Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh still wants an ombudsman for Singapore

Singapore's ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh poses with copies of his new book entitled "the Tommy Koh reader: Favourite Essays and Lectures", ahead of its launch on Wednesday 30 October 2013. (Yahoo photo)

Singapore's ambassador-at-large, Tommy Koh, says he still hopes that Singapore will have a process that allows it to review government decisions, counting it as one of his "unfulfilled dreams" for the country.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the launch of a new book of his on Wednesday afternoon, Koh, who turns 76 in November, said a review process was something he has advocated since his undergraduate days.

"It'll be great to have an ombudsman," he said. "I think we have a great public service, very little corruption, but even a great public service sometimes makes mistakes, you know, and at the moment such mistakes are beyond judicial review."

An ombudsman, essentially, is an independent person who represents the interests of the public by investigating complaints of unfairness in instances where a government body's decision could be questioned.

While Koh says coyly that he may be too old to take on the role now, despite it being a childhood dream of his, he remains a staunch advocate because of his experience as a lawyer in his younger days, when he saw clients suffer from what he called “maladministration”.

One client was denied a passport despite gaining a scholarship to study in New Zealand, while another was rejected in his application for his Indonesian wife to gain permanent residency.

"Nobody was willing to tell me; nobody was obliged to tell me the reason," he said. "So these few cases I did as a young lawyer were burned in my memory, you know, and I always felt that in a good society, sometimes the administration makes honest mistakes, sometimes they are prejudiced, sometimes they act inappropriately and there should be some process of review."

Minimum wage issue

Turning to the issue of poverty, a cause Koh feels should not be ignored, he voiced his support for a minimum wage or other strengthened measures to help Singapore's poorest.

"We all feel that it is not good for Singapore to have such a huge gap between the rich and the poor," he said, referring to public intellectuals who speak on the topic collectively. "It will eventually threaten our unity and cohesion, and it is certainly a source of concern to our moral conscience because we all aspire to Singapore being a good nation — and a good nation is one that doesn't tolerate such a high degree of disparity."

Speaking of an article he wrote last year in defence of Professor Lim Chong Yah, the economist from Nanyang Technological University who proposed a three-year moratorium on top earners' wages while boosting bottom-level incomes, Koh said he felt moved to stand up for him because it felt like no one was doing so.

"Although I'm not an economist, you know, I decided hey, this is a good man. Somebody must defend him," he explained.

Koh has also written at length about the merits of a minimum wage for Singapore previously.

His essays, alongside reflections on his life, international diplomacy and key people who shaped Singapore, can be found in Koh's book titled "The Tommy Koh reader: Favourite Essays and Lectures".

Launched on Wednesday, it will be sold at major bookstores in Singapore. Koh will also be present for a book-signing at Kinokuniya's main store in Takashimaya on Saturday at 2pm.