Excerpted by Straits Times from Selected Chapters:
Simple lessons go a long way - by T.
(currently Singapore's Ambassador to Myanmar. He was
ambassador to France from 1997 to 2004. The French
government decorated him twice, first as Commander of
the 'Palmes Academiques' and later, as an Officer of the
" Fresh out of the university, I was waylaid on the way
to a lucrative career in law and this was the old days when
the good and not so good lawyers made top money.
I had the good fortune (or misfortune) of having two of
Singapore's greatest diplomats as my professors at law
school, namely Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar and Prof
Tommy Koh. This tag team took turns as Singapore's Permanent
Representatives to the United Nations in between deanships
of the Law Faculty. Both recognised my keen interest in
international law and urged a career in the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs (MFA).
Over the years I confirmed that MFA was unlikely to create
an international law/treaty section but by then it was too
Happily, young recruits had little time to reflect and make
a quick exit. My workload kept me buried in mountains of
files, briefs and Notes of Conversations. A suitable
interval passed and I was in New York. There I was hooked
when I found that I was actually being paid, albeit not
well, to interact with the world's finest diplomats,
political leaders and intellectuals. Diplomacy remains one
of the few professions where you interact with the finest.
As your mind is constantly challenged there is never a dull
Know the names
Much of what I learnt of basic tradecraft was in New York
from Ambassador Tommy Koh. He was reported to know the name
of every security guard in the UN. Thus my first lesson was
to collect name cards and memorise them. I revised them
every night because no amount of sophisticated flattery can
touch someone like getting his or her name right every time.
Treating unequals equally
My second lesson was to treat ministers like ministers, and
chauffeurs and security guards and all others in between
like ministers too. Often the investment was minimal. A wave
and a greeting was all that was required. But chauffeurs
were always the first to know who was meeting whom inside
and outside the UN halls. They overheard conversations in
their cars. While I would have never wanted them to betray
their bosses, tip-offs triggered many a good report to
Security guards and junior officials always found seats for
your minister when others were being turned away. Waiters
found a good table when the restaurant was full. When all
the usual channels failed, seemingly inconsequential
officials often saved me from a tight spot and earned
brownie points with my demanding bosses.
UN organisations are the only posts where unequal countries
are treated (almost) equally. What was a critical issue to
one country was inconsequential to another. I discovered
that within a broad set of principles laid out by MFA, there
was plenty of room for manoeuvre and horse-trading.
Unexpected procedural votes (and even votes) that were key
objectives for one country and which MFA did not care and
mostly did not know about helped accumulate credits to be
traded later for something we wanted.
I was also taught that small kindnesses were always repaid
handsomely perhaps months, years or even decades later.
One ignored and penniless member of a forgotten liberation
movement with whom I shared my sandwiches went on to become
a household name and later assumed important posts when his
country became independent. He did not forget, and it was a
plus for Singapore.
At one of my postings, a friend of a friend and his young
bride on a honeymoon knocked on my door as no hotel rooms
were available. I was out of town but my wife took them in.
I never met them. Twenty years later, when planning a state
visit by our President, a private roadway had to be quickly
repaired or that component of the visit had to be cancelled.
Host country officials got nowhere persuading the VIP owner.
Urgently, I jumped on the plane to see what I could do. The
VIP owner recognised me (from a photograph in my flat) and
thanked me for hosting him and his young bride two decades
earlier. Needless to say, the President's visit went off
extremely well. Plus, a bonus, I had a very valuable
'insider' contact for the rest of my posting.
Learning the language
Making the effort to learn the principal local language of a
host country generates mileage. Mastery of the language is
not at all a requirement. Making the effort has host country
officials regarding you differently, sharing confidences and
extending preferential treatment over other diplomats who
did not. Thus the ratio of effort to reward is
disproportionately high. Making the effort brought you
closer to the inner circles of power and influence as you
were seen to be serious about the country.
Though I am tone deaf and consequently poor with languages
(and singing), I struggled to acquire Tagalog till my last
days at the post. Enough basics and a large passive
understanding of the language took me much further than my
Equally in Kuala Lumpur, I worked on my pasar Malay,
eventually reading the press, watching TV and listening to
parliamentary debates. In Myanmar, I am learning the Burmese
script and language. It is a struggle at age 53. But if MM
Lee Kuan Yew at 82 continues with Mandarin lessons, I have
no valid excuse not to do so!
From the lack of use and revision, my Tagalog is near
non-existent. My Bahasa Melayu is only half as good and my
French is sharply deteriorating, but all three languages
served me well at the post. I performed better at each post
because of it.
Local travel pays handsomely
Though I spent seven years in Paris, I did not visit Berlin,
Geneva or Rome and most other nearby destinations. I focused
all my personal travel in my country of posting or
accreditation. Further, at all posts I readily accepted
official travel with local officials on missions on
government aircraft often rickety and well past the use-by
date. There were some hair-raising moments but travel gives
intimate knowledge of a country and its people. It makes you
a sharper analyst. It allows you to break into circles you
never will otherwise. For example, a minister, whether
European or Asian, whose remote home region or town you have
visited regards you differently (and positively) from
someone who did not.
Reason for two ears, one mouth
Sometimes attributed to Confucius but I have never verified
it, there is a saying that diplomats must listen twice as
much as they talk because we are in the business of
understanding and collecting information and not giving it
away. Silences in a conversation, especially in a one-on-one
situation, put great pressure on both parties to break the
embarrassing silence. I have learnt over time to resist the
temptation in order to encourage the other. It led to many
Though I was waylaid into MFA, the work still gets me up
every morning. If you do not enjoy it, it will be too
demanding a job for the pay. The day it no longer thrills, I
will quit. "