'Guru' diplomat Lee Chiong Giam, who put S'pore and staff before self, dies at 79

SINGAPORE – Veteran diplomat Lee Chiong Giam, a pharmacy graduate who became one of Singapore’s best envoys, died on Wednesday night (March 10).

He was 79.

The former deputy secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and chief executive director of the People’s Association (PA) had been in a coma for about two weeks after falling and hitting his head while at a petrol station. He leaves behind his wife, two daughters and a son.

His colleagues and contemporaries remember him as a self-styled “farmer” amid scholars who was a highly intelligent and shrewd “guru” to younger civil servants. They also described him as a man with a strong sense of justice and humanity, who often stood up for his staff and championed the rights of small countries where he served as Singapore’s ambassador.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh said the news came as a shock as he had seen Mr Lee recently and he was in good health.

“We belong to the first generation of Singapore diplomats. We are very old comrades and we’ve fought many battles together and gone through many challenges to protect Singapore’s interests,” said Professor Koh.

Mr Lee was posted to the health ministry in 1967 after obtaining a degree in pharmacy. Two years later, he was seconded to MFA – where he found his calling, said Prof Koh.

From 1970 to 1973, Mr Lee was charge d’affaires to Cambodia, and witnessed a country in the throes of civil war. He even suffered minor injuries after a bomb exploded near Singapore’s embassy.

He then rose to become regional and economic director at MFA from 1975 to 1982.

Ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong, who joined the ministry in 1979, said: “His technical knowledge was undisputed. He always listened more than he spoke. He had a masterly way of giving advice – gems that you carry with you all your life… That’s why we all regarded him as a guru.”

Mr Lee would go on to serve as high commissioner, ambassador and special envoy to Papua New Guinea (1982 to 1999), Fiji (1997 to 2005), Pakistan (2006 to 2014) and Timor-Leste (2005 to 2014), among others.

In 2012, he received the Order of Timor-Leste – the country’s highest honour – from then President Jose Ramos-Horta.

Prof Koh described Mr Lee as a passionate champion of the Timorese. “He admired that they had fought for independence. He felt they were brave people who had been hard done by some acts of injustice – and that Singapore should help them, not impede their progress.”

For Prof Koh, his most enduring memory of Mr Lee was the role he played in a 1990 delegation sent to negotiate with China over the establishment of diplomatic ties.

“Chiong Giam proved himself a valued colleague who helped me find solutions to some very tricky issues,” said Prof Koh, who led the historic effort in Beijing.

“That bonded us for life.”

He said he would remember Mr Lee’s personal advice to him: “That I must take my work seriously, but never take myself seriously.”

Mr Lee (back row, with his hand on his glasses) at the United Nations General Assembly in 1974. In the front row are then Minister for Foreign Affairs 
S. Rajaratnam and Singapore’s then Permanent Representative to the UN Tommy Koh. PHOTO: UNITED NATIONS/T.CHEN

Mr Lee was also appointed as PA chief executive director from 1982 to 1999. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had “specially handpicked” him for this role, according to Mr Ong, who later took over.

Mr Han Tan Juan, PA’s assistant chief executive, said Mr Lee Chiong Giam was humble and a familiar face to staff and grassroots members. “Anyone could chit-chat with him any time,” he added.

Mr Lee Chiong Giam was awarded the Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 1999 and Public Service Star in 2012.

He stepped down as MFA’s deputy secretary of international cooperation in 2011, and was campaign manager for Dr Tony Tan’s presidential run the same year.

He continued to serve as senior adviser to MFA until 2014. He would later sit on committees for groups such as Creative Malay Arts and Culture and the Puan Noor Aishah Intercultural Institute.

Puan Noor Aishah, widow of Singapore’s first president, Mr Yusof Ishak, was also the subject of an anecdote on Mr Lee shared by Mr Chan Heng Wing, a fellow member of the 1990 delegation.

“There was an important visit to Indonesia, and the person in charge thought he was saving money by accepting a free trip from Garuda (the country’s flag carrier) to fly Puan Noor Aishah there… The leadership blew their top,” Mr Chan said.

“But Chiong Giam took the blame for it, as the most senior person. When MFA officers ran into trouble – and there were many cases – he would be almost the first looking at how to help them.”

Mr Chan, now non-resident ambassador to Austria, said: “Chiong Giam was street smart with an amazing ability to understand other humans. This contrasts with modern-day people dependent on making great political analyses from reading books.

“To know people and make an evaluation and judgment is a rare quality that, if we’re not careful, we are losing.”

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