He did it his way

The Tommy Koh Reader: Favorite Essays and Lectures – Tommy Koh

* World Scientific Publishing, 529 pages, non-fiction

A SMALL black and white sketch on the cover of The Tommy Koh Reader offers a partial glimpse of the author’s face.

The collection of Prof. Tommy Koh’s speeches and written works is also a partial insight into one of Singapore’s most versatile, accomplished and outspoken sons. It would be difficult to give a full picture of his impact on science, diplomacy, law, arts, heritage and the environment in Singapore, but this selection covers a range of causes he has championed.

Koh and other members of the University Socialist Club “were very passionate about our quest to build a more democratic, just and equal world,” he wrote. As a student, he “hoped that we would find a socio-economic model that would achieve growth with equity.”

He still raises similar concerns. Noting in 2010 that Singapore’s Founding Fathers envisioned a country like an olive, with a large middle class and relatively few people above and below, he warned: “We must not allow the olive to become the pear”.

After graduating, Koh completed his law degree with former Prime Minister David Marshall and then taught at the Law School of the National University of Singapore. But in 1968 he was asked to represent the newly independent nation as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Although he later became Dean of the Faculty of Law (1971-1974), he spent most of his professional life at the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

An “active participant” in Republic diplomacy for 41 years, Koh proved to be one of its most formidable negotiators. As Chair of the Preparatory Committee for the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the 1991 and 1992 Earth Summits, he described his tactics in drafting the agenda: “My strategy was to keep the pressure on the delegates until they agreed on a compromise. By 4:30 am, the delegates were so exhausted that they asked me to draft a compromise, I asked for a short break and, with the help of about a dozen colleagues representing the various interest groups, managed to reach a compromise to design, I got my agenda.”

Koh combined his legal and diplomatic skills as President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (1981-1982), which drafted “a constitution for the oceans.” The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea “has stood the test of time,” he wrote, and “has brought order, security and peace to the world’s oceans and seas and the rule of law in the world.”

The “son of a book-loving father and an art-loving mother”, Koh was founding Chairman of the National Arts Council (1991) and Chairman of the Censorship Review Committee of Singapore in 1992.

“When an attempt was made to stigmatize The Forum Theater and The Necessary Stage,” he wrote to Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper in defense. But he failed to “protect performance artist Josef Ng from the wrath of law enforcement.”

This wasn’t the only time Koh criticized government policies. He was part of the establishment, but he was also active in civil society.

“Non-governmental organizations by their very nature must be troublesome,” he told Asiaweek magazine in 1996. “But we need positive annoyances like that.”

For example, he described “saving the trees of the Lower Peirce Reservoir from being cut down for a golf course” as one of Singapore’s most important environmental achievements. Although not mentioned in the book, Koh may have credit for it, as he is a patron of the Nature Society (Singapore), which led Singapore’s largest protest campaign in 1992 – well before the advent of social media.

NSS members first prepared an 80-page report on the biodiversity in the catchment area and the impact the proposed golf course would have on water quality and the environment. When the government didn’t respond, it organized a campaign that collected around 17,000 signatures. The proposal was eventually shelved.

This collection will resonate with many Malaysians and Singaporeans, but more distant readers may have to resort to the internet to find some cryptic acronyms and references. An index and further footnotes in later editions would be helpful.