Bilahari Kausikan: Singapore’s Undiplomatic Diplomat

I like him, I like him not. I have listened to some of his speeches, sat in on some of his briefings and followed his Facebook posts closely.

Ambassador at large Bilahari Kausikan impresses with his intellect, witty rejoinders and say-it-as-it-is statements. He can go berserk when attacking critics of Singapore. In a recent Facebook post, he said a freelancer was writing critical articles about Singapore for a Malaysian website because of the money she can make out of it.

And just the other day, Kausikan had this smart-ass post on Han Hui Hui, who is facing charges of causing public nuisance during a protest rally at Hong Lim Park: “I think HHH… should plead not guilty for reasons of insanity.”

Nothing seems to scare him, even making unsavoury statements about  politics and politicians of other countries. Earlier this month, he waded into Malaysian politics when he wrote that Chinese Malaysians were being delusional if they think the principle of Malay dominance can be changed. “Malay dominance will be defended by any means,” he thundered. Malaysian opposition politician Tony Pua hit back calling Singapore the mercenary prick of South-east Asia.

He brings back images of an era when Lee Kuan Yew reigned supreme with his undiplomatic attacks on countries like Malaysia, Australia, India. Kausikan, as the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was at the centre of it all when LKY and Mahathir Mohamad were taking relations
between the two countries to the edge of the cliff.

It is the school of LKY that Kausikan graduated from and you can see heavy doses of what he has learnt in his responses. Recently, he got into a verbal fight with France and its European allies when he accused Paris of being “hobbled by its own absolutist beliefs” on human rights. Two European ambassadors responded but Kausikan wanted to have the last word.

“Why throw the weight of the state against discrimination against one religion or group, while acquiescing in the systematic vilification of another religion, Islam, in the name of freedom of speech?” he asked in a pointed reference to the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine.

There are enough examples like these to show how undiplomatic this diplomat has become. No one in government seems to have pulled him back and so far his messy musings don’t seem to have affected Singapore’s relations with other countries.

Maybe, they have come to terms with a man they consider to be a loose cannon who doesn’t have policy-making powers. It might also be possible that Singapore considers such a character useful to tell the world what Singapore really feels about world affairs but does not articulate publicly.

Kausikan is a breath of fresh air in the civil service where officers hardly say a word in public for fear of reprisals from their bosses. Kausikan is an open book; his views, whether you like them or not, are there for readers to agree with or dispute. And I am sure he will be ready to respond robustly against his detractors.

A good measure of the man is available in an interview he gave to a Public Service Division publication, Challenge.  “I say what I think. I’m me, I can’t be anything but me,” he said.

For all his candour, he remains rather cagey when it comes to commenting on Singapore’s policy missteps. He has been silent on how Singapore got into a mess when the public housing policy backfired under Mah Bow Tan or when the exuberant immigration policy caused a transport nightmare for the government.

History will salute him if he does that.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.


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