Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Dance Film Literary Arts Music Theatre Visual Arts

Tommy Koh

Singapore's ambassador-at-large and founding NAC chairman.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

To young artists in Singapore: your time has come and Singapore is ready for you. The future is very bright. Work hard, grab your opportunities, and have high ambitions. And push the older generation to help you realise your dreams.

Tommy Koh is a Singapore renaissance man who has contributed greatly to the island’s development and cultural growth. As Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, he has made his mark in international diplomacy, law and the arts. He served as the founding chairman of the National Arts Council, making contributions to arts education in schools, generating a greater public appreciation of the arts and encouraged increased support of the arts through cultural philanthropy. A champion of arts and culture, Koh also served as chairman of the National Heritage Board, promoting Singapore heritage, history and arts through outreach and in the museums.

Born in Singapore in 1937, Tommy Koh had his first experiences of the arts through his parents. His father’s library of books and magazines were a rich source of knowledge and pleasure for Koh, who was also allowed to purchase books at his father’s expense at City Bookstore. His mother was an actress and dancer from Shanghai whose friends from the arts circle would drop by every weekend, resulting in Koh gaining an early experience and education in the performing arts.

Koh studied at Raffles Institution, and then went on to study law at the University of Malaya (Singapore) (now National University of Singapore). Graduating with a first class LLB honours degree, he served a year-long law pupilage with former Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall before returning to join the University of Singapore’s law faculty as a lecturer in 1962. Koh also began collecting paintings that year—his first purchase an artwork by Wee Beng Chong—and also started an art club in the university to promote art appreciation.

Koh went on to become the dean of the law faculty at the university and also Singapore’s permanent representative for the United Nations in 1968, beginning a notable career as international diplomat.

As a Singapore ambassador, he spent two decades living in New York City and Washington D.C.. Koh discovered the artistically and culturally vibrant societies of both cities, experiencing it for himself as he became a regular attendee of arts exhibitions and performances. In Washington D.C., he became a patron of the National Symphony Orchestra, and kept close ties with the Washington Ballet, of which Singapore ballet icon Goh Choo San was resident choreographer. Koh began to envision a Singapore as a culture-loving society with a lively arts scene.

Returning to Singapore, he continued his service with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also became a director at the Institute of Policy Studies. At the start of the ’90s, Koh was asked by George Yeo, who was the Minister of Information and the Arts, to be the chairman of the soon-to-be established National Arts Council. Remembering his artistically enriching years in the USA, Koh agreed and went on to serve as founding chairman of the National Arts Council from 1991 to 1996.

As a pioneering champion of the arts, Koh launched many initiatives that benefited arts development in Singapore. To nurture and grow arts audiences in Singapore, the National Arts Council Arts Education programme brought the arts into schools and allowed students to understand and appreciate the arts better. Similarly, the Council made the arts more accessible to the general public with performances in places such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens and in various community centres around Singapore. Koh also launched the Festival of Asian Performing Arts in 1993.

For Singapore artists, Koh pushed for state support of the arts, initiating grants and scholarships that young artists could use towards their training overseas. Under his helm, the Council also launched the Arts Housing Scheme, providing affordable spaces for artists and arts groups at the Waterloo Street Arts Belt and One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre. Koh also initiated meet-ups with Singapore artists every week over tea, where he would get to know and understand their needs and challenges.

Importantly, Koh also championed cultural philanthropy among corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals. His efforts gave eminence to the support of the arts by private corporations and individuals, and paved the way for an increased willingness to fund and support arts events.

The development of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay began while Koh was in office at the National Arts Council, and he played a part of the process as a member of the steering committee, which was chaired first by Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong and then Minister Yeo. During this period, Koh, together with his team, met representatives from the Singapore arts community regularly to get opinions on what shape and form the new arts centre would take. Subsequently, Koh served on the board of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay from 2000 to 2007.

In 2002, Koh began serving as the chairman of the National Heritage Board. During his 10-year term at the Board, Singapore history, heritage and the arts were made more accessible to students and the public through initiatives such as the Heritage Festival, which led to greater numbers of people visiting the various museums. Always a keen supporter of Singapore artists, Koh also made it a point to promote and showcase the work of Singapore artists—both pioneer and young—in the museums.

An avid reader, Koh has also making his own contribution to reading and Singapore literature by encouraging the National Library Board to start the Read! Singapore initiative in 2005. Under the yearly initiative, the library recommends literary works in the four official languages of Singapore. As a result, many Singapore authors have benefited and continue to benefit from Read! Singapore’s efforts over the years.

Through it all, Koh continued in his other roles as a diplomat and ambassador of Singapore, frequently tasked to negotiate sensitive international matters and act as the country’s representative. For his contributions in his various capacities, Koh has received recognition through numerous awards, including the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1971, the Distinguished Service to Arts Education award by LASALLE College of the Arts in 2000, and the Darjah Utama Nila Utama (Order for Nila Utama) (First Class) in 2008.

Today, Koh continues serving in his many roles in various organisations, including as Ambassador-At-Large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Special Advisor for the Institute of Policy Studies and Chairman of the Centre of International Law at the National University of Singapore. He dedicates his spare time to music, reading and his grandchildren.


12 Nov 1937

Born in Singapore.

1945 to 1952

Attended Kong Shang Primary School, St Joseph’s Institution and Outram Primary School.

1952 to 1957

Attended Raffles Institution. Received an Entrance Scholarship to study law at the University of Malaya, in Singapore.

1958 to 1961

Attended University of Malaya (Singapore) (now National University of Singapore) on an Entrance Scholarship. Graduated with LLB (First Class Honours).

Received Adrian Clarke Memorial Medal, University of Malaya (Singapore).

Received Leow Chia Heng Prize, University of Malaya (Singapore).

1961 to 1962

Served Law Pupilage with David Marshall.

Admitted to the Singapore Bar as an Advocate and Solicitor.

1962 to 1964

Assistant Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Singapore.


Received LLM, Harvard University. Was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and a Harvard Law School Fellowship.

1964 to 1971

Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Singapore.


Received post-graduate Diploma in Criminology from Cambridge University.


Visiting Lecturer, School of Law, State University of New York, Buffalo, USA (Spring Semester).

1968 to 1971

Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York, USA. (concurrently accredited as High Commissioner to Canada).


Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

1971 to 1974

Associate Professor and Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Singapore.

1974 to 1984

Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York, USA (concurrently accredited as High Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador to Mexico).

1974 to 1982

Leader of the Singapore delegation to the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea.


Conferred a full professorship.


Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

1981 to 1982

President, Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea.


Received Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws, Yale University, USA.

Received Wolfgang Friedman Award, Columbia University Law School, New York, USA.

1984 to 1990

Singapore Ambassador to the United States of America.


Received Jackson H. Ralston Prize, Stanford Law School, California, USA.

Received Annual Award of the Asia Society, New York, USA.


Received Jit Trainor Award for Distinction in Diplomacy, Georgetown University, USA

Received The International Service Award, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA.


Received Darjah Utama Bakti Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order Award).

Served as Singapore’s Chief Negotiator in negotiating the agreement to establish formal diplomatic relations between China and Singapore.

1990 to1992

Chairman of the Preparatory Committee and Main Committee of the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

1990 to 1997

Director, Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.

1990 to Present

Ambassador-At-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.

1991 to 1996

Founding Chairman, National Arts Council, Singapore.

1991 to 1992

Chairman, Censorship Review Committee.


Received the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry (JCCI) Singapore Foundation Arts Award and Culture Award

Appointed Commander in the Order of the Golden Ark by HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.

Appointed by the United Nations Secretary General as his Special Envoy to lead a mission to the Russian Federation, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

1993 to 1994

Chairman, International Jury of the Commonwealth Literature Prize in Singapore.

1993 to 1996

Member of the Earth Council, Costa Rica.

1993 to 1995

Chairman, Empress Place Museum, Singapore.

1994 to 1995

Executive Secretary, APEC Business Leaders’ Forum (Pacific Business Forum).

1994 to 2003

Director, Development Bank of Singapore.


2nd Arthur & Payne Visiting Lecturer, Institute of International Studies, Stanford University, USA.

Co-Chair of the 1st Japan-Singapore Symposium.

Published The United States and East Asia: Conflict and Cooperation.

1995 to 2007

President, Society of International Law (Singapore).

1995 to 2008

Singapore’s Agent in the dispute with Malaysia over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge, including arguing Singapore’s case before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands.


Received Elizabeth Haub Prize, University of Brussels and the International Council for the Protection of Nature (IUCN).

Co-Chair, 2nd Japan-Singapore Symposium.

Member, Selection Committee, 1996 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

1996 to 2001

Member, International Advisory Board of Toyota.


Received Grand Cross of the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, Government of Chile.

Published The Quest for World Order: Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist. Edited by Amitav Archaya.

Member of a WTO Dispute Panel constituted by WTO Director-General, Dr Renato Ruggiero, to consider a dispute between the European Commission and the United States.

1997 to 2000

Founding Executive Director, Asia-Europe Foundation.

Chairman, International Advisory Group of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore.


Received Fok Ying Tung Southeast Asia Prize, Fok Ying Tung Foundation, Hong Kong.

Appointed Chairman of a WTO Dispute Panel to consider a dispute brought by New Zealand and the United States against Canada.


Conferred title of Commander, First Class, of the Order of the Lion of Finland, President of Finland.

Conferred title of Grand Officer in the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Prime Minister of Luxembourg.

Distinguished Service to Arts Education, LASALLE College of the Arts.

Awarded the John Curtin Medal by the Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia.

Book entitled “Asia and Europe”, edited by Yeo Lay Hwee and Asad Latif, was published.

Appointed Chairman of a WTO Dispute Panel to consider a dispute brought by Australia and New Zealand against the United States.

2000 to 2003

Singapore's Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement.

2000 to 2004

Director, Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.

2000 to 2006

Chairman, Chinese Heritage Centre.

2000 to 2007

Director, The Esplanade Co. Ltd.


Conferred the rank of Officer in the Order of the Legion of Honour by the President of the French Republic.

2001 to 2007

Received Friends of MCCY award, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

2000 to 2007

Founding Chairman, Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee, Wildlife Reserves Singapore.


Received Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws, Monash University, Australia.

2002 to 2011

Chairman, National Heritage Board, Singapore.

2000 to 2007

Director, The Esplanade Co. Ltd.

2002 to Present

Chairman, International Advisory Board, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.


Received Peace and Commerce Award by the US Secretary of Commerce, Donald Evans, Washington D.C., USA.

2003 to 2005

Singapore’s Agent in the dispute with Malaysia over Singapore’s land reclamation activities, including arguing Singapore’s case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany.

2003 to 2006

Chairman, Steering Committee, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.

2003 to 2008

Director, SingTel.

2003 to Present

Chairman, Advisory Committee, Master’s degree in Environmental Management, National University of Singapore.


Received Outstanding Service Award, National University of Singapore.

Conferred the rank of Encomienda de Isabel la Católica (Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic) by King Juan Carlos of Spain.

2004 to 2009

Chairman, Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.


Eminent Person of Singapore in the China-ASEAN Eminent Persons Group

Published The Little Red Dot: Reflections by Singapore’s Diplomats. Co-edited with Chang Li Lin.

Member, Governing Board, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Co-Chair, China-Singapore Forum.


Received Champion of the Earth Award, United Nations Environment Programme.

Received inaugural President’s Award for the Environment, Singapore.

Received Build A Better World Award, CH2M Hill.

Member, Selection Committee, 2006 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

Co-organised the Programme of Seminars with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Editor-in-Chief, Singapore: The Encyclopedia.

2007 to 2011

Chairman, Advisory Board, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.


Received Watermark Honorary Award by the Public Utilities Board, Singapore.

Received Tatler Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement, Singapore Tatler.

Member and Chairman of the High-Level Task Force to draft the ASEAN Charter.

2007 to Present

Chairman, Governing Council, Asia-Pacific Water Forum.


Conferred the Order of Nila Utama (First Class) by the Singapore Government, for outstanding contributions as a member of the team representing Singapore, in the Pedra Branca dispute case with the Malaysian government.

Co-recipient, Onassis Distinguished Scholar Award, Rhodes Academy of Oceans Law and Policy, Greece.

Chairman, Singapore International Water Leaders’ Summit and Chairman, Joint Plenary of the Water Summit and World City Summit

Co-Chair, India-Singapore Strategic Dialogue.


Received Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, Government of Japan.

Co-Chair, 7th Japan-Singapore Symposium.

Published The Little Red Dot: Reflections by Singapore’s Diplomats. Volume II. Co-edited with Chang Li Lin.

Published Pedra Branca: The Road to the World Court. Co-written with S. Jayakumar.

Co-Chair, Jury for the Bernard Schwartz Book Prize, The Asia Society, New York, USA.

Chairman, Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.


Judge, Singapore Hawker Masters.

Special Advisor, Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.

Rector, Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.

Chairman, SymAsia Foundation, Credit Suisse.


Co-Chair, 8th Japan-Singapore Symposium.

Patron, The Elephant Parade, Singapore.


Delivered Asian Development Bank Eminent Person Lecture.

Delivered address to Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific Ministerial Meeting.

Delivered keynote address at the inaugural National Conference on Kindness.

Spoke to United Nations General Assembly on occasion of the 30th anniversary of the opening for signature of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Professor of Law, National University of Singapore.

Co-Chair, Japan-Singapore Symposium.

Trustee of the APB Foundation.

Trustee of the Lee Wee Kheng Education Trust.

Trustee of the Tan Chay Bing Education Trust.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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