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Singapore's 'accidental diplomat'

Ashwini Devare 

Favourite Essays and Lectures
Tommy Koh

World Scientific; 544 pages; $45

A young boy stood under a large Tembusu tree in the botanical gardens. He dreamt that one day his country would be free, just like the heritage tree, with its branches reaching for the sky. Today, the young boy, who grew up in colonial Singapore, is his country's most celebrated academic and diplomat, whose dreams have mostly been fulfilled. Yet 70 years later, Tommy Koh, Singapore's ambassador-at-large, hasn't stopped dreaming. He calls himself an old man who now dreams of a society that will be kind, and less obsessed about material wealth.

Small in stature but tall in intellect, Mr Koh describes himself as an "accidental diplomat", who had intended to be a law professor. Instead, he found himself inextricably tied to his country's foreign policy, which he imbibed for 40 years. A trailblazer, Mr Koh held many top jobs, including Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations, its ambassador to the United States and president of the historic Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, just to name a few.

In his book, the former civil servant offers lucid insights into seminal diplomatic and political issues. Delightfully sprinkled with anecdotes, the book is part-academic, part-personal odyssey, filled with vision and wisdom - key takeaways that would benefit emerging economies around the region, including India, on the cusp of sweeping change, as they redefine their rubric for the next 50 years.

There are many gems to be found in this collection, including the post-colonial mood Mr Koh intuitively captures as he leads us through the early years, when Singapore, as a newly minted nation, took baby steps into the international arena. "Size is not destiny" was the mantra that guided the new leadership under former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The hallmark of Singapore's foreign policy, explains Mr Koh, is its preference for clarity over opacity. Singapore is "a small State", writes Mr Koh, "[but] we are not passive. On the contrary, we are hyper-proactive".

Mr Koh rose to become his country's ace negotiator, and in his book he provides a vivid behind-the-scenes look at the wheeling and dealing that went on at international conferences he chaired. Not surprisingly, he was awarded the 2014 Great Negotiator Award by Harvard Law School, his alma mater, earlier this year.

Mr Koh's essays will surely appeal to the Asian fraternity, including India, which respects Singapore's tiny-but-feisty presence in the region. In fact, the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be studying economic models of countries such as Singapore and Japan. "As an old friend and admirer of India, I am optimistic about India's future," writes Mr Koh. "I believe that India will succeed in becoming one of the world's largest economies."

Over the last decade or so, Mr Koh, along with other Southeast Asian leaders, has carefully followed the phenomenon of a rising India. Their admiration is often clouded by frustration over India's propensity to "Look West" rather than East. Even while former prime minister

P V Narasimha Rao announced the "Look East" policy back in the early 1990s, it was only this year that India finally appointed a dedicated envoy to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean. Today, however, relations between India and Singapore are flourishing, with the city state a favoured hub for top Indian professionals. Singapore is India's seventh largest trading partner with bilateral trade crossing $20 billion. Experts say this trend is likely to continue under India's pro-business Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

Mr Koh discusses Sino-Indian relations at length, as seen from Singapore's perspective. It is a relationship that remains high on the regional radar, "the second most important bilateral relationship in the world, exceeded only by the US-China alliance", he writes. He describes the relationship between the Asian juggernauts as sweet and sour, complimentary yet competitive, with points of convergence and divergence.

Mr Koh cites the new Nalanda University, in which Singapore has taken a strong initiative, as a promising opportunity for China and India to rekindle an ancient connection. Based in present-day Bihar, Nalanda housed Chinese monks and Indian scholars back in the fifth century. "Nalanda should serve as a reminder that a thousand years ago Asians were studying and learning from one another," says Mr Koh.

Despite being firmly anchored to Singapore's shores, Mr Koh's essays offer plenty of pointers for a wider classroom of international relations. He provides lessons in realpolitik and diplomacy that are grounded in pragmatism and utility, suitable to today's complex geopolitical landscape. "Singapore has done well, but we should not rest on our laurels," Mr Koh writes. "We should continue to innovate and learn from others." Nations would do well to incorporate such humility into their foreign policy, a trademark of the veteran diplomat.

Mr Koh travelled the world representing his country, but just like the Tembusu tree he befriended as a young boy, he remains deeply rooted to his island state, which he nurtured and helped transform into one of the world's most efficient and advanced nations.

The reviewer is a Singapore-based freelance journalist and author of Batik Rain & Other Stories

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First Published: Wed, July 30 2014. 21:25 IST