Law and Diplomacy in Singapore

Law and Diplomacy in Singapore

Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said that lawyers, like priests, do not make good diplomats. Why would Kissinger make such a statement? Perhaps because he felt that the conduct of relations between States is driven primarily by the interests of the States and not by laws, principles and rules. Unlike a political scientist, a lawyer's worldview is that of an orderly world in which relations between human beings and, by extension, those between States, are governed by laws, principles and rules.

Singapore's first and longest serving Prime Minister, the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, was educated in the law and had practised as a lawyer before becoming a full-time politician. As Prime Minister, he was Singapore's first diplomat to the world. Within the Cabinet, he was primus inter pares and, together with Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam, had forged Singapore's foreign policy and laid the foundation of the Singapore school of diplomacy.

The Singapore school of diplomacy is a fusion of hard-headed realpolitik and pragmatic idealism. Singapore's leaders and diplomats are known and respected for their unsentimental and logical analysis of international situations and regional trends. However, this does not mean that they are cynical, unprincipled or without value. On the contrary, some of the hallmarks of Singapore's diplomacy can be traced to the influence of law. For example, Singapore's adherence to international law. Whenever we are considering our diplomatic options in any situation, the question would invariably be asked, is the option being considered consistent with international law. If the answer is in the negative, the option would not be pursued. Singapore has also strongly supported the different modalities for the peaceful settlement of disputes, such as mediation, arbitration and adjudication.

It is, of course, possible to argue that it is not idealism but pragmatism which leads Singapore to take such a strong stand on international law. Small States benefit from an orderly world in which the behaviour of bigger and stronger States are constrained by laws, principles and rules. Small States do not do so well in an anarchic world where might is right. From this point of view, it can be argued that we are simply making a virtue out of necessity. I would, respectfully, disagree and point out from my long years at the UN that some small States do not share our commitment to upholding international law in their diplomacy. They do whatever is expedient and in their short-term interest. They fail to think long-term in pursuing their enlightened self-interest.

These and other aspects of the Singapore school of diplomacy have been refined by the many legal minds who have played seminal roles in the Foreign Service. Our fourth Foreign Minister, Professor S Jayakumar, served in that position for a decade. He was a professor of international law and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore. Other legal luminaries who had ably served Singapore abroad include the first post-independent Attorney?General, Ahmad Ibrahim; and other prominent legal personalities such as A P Rajah, K M Byrne, Punch Coomaraswamy, David Marshall, former Attorney?General Tan Boon Teik, CJ Chan, Michael Hwang, Giam Chin Toon and Loo Choon Yong.

Many of our veteran diplomats have law degrees. They include past and serving Ambassadors such as Lee Chiong Giam, V K Rajan, Tee Tua Ba and Michael Cheok. Other legally educated diplomats include the ASEAN Secretary-General, Ong Keng Yong; current Ambassadors T Jasudasen, Lim Kheng Hua, Lim Thuan Kuan, Chua Thai Keong; former Ambassador and current Solicitor-General, Professor Walter Woon; and our former Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Security Council, Christine Lee. Some of the outstanding members of the next generation of our diplomats, such as Zainal Arif Mantaha, Foo Chi Hsia, Lim Hong Huai, Vanessa Chan, Lynette Long and Kok Li Peng, are also legally educated.

Our legally-trained diplomats do not fly the flag alone. In Singapore, there is no turf war between the different ministries and agencies. The ability of colleagues from the different ministries and agencies to work together is one of our comparative advantages. I saw this for myself when I led the Singapore team in negotiating with Malaysia over our land reclamation activities in the Straits of Johor. The relationship between the Foreign Ministry and the Attorney?General's Chambers is particularly close. The current Attorney?General, Mr Chao Hick Tin, and the Head of the International Affairs Division of the Attorney-General's Chambers, Mr S Tiwari, were members of the Singapore delegation to the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, forming a seamless team with Professor S Jayakumar and me.

Mr Tiwari has been a valued member of three delegations which I led, and which negotiated the establishment of diplomatic relations between Singapore and the People's Republic of China (1990), the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (2000 to 2002) and the settlement agreement between Malaysia and Singapore over Singapore's land reclamation activities in the Straits of Johor. Mr Tiwari is our chief negotiator with Indonesia on our maritime boundaries. He had also led the Singapore delegations to the World Trade Organisation's negotiations on trade-related intellectual property rights ('TRIPS'); the Singapore-Malaysian boundary negotiations in the Straits of Johor and the Pedra Branca Special Agreement. Jeffrey Chan of the Attorney-General's Chambers led our team in negotiating the Extradition Treaty with Indonesia. A former judge and legal officer, Warren Khoo, had served as the Chairman of the UN Commission on International Trade Law. Another legal officer, Lionel Yee, has been commended by the international community for his significant contributions to the negotiations of the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court.

One characteristic of the Singapore school of diplomacy is our style of writing and speaking clearly, sticking to facts and honouring our agreements. One departing Ambassador remarked to me that the Singapore school of diplomacy is the 'no bull shit' school of diplomacy. I think he meant it as a compliment, not a rebuke! Our preference for clarity over opaqueness, our penchant for being straight rather than indirect, our reliance on facts and rules, sometimes gets us into trouble with our interlocutors. Why? Because in some cultures, subtlety is preferred over directness, facts and rules are not absolute but negotiable and agreements are not sacrosanct but always subject to further negotiation.

I would contend, at least in the case of Singapore, that our legally trained diplomats have been successful in representing Singapore on the world stage. In a world full of obfuscation and double talk, Singapore's diplomats have often stood out by being clear, rational and trustworthy. This could be one of the reasons why Singapore's diplomats have often been entrusted with the responsibility to chair important meetings and to conciliate differences and broker consensus. So, contrary to the Kissingerian thesis, I would conclude that some lawyers do make good diplomats.

Tommy Koh1
Honorary Member of The Law Society of Singapore

1 Writing in my personal capacity