Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Book Note

Excerpted by Straits Times from Selected Chapters:

Simple lessons go a long way - by T. Jasudasen

(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 'Legion d'Honneur'.)

" 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 late!

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 day.

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 headquarters.

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.

Small kindnesses

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 diplomatic colleagues.

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 interesting conversations.

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. "


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