Professor Tommy Koh gets special tribute for contributions

December 06, 2017

ST editors said that Professor Tommy Koh "has brought the best of humanity to his country, even as he took the best of Singapore to the world".ST editors said that Professor Tommy Koh "has brought the best of humanity to his country, even as he took the best of Singapore to the world".ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

As a diplomat, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh has been a tireless champion for Singapore, standing up for his small country in a chaotic world. For his lifelong efforts, Professor Koh was given a special tribute yesterday.

Editors of The Straits Times yesterday paid tribute to his indefatigable defence of a rules-based global order, noting that he has also championed the arts, the environment and civic engagement during his long career in the public service.

Prof Koh deserves a special tribute "for the way he has brought the best of humanity to his country, even as he took the best of Singapore to the world", they said in a citation. "He has stood up for a rules-based order in a chaotic world. He displayed a tireless readiness to work towards compromise in the most difficult diplomatic situations, able to make his points unambiguously without leaving lasting wounds. This has won him both admiration and respect from his friends and adversaries around the world."

Prof Koh has chaired two United Nations panels of global importance - the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea that concluded in 1982, and a decade later, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Conference.

His skills in negotiation are internationally recognised - Harvard University gave him its Great Negotiator Award in 2014.

Prof Koh was chief negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, and was in the team that successfully argued the case for Singapore's claim to Pedra Branca at the International Court of Justice. He is also a key figure in Singapore's semi-official strategic dialogues with Asia's three most powerful nations - China, Japan and India.

In a recent interview with ST, Prof Koh said that when he negotiates, he tries to develop a relationship with the person he is dealing with.

"At the end of the day, we are human beings, so let's be friends first, try to develop a relationship, some trust in each other. Don't see each other as an adversary, but if we have a difficult problem, let's look at the problem," he said.

Beyond diplomacy, Prof Koh has also been a champion of the arts, the environment and civil society, and an outspoken advocate of civic engagement.

He was the founding chairman of the National Arts Council from 1991 to 1996, sat on the board of the Esplanade, and chaired the National Heritage Board.

Prof Koh, who turned 80 last month, is also a frequent contributor to The Straits Times, where he is a star guest columnist.

He shares his wisdom on topics ranging from diplomacy and international law to values and beliefs that he hopes his two grandchildren will grow up with.

Prof Koh told The Straits Times last night: "I am very grateful for the award, and I hope I will live up to your expectations."

"This is a very special 80th birthday present. It caught me by surprise, and I am deeply grateful," he added.

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