Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh is a voracious book reader and enthusiastic reviewer.
He has an eclectic taste in reading material, even books you wouldn’t expect a veteran diplomat to read.
But Koh recently read and reviewed another book, one perhaps more relevant to a man with his expertise in foreign affairs.
George Yeo’s new book
That book is the second series of “Musings” by former Foreign Minister George Yeo, put together and edited by veteran media practitioner Woon Tai Ho.
The second in a three-part series, it takes a look at a wide range of topics, focusing on religion (the Vatican and Islam), before moving into Europe and Asia, and eventually, ending with our own region, ASEAN.
In fact, Koh was the guest speaker at the launch of Yeo’s first book.
One such personal anecdote in the book moved Koh to tears, detailing one’s struggles with cancer.
“I cried when I read, in chapter 13, about Freddy’s miraculous recovery from leukaemia, about Jennifer’s recovery from a rare cancer called SNUC and about Eddy’s recovery from a malignant tumour in his chest,” Koh said.
However, Koh pointed out what he said were “factual errors” in Yeo’s book.
More than “half the world” condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Koh pointed out that contrary to what the book states, a majority of the members of the United Nations condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“There is a statement on page 136, there is a statement that” only half the world condemns Russia for its invasion of Ukraine “. The truth is that 141 members of the UN, out of 193 members, voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Koh is correct about the vote, which took place about a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion.
Singapore voted in favour of the condemnation.
Philippines, China and South China Sea
Koh’s next point is about the Philippines, China and the South China Sea dispute.
Page 401 of the book states: “With US legal and financial support, the Philippines took China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)”, something that was repeated in subsequent pages.
However, Koh said: “This is incorrect. The disputes were referred to arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
His third point was in reference to a statement on Page 406, which states (bold ours):
“If China argued this preliminary case, it would be dragged into a judicial process from which it could not withdraw afterwards. If it did not, then the tribunal would make its own determination. China’s refusal to take part was then turned against it.
Judges were appointed on China’s behalf. China’s case was assembled on China’s behalf, a key point being that China’s nine-dash line was a claim to historical rights, not title. The judges determined that China could not exclude itself from compulsory arbitration in this case. The Philippine case then proceeded again without China’s participation.
Again, judges were appointed on China’s behalf. Again, China’s case was assembled on its behalf. Not surprisingly, China lost. There is no provision for appeal even if China wanted to. There is also no provision for enforcement but the judgement has since put China on the defensive.”
However, Koh refuted this. He said:
“His statement is inaccurate. When China refused to participate in the arbitration, the President of ITLOS was required by UNCLOS, to appoint one judge out of the five members of arbitral tribunal, to represent China. The President appointed a Polish judge from ITLOS, to represent China.”
Koh said that he hoped that these mistakes would be corrected in future editions of the book, and reiterated his “admiration for this brilliant friend and mentor.”
You can see Koh’s post in full below:
George Yeo replies
Yeo replied in the comment section of Koh’s post.
Here’s what he said:
“Thanks Tommy for the kinds words. Your friendship and support over long years are very precious to me and my wife. On half the world not condemning Russia, I was referring to the BRICS countries who make up roughly half the world’s population. I should have been clearer. Thanks for the correction on UNCLOS. I will make the amendments.”
By BRICS, Yeo was referring to the bloc of nations made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
India, China and South Africa abstained from the vote, while Russia naturally voted against the condemnation. Brazil voted in favour.
Top image from Tommy Koh’s Facebook page.