
Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book featuring the perspective of Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, about his time as Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 1968-71, and from 1974-84.
Speaking Truth to Power: Singapore’s Pioneer Public Servants is published by World Scientific and you can get a copy of it here.
By Irene Quah
IQ: You mentioned that in your first three years [at the UN], you made a lot of friends, and your other task was to project a good image of Singapore.
TK: But the most important was to overcome whatever doubts and reservations the world had about the legitimacy of Singapore as an independent sovereign state. That was number one.
IQ: Was there any memorable encounters of the diplomatic circuit in the UN which you can recall?
TK: The UN had and always has had very charismatic individuals and even eccentric ones. And it was no different during my first three years. I had met some of these individuals. They had always stayed in my memories.
But in terms of learning about diplomacy, international politics, I would say the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was a climactic event for me, because it showed that the world was still ruled by force rather than by law.
It’s not wise to lie at the UN
In 1968, the Soviet Ambassador to the UN was a man called Yakov Malik who had no compunction about telling the most awful lies to the whole world.
First, he denied that his country had invaded Czechoslovakia. And then when this was undeniable, because you could see it was in the public domain with photos and so on, then he said, “Oh, we were invited in.”
I was not impressed. I think that episode made me very anti-Machiavelli, because Machiavelli, in his advice to the Prince, had said that one must lie and dissemble in order to succeed. The world is full of gullible people and you can always deceive them.
I feel that in this modern world, Machiavelli’s advice was bad advice and that when Yakov Malik told all those lies, he reduced his own credibility to zero. And none of us was deceived.
So I think it reinforced my belief that one should be honest and one should not tell lies even in your country’s national interest [laughs]. And especially not to tell lies when the evidence against you is so accessible. But that was a big thing in 1968.
Other than that, I don’t remember the big events. But I had a very happy time. I made many friends and got to know, for the first time, Africans and Arabs, people with cultures I had never met before.
I also made many good friends among the Latin Americans. I tried really hard to understand the different cultures, history, so that I could be better friends to them.
IQ: So as the newcomer to the UN circuit, how did you go about cultivating the friendship?
TK: I was very hardworking …
IQ: Because they were all from different nationalities?
TK: Yes, but it was a club. UN was a club and is a club, the Perm Reps of the UN constitute a club. It’s like belonging to a club.
People will take notice if you are smart
You see each other every day and after a while, friendships formed and if you are bright, people would take note of you and invite you to functions. If you have no value, people wouldn’t invite you.
So I found that I was quite popular and was invited to many functions by the Europeans, the Arabs and Latinos. So I made a lot of friends.
But maybe because I was exceptionally young, I also appealed to people with maternal or paternal instincts, which was good. So I had a lot of “uncles” and “aunts” who sort of took me under their wings and were particularly kind to me, including U Thant — the UN Secretary-General — who was a wonderful man from Myanmar, then known as Burma.
U Thant treated me like his nephew. He was very kind to me and his Chef de Cabinet who was from India — C.V. Narasimhan — was very kind to me.
So a lot of the older guys felt that because I was young, I was from a young country, they went out of their ways to be nice to me and when I needed advice, they were accessible.
I remember U Thant even invited me home for dinner. And his Burmese Perm Rep, U Soe Tin, was like an uncle to me. I went to see him recently, by the way, in Myanmar. He’s still alive, in his 80s. When I went to Yangon in December last year with my older son, I invited him to dinner.
IQ: So the support staff at the UN, did they only remain at one, or did they increase in number?
TK: In the first years, I had a third person who was looking after the administration of the mission and so on. Just the three of us.
Appointed as President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea
IQ: What was your reaction on being asked to serve as its President?
TK: I felt that Satya Nandan of Fiji had contributed so much to the Conference and that the honour should have gone to him, but unfortunately he was blocked by Chris Pinto of Sri Lanka.
The first thing I did was to bring the family together. So I included both Chris Pinto and Satya Nandan in my collegium. I sort of created a leadership group and assigned to each of them some negotiating responsibility.
I think it’s partly a reflection of my own nature. And partly the wisdom I have learned from watching others.
So I created unity in Asian Group. I then wanted to create unity in the Conference so I had, in fact, daily meetings of the Chairmen of all the regional groups, interest groups.
Micromanaging is not my style
I don’t believe in keeping everything to myself, so I devolved responsibility to able men and women to help me conduct negotiations.
I included all of them in what I called the collegium. We met every day.
It was my routine every day, as I am a very early riser, so I punished all my colleagues by making them turn up early for work.
I would have a daily meeting at nine o’clock with my collegium. Then at 9:30pm, a meeting of the Chairmen of all the regional interest groups; and then I would meet the Secretariat.
The other thing I did was unlike some Chairman who excluded the Secretariat I used the Secretariat because I talent-spotted good people in the Secretariat and said, “I want you to work with me.”
But I had to eventually take over any issue that wasn’t resolved
But I knew I faced very formidable challenges. And in my last year there, it was very stressful because whatever was not resolved, the conference wanted me to take them over personally.
So in that final year, I found that I was conducting so many simultaneous negotiations on so many things. It was really stressful and I was not sure if I could do it.
But because of the tremendous support I got from the Conference, because I had enlisted very able people to help me, with the help of the Secretariat, we succeeded in the end.
But it was a close call. This was true in the Law of the Sea and also in the Earth Summit.
There is a lot of pressure that comes with being appointed as Chairman of a conference
Having learned all these lessons from the Law of the Sea, when I was asked 10 years later to chair the Preparatory Committee for the Earth Summit and then the main negotiation in Rio [de Janeiro] itself, I was able to modify, adapt the lessons that I had learned from the Law of the Sea to chairing this even bigger negotiation.
But when you are the chairman of the negotiation, at the end of the day, fate really lies in your hands.
Whether you succeed or fail depends very much on whether you deliver or you don’t deliver. So right to the end, you never know. And you could make or break.
In Rio, I didn’t know even at the final stage, we met without a break. We started in the morning, adjourned for lunch. Started at 3 o’clock, adjourned for dinner. Started at 8pm again and went through the night.
At 4am in the morning, I was still not sure I was going to make it or not. It was only at 6 o’clock in the morning that I felt I was close to the end.
By that time, I think I could scale Mount Everest — “Go for it!” And I really pushed it through.
But that was a very long night and there were so much drama during that night. At no moment was anybody sure whether it was going to succeed or fail. And even the members of the Secretariat sitting next to me, behind me, were not sure, you know.
When it was all over, they thought I had schemed the whole thing, that I had planned everything to end at 6 o’clock sharp.
I told my friend, “You must be kidding, you know.” I said, “I have no idea if the night was going to end successfully or in utter failure. How could I possibly predict our end of the conference at 6 am sharp?” I said it was just good fortune.
Although not all western countries signed the treaty, I knew I would be vindicated in the long run
IQ: What was the impact of the refusal by the US and some of the Western countries which actually did not sign the treaty?
TK: Well, a few of the allies followed them by not signing at the time — the UK, Germany, to keep them company, to maintain this facade of solidarity.
But it didn’t bother me because I knew history would vindicate me.
And I knew at the end of the day, the Americans would come to the conclusion when a more sensible administration took over, that it would be in the national interest of the United States — because we had secured for them all the national security interests they wanted in terms of passage rights, on the surface of the sea, underwater passage right for the submarines and so on.
And in terms of protecting their fishing interests, as they have such huge coasts on both sides. So I felt that history would vindicate me, and I was not bothered.
And I knew that the Germans had a vested interest in coming on board at the last moment, because the tribunal was going to be based in Hamburg.
So I knew, okay, they could stay out but at the end of the day, they would lose their right to host the Law of the Sea Tribunal. So I knew the Germans would be on board.
For successfully chairing such conferences, I was offered top jobs at the UN
IQ: One hundred and nineteen nations signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. What personal satisfaction did you gain in steering the UN members through the critical final stages?
TK: I think my friends were more proud of me than I was of myself, actually. I just felt that I was given a job to do, and I had put my heart and soul to doing a good job. That’s it.
In fact I did something extraordinary. When the treaty was finished, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar [the then UN Secretary-General] offered me the top post at the UN to look after the Law of the Sea and legal matters.
I turned him down. He couldn’t understand, he said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t want the world to think that I wanted to be President of the Conference so that I could get a job in the international system afterwards.”
I refused and nominated others instead
So I declined and I nominated Satya Nandan. I did him one big favour. I got Satya Nandan this job in the UN as Under-Secretary-General.
And then when the treaty came into force, the government of Jamaica invited me to Jamaica for the big ceremony.
I didn’t go. Germany invited me to Hamburg to witness the opening of the Sea Tribunal. I also didn’t go because I didn’t want to seek glory. I mean, if you get the job done, history will vindicate you, people will remember you. So why go to all these?
Just as when I completed the Earth Summit, [Boutros] Boutros-Ghali [the UN Secretary-General after Pérez de Cuéllar] also offered me a job at the UN as the Under-Secretary-General for Sustainable Development.
So when I said no to him, he was very angry with me. He asked, “What you have got against me?” I said, “I got nothing against you.” “Why are you not accepting this job?” I said, “You know, you go and speak to Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. He offered a similar job on the Law of the Sea and I turned him down also.”
He said, “Why?” I said, “Since I chaired this Conference, I don’t want to go on to a job. Otherwise there would be a perception that I chaired the conference in order to get this job.”
He said, “Nobody suspects that of you.” I said, “No, no, I don’t want the job. I don’t need the job.”
I said, “Why don’t you give it to one of my good friends?” So I gave him a list of people. He did appoint one of them — Nitin Desai from India.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has been important for Singapore’s geopolitics
IQ: What’s the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea for a small place like Singapore?
TK: Well, I think it is important to all states, in the sense that it settles a law. There was a period in the 1960s and even the 1970s when the law was in a flux.
Nobody knew for certain what was the extent of the territorial sea we could claim. Nobody knew what their fishing rights were. Nobody knew what are the limits of their continental shelf were if it contained oil and gas.
Therefore, very important to countries. Nobody was very clear about the rights of ships. When they went through straits like the Straits of Malacca, through an archipelago like Indonesia, what the status of the water of these straits and archipelagos were.
So there are many conflicts between states because the law was uncertain. So my great satisfaction is that I played a modest part in helping to settle the law and write a new constitution for the oceans.
This was important to all countries, not just to Singapore. But Singapore is one of the beneficiaries of the treaty because it settles the law on international straits, it settles the law on passage rights through archipelagos.
It settles the law on port states, the rights of port states, and I think it has achieved, in my view, an equitable balance between the rights of the coastal states and the rights of the international community.
So in that sense, the treaty has been good for Singapore and good for the world, and that’s exactly the kind of opportunities I have always looked for in my life — which is to do the right thing for my country, and to also do something good for the world.
Both the Law of the Sea and the Earth Summit gave me opportunities to do that.
Disclaimer statement from World Scientific
While we respect the narratives recounted by our interviewees, we recognise that all oral history accounts, by their very nature, are personal, experiential and interpretive. They are founded on the memories, perceptions and viewpoints of individuals. While all reasonable attempts have been taken to avoid inaccuracies, the excerpts of the interviews found in this book should not be understood as statements of fact endorsed by the National Archives of Singapore, an institution of the National Library Board; the publisher; or the editor.
Top image from Tommy Koh Facebook