Mr. See Chak Mun: From Economics to Politics – The Accidental Diplomat with No Regrets

By Chong Yee Lim and Nicholas Koh Jin-Yuan (ECONews reporters)

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HAVING spent most of his career overseas as an ambassador of Singapore, Mr. See Chak Mun finally put down his mantle of Ambassador in 2006. Although he claims that he was an “accidental diplomat”, he found a love for the job which he had never expected. As a fresh graduate from the NUS Economics Department, he found himself working in the Foreign Ministry in August 1966, and has since served as Singapore’s Ambassador to Australia, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Austria and Hong Kong.

Mr See, 73, has also found himself at the centre of negotiations when he served as the Singapore Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the World Trade Organization in Geneva from 1986 to 1999 and from 1997 to 2001. As Ambassador to the WTO from 1997-2002, he led the Singapore team in the negotiations in the run-up to the launch of the Doha Round and the subsequent WTO Ministerial Conferences.

Looking back at his long list of achievements, Mr See was repeatedly drawn back to his times as Singapore’s High Commissioner to India from April 2002 to September 2006, where he fostered the relationship between Singapore and India. Another occasion which he looked back fondly on was his time as Singapore’s chief negotiator during the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations from 1986 to 1991, where he “had the opportunity to shape international trading laws”.

In our conversation with the ex-Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr See shared some of his experiences and skills he used in order to traverse the challenging environment in international politics. 

Mr. See, you have had a long history in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since joining in August 1966. What made you pursue a career in the Foreign Service?

I was an accidental diplomat. I graduated from the University of Singapore in 1966, not long after Singapore was separated from Malaysia. Before knowing my results, I was offered four different jobs. However, because I was awarded a bursary, I had to work for the government.

To me, getting a job was more important than the type of job. I came from a poor family. Halfway through my university education, I nearly dropped out because my father could not afford to pay for my tuition fees. I didn’t join the Foreign Service out of ambition or conscious intention. Getting a job to support my family was the main priority.

Can you give us a brief description of your responsibilities and experiences as a former Singapore Ambassador and High Commissioner to countries such as the Republic of Germany and India?

It is not possible to break down the job of an Ambassador into quantifiable terms. An indispensable function of an Ambassador is ceremonial, but that is the easiest part.

The principal job of an Ambassador is to improve relationships between the sending state and the receiving state. One can only do so by firstly having a good grasp of the policies, politics, economy, culture and people of the receiving state. Then, an Ambassador will have to identify how to value-add to the relationship. Take the Narendra Modi government, which came into power in May this year, as an example. When Modi came into power, his administration emphasized their intention of building smart cities in India and upgrading the infrastructure of the state. By understanding the Indian government’s desire to push for urbanization, the Singapore Ambassador to India needs to know how Singapore can support the incumbent in achieving that goal. S/he can value-add to the India-Singapore relationship by advising Singaporean businesses such as Hyflux and Sembawang Shipyards (Port) to venture into India to urbanize the country. An Ambassador needs to know where s/he can thicken political and economic ties to make the relationship more substantial. Lastly, an Ambassador has to build friendships and develop trust with the officials of the receiving state. Cultivation of relationships is key. An Ambassador must identify the close advisors of the head of states, and win their support.

Can you tell us about the challenges an Ambassador would face?

The biggest challenge for any Ambassador is to build relationships with the inner circles of a government. India was no exception. It wasn’t the difference in language that made it challenging; after all, most of them spoke English. Rather, the Indian politicians that were closest to the Prime Minister were often very busy, and difficult to get in touch with. It required a deliberate cultivation of friendships that would not have happened if left to chance. The cultivation of relationships is crucial in order to get information. People don’t simply tell you what is going on.

Foresight is also very important. Take the new President-elect of Indonesia, ‘Jokowi’ as an example. Even though he was elected not long ago, Singapore Foreign Service officers would have already cultivated him and his supporters. Waiting till he was President would be too late. The ability to foresee Jokowi as a potential Presidential candidate, know who his close advisors are, and cultivate those relationships well before he becomes President is the challenging job of an Ambassador.

What are some of the things you miss about the job?

Being no longer on the ground, I am not actually sure what is going on. Reading newspapers are one thing, but the real stories are another. It is important to discern the real answers from what is simply information created by the press. People, who deliberately provide erroneous information, so as to conceal the truth, often manipulate the media. This is disinformation. Although my experience in the Foreign Service does provide me with some discernment, I cannot know for certain what the truth is.

What would you say is the most important skill needed for any individual serving in the Foreign Service?

Anyone looking to pursue a career in the Foreign Service should have three important skills. The first is empathy. No one likes to talk to someone who is arrogant. It is only through empathy that one can better relate to another. 

Second, you have to diversify your general knowledge, and make yourself interesting. This includes learning how to play golf, tennis, and even the card game bridge. My wife and I picked up bridge because it was an important tool to socialize and build important friendships. 

Lastly, you need to have a sharp and analytical mind, being able to ask the right questions and understand what is going on in the world. When given the opportunity to meet someone of political power, you need to go prepared, and be ready to enter into a dialogue, suggesting alternative policies and ideas. Only then will s/he trust you as someone who is knowledgeable and be willing to share information.

How about some skills that you have picked up in university days?

At that time, Economics was my first choice by elimination of the other fields. I took Economics because it was easy to me; you did not have to memorize a lot of things. It was methodical; you merely apply what you know and you arrive at an answer. In this sense, it forms the foundation when dealing with issues from other disciplines. In Economics, everything is dependent on assumptions which you base on certain theories. You then apply your deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion. Having this basic train of thought was necessary and useful when it came to solving real world problems, whatever they may be.

In addition to that was the maturing of your mind. During your bachelor’s degree, you learn the basics of everything, be it in the fields of political science, history or even physics. Although you only start really learning way afterwards, during your master’s or PhD, you will be adequately well informed about various problems faced worldwide and this will help you have a general understanding about the world.

Let’s talk about your time as Singapore’s Chief Negotiator during the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations. What was the greatest challenge you faced?

Because Singapore is small, people tend to look down on our position, especially if you compare us to India, for example, which has a large market. And when it comes to deals, my greatest concern always comes down to the hour before deals are finalized. Only those with market clout, such as the Americans, Europeans and India, will have the greatest influence over the conditions of the deals and so there was always the possibility of Singapore being excluded.

But fortunately for us, we have two very skilful ministers, Minister George Yeo and Minister Lim Hng Kiang, both of whom played a big role. Minister George Yeo was the facilitator of Agriculture. We were chosen to facilitate because of our lack of agriculture, so we were deemed neutral and constructive. But it is precisely this factor that enabled us to be among 20 select countries out of hundreds to be given a seat in the “Green Room”, or the inner circle of negotiations, and allowed us to shape the development of international rules.

I am sure you have many insights about India from your time spent there. Can you highlight some of the differences between India in the past and the present?

I don’t think there is much change; institutions and mindsets do not change that quickly. But what I do think has changed is the emergence of the middle class. IT professionals who have been trained in America and exposed to the world have caused the country to be much more open. They realized that they must go along with globalization. I noticed a gradual change from the old Nehruvian concept of self-reliance and import substitutions to accepting real politics and the forces of competition.

What advice do you have for students who wish to pursue a career in Foreign Service?

Well, firstly, students must possess leadership skills and maturity. To show leadership, take part in student activities. Wherever your interests lie, take up leadership roles to show that you are a wise captain. Another thing is your emotional quotient and interest in worldly affairs. Try not to be narrow-minded and broaden your scope of interests. This is because to be a part of the Foreign Service, one needs to be able to adapt to any situation. It is an interesting career as you get to improve relations between countries though not very tangibly.

If you could travel back in time for an hour, to engage with your uni-self back in 1963, what would you say to the Mr. See then?

I think, I would not want to change much. I would have wanted to stay in the university hostel for at least a year. I would have liked to mix around with fellow students more and to have been part of the community.

Also, I could have studied harder and gotten a first class!

Mr See is now embracing life in Singapore as an Adjunct Senior Fellow of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore as well as an Adjunct Associate Research Professor of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

This article was first published in ECONews in December 2014