Conversations with Prof Tommy Koh

My university guild held an event to promote Prof Tommy Koh’s new book. The book, an anthology of his speeches and essays over the years was launched during the recent Writers Festival. I had missed that and decided that I would register for this talk, even as my regular companions were all too busy to join in. In the end, I found a new partner to attend future such talks.

My objective to attend the talk was to get his autograph on the book, which is a new hobby of mine – collecting autographed books. Whether I would eventually read these books or not is immaterial, since my shelves are stacked with books without autographs which I had purchased but has yet to read.

The lobby was filled with people having their dinner on mini plates when we arrived and we joined in. I spotted many familiar faces who are regulars at NUSS talks, amongst them my Uncle L and his classmates from Arts. Like my uncle, most of the audience were middle-aged or older. My companion Guet was from Arts and I from Science, yet we did not spot any of our faculty mates there.

The forum comprised of a panel of important people from various interest groups that Prof Koh had a hand in. Moderator AP Victor Savage, Director of Alumni Relations (Guet’s Geography lecturer) opened the forum by telling us that Prof Koh was nursing a bad throat that night. The others in the panel were AP Simon Tay, Chairman, Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Gopinath Pillai, Ambassador at large, Ms Chong Siak Ching, CEO, National Arts Gallery and Dr Shawn Lim, President of Nature Society.

The conversations, which felt like an informal chit-chat was put forth in a question and answer format. The panelists got to ask two questions to Prof Koh followed by questions from the floor. Through this session, I not only see the contributions by Prof Koh, but what a humble man he is, sweeping away any praises and giving credits to his staff and to his good fortune of being at the right place at the right time, an accident. While the panelist remained seated throughout, Prof Koh chose to stand when speaking, even walking to each end of the stage to speak to the audience closely.

Prof Koh was a law professor (Dean of Law) intending to pursue a career in the academic path when he was approached in the late 60s to represent newly independent Singapore in the UN. He protested, saying he had no diplomatic experience and was promptly given the answer that neither did anyone else in Singapore. His lustrous  career in the foreign affairs sealed his reputation as a valued negotiator. His fellow classmate, Gopinath Pillai, whom Koh affectionately referred to as Gopin, related how in the 1960s, Prof Koh was the only student who visited the campus barber, and the barber remarked to Gopin that one day, Koh would be a great man.

Prof Koh was also passionate about the arts and the environment, making great contributions in these area. His greatest worry, he said, is that if we don’t protect our environment, the next form of refugees are not from war but environmental refugees.

He was asked by the audience about the current internal affairs, and how people are dissatisfied. Although he said as a kaypoh (busybody) who contributes regularly to the local newspaper when he disagrees with certain policy, there is no perfection in any system. He is amazed by Singapore transformation in just under five decades.

When asked about China’s new air defense zone and the conflict in North Asia, he warned, ‘”You must never underestimate man’s capacity for irrational behavior. ”

To know more about the man and his career, I urge you to buy the book. At the book signing, he patiently got up from his chair to take photos with each and everyone who requested it.

Guet and I left the premise with an added admiration for this intelligent, witty, yet humble man.




About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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