Speech delivered by DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Launch of 'Tommy Koh: Serving Singapore and The World' on 11 November 2017.
Professor Tommy Koh, Mrs Koh Siew Aing and your Family, and friends of Tommy,
It is a real pleasure to be with everyone here at the launch of this book on Professor Tommy Koh’s life, on the eve of his 80th birthday. It’s also a privilege for me to speak after a distinguished cast of individuals who have known Tommy well over the years.
We all share admiration for the way Tommy has served Singapore, and the way he has strived to make both Singapore and the world a better place.
I must admit that I first admired Tommy for a very different reason. I got to know of him when I was in my early youth - he was already representing Singapore in the UN and there were photos of him in the newspapers - and I thought he had a rather sagely hairstyle. As I grew up, I realised that there was something more to Tommy.
I will touch very briefly on three facets of Tommy’s contributions that make his a special life.
The first is what he is best known for. Prof Tommy Koh has been greatly impactful in representing the interests of Singapore, and in advancing the role of this very small country as an honest and influential broker within the international community. Tommy has been masterful in both regards, and continues to be so today. He is held with the highest regard internationally for his work as chair of the UN Law of the Sea conference that gave birth to UNCLOS, later as chair of the Earth Summit, and for his constant efforts to build bridges between contending players.
Why has Tommy so succeeded in advancing our interests as a country and in earning the respect of the international community? I think it is due to that distinctive blend of traits that Tommy has – his standing by the interests of Singapore as a small country, his use of reason, his ability to master and synthesise the most complex facts in a negotiation, and equally too, his humility and disarming way of winning people over. He appreciates the difficulties on all sides, and finds the common ground in the midst of sharp differences.
You can never win everyone over in international affairs. But Tommy has had a way of earning trust, and been a leader among the generations of Singapore diplomats who have earned us trust. And for a small country, trust wins us valuable space.
This blend of abilities in Tommy is what every young officer in diplomacy and indeed all of us learn something from.
The second facet of Tommy’s life that leaves an impression in my mind is his standing by his ideals and values through the years. He has stayed the humanitarian, the advocate for a fair and inclusive society, and the person who gives respect to everyone he meets no matter how humble their standing. Tommy has been a sentinel for a humane and compassionate society. He keeps nudging, and knows that the work is never over - in helping the disabled, the child born to a disadvantaged family, or the older worker who should be treated better. He also knows that the work of advancing the arts and moral reflection, which as Prof Kwok Kian Woon just mentioned has also been Tommy’s passion, is not over.
That is also related to the third thing about Tommy that we all are inspired by, which is his ability to play an active role in public life in every season of his life, and to stay young at heart and in mind. He gives hope, or at least sets a very high bar, for those of us who have not reached 80. In this respect too, Tommy has been an advocate for a better society. Just two years ago, Tommy highlighted to me during a public dialogue that many older Singaporeans want to continue to work and contribute to society, and that there should be no age at which we stop doing what we do - either in the rules or in customs or culture. There should be no age at which we stop what we do, which I agreed with. But it is Tommy’s own active life, the energy and thinking and values that he keeps bringing into the group, that is the best lesson.
So I join everyone in celebrating what Professor Tommy Koh represented and his life’s work. The man with the courage of his convictions, the public servant who has done great good for Singapore, and the public intellectual who is utterly loyal to his country and has worked tirelessly for a better world.
Thank you Tommy, and happy birthday!
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