Monday, June 12, 2006

Book Review: The Little Red Dot, Reflections by Singapore's Diplomats

As a student of international law, I always used to wonder about Singapore's lack of prominence in certain areas of international relations. I thought we had many good reasons to be prominent.

After all, it was the leadership of one of our diplomats, Professor Tommy Koh, that helped the world to agree on a standardised law of the sea. The constant chants of our diplomats and political leaders also continue to influence the world that human rights must be balanced by human responsibilities. Above all, Singapore had gone from third world to first in about three decades and, even today, many countries seek to transplant our success in their own backyards.

As such, The Little Red Dot, Reflections by Singapore's Diplomats, edited by Professor Tommy Koh and Chang Li Lin, is a collection of stories long overdue.

The collection of stories puts into context our achievements and contributions in international relations while helping readers to appreciate the demands on our little foreign service beyond our little red dot.

It also highlights how our pragmatism (and, to some extent, luck) has influenced the way we deal with our many international friends.

Those who come away with the impression this is a coffee-table book providing a glossy picture of the foreign service are likely to have been charmed by the plain and diplomatic language used throughout this book. (What else can you expect from diplomats, right?)

This is, quite simply, not just a collection of inspiring stories. The real beauty of this book is in the subtle messages found across the book.

A reader sensitive to the subtleties will find in this book some of the more serious challenges faced by Singapore's foreign service in protecting its interests across the world, including having to face highly embarassing situations or near-death experiences.

The reader will also realise that our diplomats have thrived by not being "yes-men". This often has meant bending the rules or bypassing protocol. A concern facing the foreign service today is how to continue to attract such individuals who are not afraid to speak up for Singapore and be counted.

Former diplomat Vergese Matthews in his story, Speaking Up For Singapore, writes, "I fear that there has been a perceptible deterioration in MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and the civil service as a whole where this culture of speaking up and/or offering views at variance with those held by the leadership has dissipated...One possible reason is that there has been a national tendency to favour "safe hands" that would not rock the proverbial boat and that had the additional uncanny ability to second-guess what the Ministers were thinking."

Likewise, one of Singapore's leading civil servants, J Pillay, in his story, A Sojourn For Diplomacy, reflects, "Diplomats now have to practise their trade within a restricted compass. The heavy lifting is done by the politicians. It is interesting to speculate whether that situation has hobbled the skills of diplomats and encouraged them to be principally tacticians and perhaps occasionally strategists, but not mould-breakers."

These speculations perhaps explain why in the past our foreign service has been especially successful in winning over persons, like the late Dr David Marshall, who, despite holding very divergent views from the ruling party, have gone on to make sterling contributions to our country.

Some of the stories in this book are "recommended reads" to the general reader:
1. Making Friends by late President Wee Kim Wee, which may motivate you to invite your neighbours and friends to "makan".
2. Eight Lessons on Negotiations by Professor Tommy Koh, which may help you to better persuade others and give you a reason to visit Little India.
3. Reflections in Bits and Pieces by Mr Lee Chiong Giam, which will make you laugh to bits and leave you lessons in pieces.
4. Reflections of 33 years in Diplomacy by Mr Low Choon Ming, which may inspire you to "be interesting".
5. I Wish I Had a Wife by Mrs Mary Seet-Cheng, which gives a refreshing twist to showering attention to other men's wives.

A final warning to readers of this book: it may leave you wishing you were in the foreign service!

Dharmendra Yadav

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