SINGAPORE — Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh said he was "very unhappy" that none of the 24 undergraduate interns at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) he met on Thursday (21 July) were Malays.
In a Facebook post, Professor Koh wrote, "I was very happy to see so many women in the group but very unhappy that there were no Malays.
"The Singapore foreign service should be a microcosm of Singapore and we need more Malays in our service," he added in the post that has over 560 reactions and 111 shares at around 8pm.
Prof Koh, however, pointed out that he has a "significant number" of Malay colleagues in MFA, including at a senior level, "in contrast to the interns this morning". "To be fair, I should also say that six of our Non-Resident Ambassadors are Malays," he added.
His sentiments were largely shared by Facebook netizens.
User Enid Coleslaw wrote, "There is a staggering lack of diversity in key public service roles and throughout policy divisions in the civil service. The scholarship system is largely responsible for this as over the decades, successful recipients skew middle- or upper-middle class, and are overwhelmingly Chinese."
Braema Mathi, who is the honorary secretary of human rights group Maruah, called the lack of diversity "simply unacceptable", pointing out that MFA is where the country's diplomatic corps are able and capable representatives of Singapore.
"Hence, surely it cuts across all ethnicities, language capabilities, cultural sensitivity, astuteness, etc, – all to be developed and harnessed in the career," the former Nominated Member of Parliament said.
"Internships – are the best and widest net that can be cast to find the most suitable MFA officers. And not all have to be scholars, too."
One user, Jay Kay, however, pointed out that racial representation has to be balanced with "capability and meritocracy".
"It begs the question of discrimination when special places are reserved when more capable candidates are sidelined. Let’s not make it a race issue, otherwise, it will create a divide," the user added.
Prof Koh's history of diplomacy
Prof Koh, 84, has previously served as Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations and the US.
During his meeting with the undergraduates, the group spent two hours discussing various questions and issues relevant to Singapore’s diplomacy and foreign policy, he said in his Facebook post.
"I was impressed. I hope some of them will apply to join the Singapore Foreign Service," he wrote of the 24 interns, of whom half are studying at three local universities while the other 12 are studying abroad.
Prof Koh known for his outspoken views on social issues ranging from his call for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex, to championing the cause of low-wage workers.
The veteran Singapore diplomat, who holds multiple positions such as Special Adviser of the Institute of Policy Studies and emeritus professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) law faculty, was recently awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws by NUS.
Yahoo News Singapore has reached out to MFA for comment.
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