Tommy Koh and Bilahari Kausikan have just shown us why the post-pioneer standard of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry has been declining

Just 58 years of independence and already two of our foreign ministers – one current and one former – are starting to get sloppy about their history and international politics. This is ridiculous. I congratulate two of our battle-hardened diplomats for pointing out some serious errors made by the duo which does not reflect well on the high standards which we have come to expect of our foreign ministers in a lineage which goes back all the way to the remarkable S Rajaratnam and his pioneer team. 

Let’s start with the former foreign minister.

In the second series of “Musings” put together and edited by media practitioner Woon Tai Ho, former Foreign Minister George Yeo made a number of errors which were pointed out by Ambassador-at-Large Dr Tommy Koh.

They were:

  • The book said only half of the world condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. “The truth is that 141 members of the UN, out of 193 members, voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Dr Koh. George Yeo’s explanation was that he was thinking of population and not UN members. This was hard to fathom because voting at UN level was always at country level. That was the only system.
  • The book said the Philippines took China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). But Dr Koh said: “This is incorrect. The disputes were referred to arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” It did not go to the international tribunal.
  • The book’s claim that “judges were appointed on China’s behalf” is inaccurate: “When China refused to participate in the arbitration, the President of ITLOS was required by UNCLOS, to appoint one judge out of the five members of arbitral tribunal, to represent China. The President appointed a Polish judge from ITLOS, to represent China.”

Then there was Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the current Foreign Minister. He referred in a recent interview with to the ending of a peace dividend which came after World War II. That period apparently allowed countries to cut defence spending and focus on education and social welfare, especially after the end of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

He said: “The last seven, eight decades of the peace dividend after World War II is over, and you’re going to see increased defence expenditure literally all over the world.”

Former Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan described this as unhistorical nonsense and profoundly misleading.  There was no peace dividend lasting decades. There were wars all over –  the Korean War, the Vietnam War, several wars in the Middle East, numerous wars in the Third World many of which were Cold War proxy wars and huge defence expenditures by countries in the United States-led camp and those in the Soviet bloc. He said: “The so-called ‘peace dividend’ is a fashionable myth.” If there ever was a peace dividend, it was for a “very brief post-Cold War period” – not decades following the last World War.

If there was any ministry which never ever had the chance to have its head buried in the sand for any second, it would be the Foreign Ministry. This was where the country sent some of its best people to ensure Singapore always knew what was going on so that it would be clear what it had to do.

The old warriors – Dr Tommy Koh and Bilahari Kausikan – have highlighted the gaping gap between the best of yesterday and today. Thank you.

Wake up, Singapore. 

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.

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