|Lieutenant-General (Ret) Winston Choo is Singapore's first and longest serving military chief with a distinguished 33 -year military career before becoming a diplomat. PHOTO: MHA John Tay|
“Don't fret. I am not here to flood you with war stories,” quipped retired (Ret) Lieutenant-General (LG) Winston Choo to the Ministry of Home Affairs' Senior Management.
Hearty laughter warmed up the room instantly.
The irony was not lost on the audience for Singapore’s very first and longest serving Chief of Defence Forces was at MHA to talk not about war but about making friends.
The General turned humanitarian and diplomat was speaking at the ministry's International Cooperation Division’s international relations seminar on 21 October 2011.
So what does a man who had dedicated his life to preparing for war know about making friends?
The man with a distinguished 33-year military career was tasked to develop friendly relationships with neighbouring countries' military forces by Dr Goh Keng Swee who was Defence Minister then.
He recalled it was then a time of turbulence and Singapore was still building up its military forces.
“Dr Goh's thoughts were that we should try to make friends first while we got the Singapore Armed Forces ready and we should also try to stay off any forms of military confrontations,” LG (Ret) Choo said.
The Defence Ministry’s military diplomacy paid off.
Singapore managed to establish cordial military relations with neighbouring countries with some ties leading to joint training exercises and access to training grounds agreements.
One of the first steps to establish any diplomatic relationship, said LG (Ret) Choo, was the exchange of visits starting from the senior levels down to a level that both sides were comfortable with.
Sports exchanges like friendly golf games were good “openers” he said.
However, one of the key aspects of developing good diplomatic relations was understanding the culture of your counterparts.
Understand and appreciate cultural differences
No two cultures are the same.
So when dealing with specific cultures one should make an effort to understand and appreciate cultural differences he said.
He recalled that exchanges with Indonesian counterparts became more comfortable when Singapore officers spoke in what was termed as “Bahasa Campur” – a mixture of English and Bahasa Indonesia.
“It (the atmosphere) was friendlier and we did not feel shy about our inability to speak perfect Indonesian or English,” he said.
“They appreciated our efforts.”
|LG (Ret) Choo said “I am not picky about the wrong things. I don’t demand about my rights for proper protocol or hotel room.” For him, a good international relations practitioner must be genuine, friendly but firm. PHOTO: MHA John Tay|
LG (Ret) Choo retired as military chief in 1992 and moved on to be a diplomat in 1994.
He first served as Singapore's High Commissioner to Australia and Fiji and then as the non-resident High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and South Africa concurrently.
Since 2005, LG (Ret) Choo has been Singapore's non-resident ambassador to Israel.
A little goes a long way
Participating in non-government related activities can also strengthen and promote Singapore’s profile in the international arena, he added.
When he was volunteer chairman of the Singapore Red Cross Society from 1996 to 2008, LG (Ret) Choo noted that very little was known about Singapore when he first attended the Red Cross Annual Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.
“They know of Singapore but they do not know what Singapore did in the Red Cross Movement,” he said.
Also during that time, very few Singaporeans knew what the Red Cross was about.
One of LG (Ret) Choo’s immediate tasks was to raise the profile of Singapore Red Cross locally and overseas.
Part of this effort was Red Cross’ island-wide fund-raising campaign to help disaster-struck countries.
When the tsunami crisis struck in 2004, the Singapore Red Cross spearheaded the Tidal Waves Asia Fund and raised an impressive $88 million dollars for the tsunami relief projects.
Other than monetary relief, volunteers, skills and infrastructures from Singapore were also brought in to assist with the humanitarian efforts.
These efforts eventually put Singapore in a favourable position within the International Red Cross movement.
Following the crises, LG (Ret) Choo said: “We were sought after for the expertise in logistics and training and Singapore became a training centre for the regional Red Cross Society.”
“The pinnacle was when the International Red Cross approached Singapore to host the Asia Pacific and European Convention here.”
In 2006, Singapore hosted more than sixty countries from the Middle East to the South Pacific Islands for a one week long seminar.
|Senior Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs, Mr Khoo Boon Hui presented Lieutenant-General (Ret) Winston Choo with a token of appreciation, thanking him for sharing his diverse and vast experiences on foreign and defence diplomacy experiences with the MHA’s senior management. PHOTO: MHA John Tay|
LG (Ret) Winston Choo’s talk was part of a seminar series called “International Relations Perspectives”.
Organised by the International Cooperation Division since 2010, the seminar provides Home Team officers with a platform to gain insights from International Relations practitioners and experts.
Through sharing of their vast experiences on international issues of interest, the seminar allows MHA officers to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of international relations and its implications on domestic policies.
Alumni speakers included the late Mr Sivakant Tiwari from Attorney-General Chambers and Ambassador-at-Large Mr Ong Keng Yong (now Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia).
“I am not picky about the wrong things,” said LG (Ret) Choo.
LG (Ret) Choo’s session was peppered with anecdotes and he shared numerous lessons from his experience.
For him, a good international relations practitioner must be genuine, friendly but firm.
LG (Ret) Choo said “I am not picky about the wrong things. I don’t demand about my rights for proper protocol or hotel room.”
“But when it comes to the things that count and when you need to pass a message, you have to and got to do it. They will know that you mean what you say.”
Rounding off his talk, he said the benefits of diplomatic exchanges cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
“Capitalise on your relationships, capitalise on little pieces of knowledge, multiply on that, pour a lot of water and make them expand and Singapore will be remembered.”