Tommy Koh Thong Bee (b. 12 November 1937, Singapore–) is an ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a position he has held since 1990, and a professor of law at the National University of Singapore. Koh is a veteran negotiator and diplomat who is well known at home and abroad.1
Koh’s career spans international law, diplomacy, international relations and education. He was Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York (1968–71; 1974–84) and Ambassador to the United States of America (1984–90). His notable international contributions included his role as the president of Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.2 He was a member and the second chairman of the High Level Task Force that drafted the ASEAN Charter, a document that provides the institutional and legal framework for the organisation.3
Koh was Singapore’s chief negotiator in the legal skirmish with Kuala Lumpur over reclamation works in Tuas and on Pulau Tekong. After two years of dispute, both countries successfully agreed on a resolution in January 2005.4 Koh was also part of Singapore’s legal team in the Pedra Branca cases brought before the International Court of Justice in 2003 and 2017.5
The founding rector of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore (NUS),6 Koh holds various positions at the university, including chairman of the International Advisory Board of the Asia Research Institute and special adviser of the Institute of Policy Studies.7
Involvement in the arts and heritage, environment and civil society
Koh is a keen patron of the arts, heritage and the environment. Apart from being chairman of the National Heritage Board and the Chinese Heritage Centre,8 he was also a board member of the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.9 In addition, Koh has been the patron of The Substation, a contemporary arts centre, since its inception in 1990.10
His dedication to the environmental cause has earned him the honour of being named as one of seven “Champions of the Earth” by the United Nations Environment Programme. At the time, he was patron of the Nature Society (Singapore), co-chairman of the NUS Faculty of Law’s Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law, and chairman of the advisory committee of the master’s degree on environmental management at the NUS School of Design and Environment.11
Koh has been vocal about social issues in Singapore.12 In his free time, Koh practises qiqong, and enjoys music and reading.13
1952–57: Raffles Institution
1961: University of Malaya (LLB, Hons)
1964: Harvard University (LLM)
1965: Cambridge University (postgraduate diploma in criminology)
1962–64: Assistant lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Singapore
1964–71: Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Singapore
1971–74: Associate professor and dean, Faculty of Law, University of Singapore
1977–present: Professor of law, National University of Singapore
1994–95: Second Arthur & Frank Payne Visiting Professor, Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, US15
1968–71: Permanent representative to the UN in New York (concurrently accredited as high commissioner to Canada)
1974–84: Permanent representative to the UN in New York (concurrently accredited as high commissioner to Canada and ambassador to Mexico)
1980–82: President, Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea
1984–90: Ambassador to the United States
1990–92: Chairman, Preparatory Committee and Main Committee, UN Conference on Environment and Development
1990–97, 2000–2004: Director, Institute of Policy Studies16
1991–96: Chairman, National Arts Council17
1993: UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the Russian Federation, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia
1993–95: Member, UN High-Level Advisory Board on Sustainable Development
1993–96: Member, Earth Council
1994–2003: Director, DBS Bank18
2000–2003: Singapore’s Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement19
2000–2006: Chairman, Chinese Heritage Centre20
2002–11: Chairman, National Heritage Board21
2011–June 2022: Rector, Tembusu College, National University of Singapore22
1971: Public Service Star23
1979: Meritorious Service Medal24
1982: Wolfgang Friedman Award, Columbia University Law School
1985: Jackson H. Ralston Prize, Stanford Law School
1985: Annual Award of the Asia Society, New York
1987: International Service Award, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, US
1987: Jit Trainor Award for Distinction in Diplomacy, Georgetown University, US25
1990: Distinguished Service Order Award26
1993: Commander, Order of the Golden Ark, The Netherlands
1996: Elizabeth Haub Prize for Environmental Law, University of Brussels
1997: Grand Cross of the Order of Bernardo O'Higgins, Chile
1998: Fok Ying Tung Southeast Asia Prize, Fok Ying Tung Foundation, Hong Kong
2000: Commander, First Class, of the Order of the Lion, Finland
2000: John Curtin Medal, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia
2000: Grand Officer in the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
2000: Distinguished Service to Arts Education, LASALLE-SIA College Award
2001: Officer in the Order of the Legion of Honour, President of the French Republic
2003: Peace and Commerce Award, for efforts in building trade links with the United States27
2006: Champions of the Earth, United Nations Environment Programme28
2008: Order of Nila Utama (First Class)29
2014: Great Negotiator Award, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School30
2018: Padma Shri Award, India31
1995: The United States and East Asia: Conflict and Co-operation32
1998: The Quest for World Order: Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist33
2000: Asia and Europe: Essays and Speeches by Tommy Koh34
2013: The Tommy Koh Reader: Favourite Essays and Lectures35
2020: Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans36
Father: Koh Han Kok
Mother: Tsai Ying
Wife: Poh Siew Aing (m. 1967)
Children: Two sons, Wei and Aun
Marsita Omar and Florence Tan
1. Low Kar Tiang, ed., Who’s Who in Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2006), 225–26. (Call no. RSING 920.05957 WHO)
2. Tommy Koh, The Tommy Koh Reader: Favourite Essays and Lecturers (Singapore: World Scientific, 2013), 50–60 (Call no. RSING 327.5957 KOH); Yeo, Lay Wee, et al. eds., Tommy Koh: Serving Singapore and the World (Singapore: World Scientific, 2017), ix–xiii, 167. (Call no. RSING 327.59570092 TOM); Tommy Koh, Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans (Singapore: NUS Press, 2020). (Call no. RSING 341.45 TOM)
3. Tommy Koh, “The ASEAN Charter at 10: Prospects and Retrospect,” ASEAN Lecture, speech, 3 August 2017, transcript.
4. Lydia Lim, “S’pore, KL to Settle Dispute,” Straits Times, 14 January 2005, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Yeo, et al., Serving Singapore and the World, 289–95.
5. S. Jayakumar, Tommy Koh and Lionel Yee, Pedra Branca: Story of the Unheard Cases (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2018). (Call no. RSING 341.448095957 JAY)
6. “Live. Learn. Discover,” Straits Times, 16 April 2011, 33 (From NewspaperSG); Yeo, et al., Serving Singapore and the World, 160, 223–29.
7. “Tommy Koh,” National University of Singapore, Law Faculty, last retrieved, (n.d.).
8. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 185–87.
9. “6 New Board Members for The Esplanade,” Business Times, 13 December 2000, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Tommy Koh, “Fare Thee Well: The Substation’s Legacy Will Continue,” Straits Times, 6 March 2021; “The Substation,” media release, 23 July 2021.
11. “Tommy Koh Is a Champion of the Earth,” Today, 24 March 2006, 8; “Biodiversity and Cities,” Straits Times, 25 October 2010, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Linette Lai, “Tommy Koh Laments That Singapore is a First World Country with Third World Citizens,” Straits Times, 1 October 2019; Tommy Koh, “Women's Quest for Justice and Equality– A Short History,” Straits Times, 19 February 2019.
13. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
14. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
15. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
16. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
17. “A Man for the Arts,” New Paper, 1 March 1991, 17; Allison Lim, Liu Thai Ker Replaces Tommy Koh as NAC Chairman,” Straits Times, 30 June 1996, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
19. Laurence A Green and James K. Sebenius, "Tommy Koh and the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement: A Multi-Front ‘Negotiation Campaign’,” (Harvard Business School Working Paper, no. 15-053, December 2014)
20. “Tommy Koh Heads Heritage Centre,” Straits Times, 12 February 2001, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Tommy Koh is NHB Chief,” Today, 2 August 2002, 9; Akshita Nanda, New Faces at Heritage Board,” Straits Times, 30 July 2011, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Yeo, et al., Serving Singapore and the World, 160, 223–29, Amelia Teng, "Tembusu College to miss 'rockstar' rector Tommy Koh," Straits Times, 3 June 2022.
23. Singapore. Government Gazette Extraordinary, 9 August 1971, 3568. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SGG-[HIS])
24. Singapore. Government Gazette Extraordinary, 9 August 1979, 3371. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SGG-[HIS])
25. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
26. Singapore. Government gazette Extraordinary, 9 August 1990, 6669. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SGG-[HIS])
27. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
28. “Tommy Koh is a Champion of the Earth.”
29. Ambassador-at-Large and Recipient of the Order of Nila Utama (First Class) Professor Tommy Koh and His Wife, Dr Poh Siew Aing, Posing for Photographs with Aide-de Camp at the Reception during Investiture of National Day Awards at Suntec City, 17 November 2011. Photograph, Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts (MICA). (From National Archives of Singapore media image no. 20081117006 – 0459); Singapore. Government Gazette Extraordinary, 9 August 2008, 3637. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SGG-[HIS])
30. Vivien Shiao, Tommy Koh Named Great Negotiator Award Winner,” Business Times, 27 September 2013, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Tommy Koh among 10 Asean Recipients of India’s Padma Shri Award,” Straits Times, 27 January 2018, A4. (Microfilm NL34418)
32. Tommy Thong Bee Koh, The United States and East Asia: Conflict and Co-operation (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1995). (Call no. RSING 327.7305 KOH)
33. Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order: Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998). (Call no. RSING 327.01 KOH)
34. Yeo Lay Hwee and Asad Latif, eds., Asia and Europe: Essays and Speeches by Tommy Koh (Singapore: World Scientific; Asia-Europe Foundation). (Call no. RSING 337.405 KOH)
35. Koh, Tommy Koh Reader.
36. Koh, Building a New Legal Order.
37. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 225–26.
“Peschardt’s People Asia: Tommy Koh,” 25 September 2011, video, 23:37. (From National Archives of Singapore accession no. 2016015390)
Tommy Thong Bee Koh, oral history interviews by Irene Quah, 23 May 1998–20 June 1998, transcripts and MP3 audio, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002021)
Tommy Koh, “Letter to My Grandchildren in a Time of Pandemic,” Straits Times, 18 April 2020.
The information in this article is valid as at January 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.