Tommy and Kishore: What a contrast

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By Augustine Low

Kishore Mahbubani, writing in The Straits Times on Jan 11, says emphatically: “Name me one other society which has developed as comprehensively and as rapidly as Singapore has in its first 50 years after independence.”

He adds that “so far, no one has been able to give me an answer to this question” – although it comes across as more a challenge than a question.

Kishore goes on to produce a chart which shows that Singapore’s GDP has grown much faster relative to that of neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia from 1965 to 2005. He warns, however, that it will get tougher, as our neighbours surge ahead.

Kishore could well be right in that no other country can surpass Singapore’s level of growth in the past 50 years. After all, he bases his argument on purely economic terms. Certainly not taking into account the happiness or graciousness index, the freedom of the press index, or how well a country looks after its poorest, not its wealthiest.

I find it intriguing to compare Kishore’s views with those of his counterpart Tommy Koh. Both are arguably Singapore’s most illustrious diplomats, with Kishore previously succeeding Tommy as Singapore’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. Both currently serve at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, with Tommy the Special Adviser and Kishore the Dean.

So they have a lot in common, they are products of the same system. But this is where the similarity ends. The two have markedly different approaches and bearings.

Unlike Kishore, Tommy has not been known to dwell on economic success and GDP. He has frequently spoken out against Singapore’s widening income gap between rich and poor, describing it as “socially unconscionable” and calling for the urgent need to “fundamentally alter the wages of the bottom 30 per cent of our people.” He has also argued in favour of minimum wage and inclusive growth to bridge the rich-poor divide.

Kishore, on the other hand, had emphatically declared in 2011: “There are no homeless, destitute or starving people (in Singapore). Poverty has been eradicated.”

I see it as a tribute to the Singapore system that in these two men, one a mentor of the other, we are able to discern such a disparity in the way they articulate their views and express their hopes and misgivings.

Tommy, coming across as less imposing of the two, is one who wears his heart on his sleeve. He appears to be the only person in the Establishment who can get away with periodically contesting the status quo and even contesting the entrenched beliefs of Lee Kuan Yew.

For example, he has said that he disagrees with Lee on a number of issues, including Lee’s views:

  • That Singapore is too small and lacks the critical mass to produce a world champion in manufacturing
  • That Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister
  • That inter-racial marriages go against the grain and usually do not work

Perhaps, Tommy is proof that we should not underestimate the wonders and powers of diplomacy. Not just across borders, but within the confines of a country. Tommy is also one influential Singaporean who is unafraid to engage in what could be deemed as needless talk. He has for example shared about his love of trees, in particular a tembusu heritage tree at the Botanic Gardens which he holds exceptionally dear. A man who has such fondness for a tree must be a poet or painter at heart. And in my book, that sort of man has his heart in the right place.