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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

The Tommy Koh Reader: Favourite Essays And Lectures

Posted: 17 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

This former Singaporean civil servant's thoughts will resonate with Malaysians.

A small black-and-white sketch on the cover of The Tommy Koh Reader offers a partial glimpse of the author's face.

The collection of Prof Tommy Koh's speeches and written works is also a partial glimpse of one of Singapore's most versatile, accomplished and outspoken sons. It would be difficult to give a full picture of his impact on academia, diplomacy, law, the arts, heritage and the environment in Singapore, but this selection does cover a range of the causes he has championed.

Koh and other members of the University Socialist Club "were very passionate about our quest to build a more democratic, just and equal world," he wrote. As a student, he "hoped that we would find a socio-economic model which would achieve growth with equity".

He is still voicing similar concerns. In 2010, he noted that Singapore's founding fathers had a vision of a country like an olive, with a large middle class and relatively few people at the top and the bottom, and warned, "We must not allow the olive to become a pear".


After graduating, Koh did his law pupillage with former chief minister David Marshall and then lectured at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law. But in 1968 he was asked to represent the newly independent nation as its Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Although he later became dean of the Faculty of Law (1971-1974), he spent most of his professional life with Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry.

An "active participant" in the republic's diplomacy for 41 years, Koh proved to be one of its most formidable negotiators. He described his tactics on drafting the agenda as Chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit in 1991 and 1992: "My strategy was to maintain the pressure on the delegates until they agreed to compromise. By 4:30am, the delegates were so exhausted that they asked me to draft a compromise. I called for a short recess, and with the help of about a dozen colleagues representing the various interest groups, succeeded in drafting a compromise. I got my agenda."

Koh combined his legal and diplomatic skills as president of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (1981-1982), which wrote "a constitution for the oceans". The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea "has survived the test of time", he wrote, and "brought legal order, certainty and peace to the world's oceans and seas. It is often regarded as one of the UN's most important contributions to the rule of law in the world."

The "son of a book-loving father and an art-loving mother", Koh was the founding chairman of the National Arts Council (1991) and in 1992, chaired Singapore's Censorship Review Committee.

"When an attempt was made to stigmatise forum theatre and The Necessary Stage", he wrote to Singapore's The Straits Times newspaper to defend them. But he failed "to protect performance artist Josef Ng from the wrath of law enforcement agencies".

That was not the only time Koh criticised Government policies. He has been part of the establishment, but he has also been active in civil society.

"Non-governmental organisations by their very nature must be nuisances," he told Asiaweek magazine in 1996. "But we need such positive nuisances."

For example, he cited "Saving the trees of the Lower Peirce Reservoir from being cut down to make way for a golf course" as one of Singapore's most important environmental achievements. Although it's not mentioned in the book, Koh could take credit for that since he is patron of the Nature Society (Singapore), which led Singapore's biggest protest campaign in 1992 – long before the dawn of social media.

NSS members first compiled an 80-page report about the biodiversity in the catchment area and the impact the proposed golf course would have on water quality and the environment. When the Government did not respond, they organised a campaign that collected around 17,000 signatures. The proposal was eventually shelved.

This collection will resonate with many Malaysians and Singaporeans but readers further afield may have to resort to the Internet to check out some cryptic acronyms and references. An index and more footnotes in later editions would be helpful.

Radiance Of Tomorrow

Posted: 17 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A bleak, haunting yet ultimately uplifting novel about rebuilding after a war.

ISHMAEL Beah's 2007 memoirs, A Long Way Gone, was a brave, brutal, haunting and horrific glimpse into the life of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.

Prior to the decade-long civil war that began in 1992, Beah's life was simple: he hung out with his older brother and friends, trying to rap and dance to hip hop music.

When the war broke out, Beah was 12, and in a single moment he lost the innocence of childhood and learnt of adult treachery when he was forced to pick up a gun and become a child soldier.

Following international intervention when he was 15 – mostly from children's aid agencies – Beah was saved by an American woman who he now calls "Mother". He was lucky, but millions in Sierra Leone were not, and this is something Beah is very aware of.

In his author's note in Radiance Of Tomorrow, Beah writes:

"I wanted to have people understand how it feels to return to places that have been devastated by war, to try to start living there again, to raise a family there again, to rekindle some of the traditions that have been destroyed.

"How do you do that? How do you try to shape a future if you have a past that's still pulling at you?"

In essence, the fictional Radiance Of Tomorrow is built on the traumatic and all too factual events of Beah's childhood and his experience of returning to Sierra Leone after living for two decades in the relative comfort and safety of the United States.

The central characters in Radiance Of Tomorrow are two childhood friends, Bockarie and Benjamin, who return after the war to their home village of Imperi, which had suffered a massacre. They are teachers who, idealistically, want to help rebuild their village and impart knowledge to the village children.

But there are many obstacles to their well-intentioned plans.

For one thing, many villagers find it difficult to forget the atrocities they experienced (entire families have had hands cut off) and witnessed and move on with their lives.

And a mysterious Colonel stirs up suspicion when he arrives with a group of children who had obviously been child soldiers during the war.

Beah cleverly keeps readers guessing whether the Colonel had masterminded the abduction of children in the 1990s, prior to the start and well into the civil war, and if he had anything to do with the Imperi massacre.

And then there's the international corporation that arrives to mine minerals; again, Beah introduces a plot twist that keeps us guessing: is the company actually digging illegally for diamonds?

To make matters worse, the corporation starts throwing money around; so, in addition to the lack of food and potable water, and murders, rape and theft that plague Imperi daily, now jealousy and age-old feuds raise their ugly heads as the villagers compete for the money.

Will Bockerie and Benjamin see their dream come true? Will Sierra Leone ever experience peace within her borders?

Although Radiance Of Tomorrow is not as brutal as Beah's memoirs, he does not shy away from providing gruesomely realistic details about the aftermath of war.

In the opening chapter, for instance, he paints this vivid picture of a character walking along a path:

"There was one town in particular that was eerier than the others – there were rows of human skulls on either side of the path leading into town. When the breeze came about, it shook the skulls, causing them to rotate slowly, so it seemed they were all turning their hollow eye sockets at her as she hastened past them."

Indeed, Beah's fiction is deeply rooted in reality. There might not be a troubled Imperi or an international corporation mining for minerals (or diamonds), but the reality is there remains civil unrest in Sierra Leone and international corporations have been flocking to the Western African country to exploit for themselves the ongoing chaos from years of war.

Beah's writing is simple and clear: it is easy to get absorbed in this novel.

A nice touch is how he uses a local Sierra Leone dialect, Mende, in parts of the book; it is a poetic dialect – "ball" in Mende is translated as "nest of air". His use of the dialect, particularly in dialogue, adds a sense of authenticity.

While Radiance Of Tomorrow should be read by everyone, it might not be to everyone's liking, reaching out perhaps mainly to those who have an interest in Africa and African literature.

It will also appeal to those who like their novels to have a thread of hope and positivity. While there is much bleakness in Radiance Of Tomorrow, it is not all doom and gloom; the underlying message of the novel is that the power of humanity can outweigh all negativity, and tomorrow is always another day filled with hope and endless possibilities.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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