MANILA, Philippines - When I received the invitation from Singapore's resident ambassador to the Philippines, A. Selverajah and his wife Mary to a dinner in honor of "Ambassador at Large, Professor Tommy Koh," I was delighted. I hadn't seen Tommy in several years but we go back a long way - to the early days of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its membership in the United Nations in New York.
It's been nearly 40 years since the small countries of Southeast Asia determined to make their presence felt among the powerful nations at the UN by voting as a bloc, instead of individually, a position Tommy actively endorsed.
Tommy hasn't changed much, I noted, as he walked into the Ambassador's living room to greet the guests. Although his hair has grayed, he is still trim, boyish, with a certain ingenious openness about him, that reaches out to people and reassures them of his sincerity.
Tommy had chosen the guest list for this dinner, and there was a good reason for the presence of each guest in the room. Fe del Mundo, Delia Albert, and Domingo Siazon, were all colleagues when the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked closely together in the early days of ASEAN, making it a regional group with an international reputation.
In his remarks at dinner (rather than a speech at the conclusion of the meal, Tommy simply talked throughout, eliciting comments from his friends around the table). I was there because, as he put it, General Romulo and I served as mentors for this young, sometimes brash diplomat from Singapore, and coached him in how to deal effectively with all those older dignitaries from abroad.
Keys to Tommy's successful career in international diplomacy include his recognition of the importance of regional groups, the necessity of sustainability of projects, and above all, a reputation of integrity. Because integrity is the basis of trust. He cited, among his dinner guests, former Minister of Finance Cesar Virata as an example of unquestioned integrity in public office, the venerable Washington Sycip as an outstanding example of integrity in business, and Jaime Augusto Zobel as an example of the younger generation carrying on that public trust.
It was a splendid evening, reminding us all of our own efforts to live and work by these important guiding principles.