by June Lee
In an international career dedicated to representing Singapore globally, one thing has distinguished Professor Tommy Koh’s work for nearly 50 years – a sense of fair play.
To the world, Professor Tommy Koh (RI, 1957) is an international lawyer, diplomat, negotiator, scholar, thinker, author, patron of the arts, and environmentalist (sometimes a few of these at once). To those who know him, Professor Koh is a humble, sincere and gracious man; approachable; a good friend; and an advocate for those who need a champion. These characteristics have surfaced time and again in his stellar career and are what have made him so good at what he does.
Currently Ambassador-At-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Professor Tommy Koh has been representing Singapore in the world since he became the country’s youngest ambassador to the United Nations in 1968. Over the years, he has held multiple positions.
In an interview for Singapore, a quarterly publication of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), he explained how he is able to wear so many hats at once: ‘I enjoy all the jobs that I do now and others I had done in the past, both at the national and the international levels.’
The Making of a Diplomat
Born Tommy Koh Thong Bee on 12 November 1937 in Singapore to Koh Han Kok and Tsai Ying, Professor Koh’s interest in the world and its affairs had an early start. As a boy, he was an avid stamp collector, a fact he revealed in a letter he wrote to the Straits Times Forum on 19 November 2009. ‘The stamps opened my mind to history, historical personalities, arts, culture and the wonders of the natural world,’ he said.
The hobby also taught him to be disciplined, methodical, and to find happiness in a wholesome endeavor, traits he carried with him throughout his life.
Even as a student, Professor Koh had a strong sense of justice. During his Raffles Institution days, he wrote an article for the school magazine protesting arbitrary arrests under colonial rule. His article was not allowed to be published and the early experience with censorship would prove formative.
He went on to join the first batch of the University of Singapore’s law students, choosing to study international law in his final year.
‘[It] was my desire to help build a world ruled by law. The quest for a just world order would dominate my thinking for the rest of my life,’ he recalled in the Singapore Journal of International and Comparative Law (2001).
In 1961, he graduated with First Class Honours and, four years later, earned a Master’s Degree in Law from Harvard University. The next year, he completed his postgraduate Diploma in Criminology at Cambridge University. By 1977, he was conferred a full professorship and, in the years to follow, would be awarded Honorary Degrees of Doctor of Laws by Yale University and Monash University.
Leaving a Mark in the World
Throughout a career that has set him on the world stage representing Singapore, Professor Tommy Koh’s sense of fair play has not faltered. As the face and voice of the country in the role of United Nations permanent representative and, then, ambassador; heading international committees like the Third UN Conference on the Law of Sea, and the Preparatory and Main Committee of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio ‘Earth Summit’); educating the next generation as the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Singapore, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, and lecturing in various universities throughout the world – Professor Koh has sought to speak up for justice on a myriad of matters in the fields of international law, environmental policy, trade, and dispute resolution.
In his pursuit of a just world, Professor Koh has been instrumental in negotiating global disputes. He was Chief Negotiator in Singapore’s legal tussle with Kuala Lumpur over the reclamation works at Tuas and Tekong as well as the USA-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. He was a member of three World Trade Organisation dispute panels, chairing two of them. He also served as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on a peace mission to Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
For his service to his country and the world, Professor Koh has received countless awards both local and international, the most recent of which celebrates his lifelong work as global go-between: the Great Negotiator Award from Harvard University in 2014.
To receive the award, he was questioned at length at a public hearing at the university, an experience he recounted in The Straits Times on 7 May 2014. Asked what made a good negotiator, he listed high emotional and cultural intelligence, timing, and luck.
The Voice of this Generation
Nearly five decades on, Professor Koh continues to be passionate about the causes that have propelled him all his life – a just world, equality, closing the wage gap, and creating a gracious society.
He told Singapore in an interview in 2014: ‘I have three goals: To persuade Asia to embrace sustainable development; to strengthen the rule of law in Asia and the world; and to fight for a more just and equal world. You could say that these are the ideals which inspire and motivate me, even at 76, to work hard every day.’
He continues to speak up for a gracious, genteel society. A lover of Nature since his days in the Scout movement, Professor Koh enjoys walks at the Singapore Botanic Gardens with his wife of 47 years, Siew Aing. His other gentlemanly pursuits are music and reading, which he said are one of the rules to being happy. He is also an advocate of the arts and culture.
In a life dedicated to dreaming big for Singapore, Professor Tommy Koh has not stopped. He continues to dream of a green Singapore that is an intellectual and cultural hub that welcomes the world as the ‘Geneva of the East and Venice of the 21st century’. Above all, he dreams that ‘Singaporeans should not become a people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Good dreams of a world-class negotiator.