FIRST STEP

In the years after Independence, Singapore’s
corps of Foreign Service officers worked
tirelessly to safeguard our sovereignty by
seeking international recognition and
establishing ties with other countries.

Based on passages from
The Singapore Foreign Service: The First 40 Years
(Editions Didier Millet, 2005)

Singapore's Foreign Service was born at a moment of great uncertainty. Following Independence in August 1965, Mr S. Rajaratnam, the newly designated Minister for Foreign Affairs, got down to the urgent work at hand: to establish Singapore’s status as a sovereign nation. This he undertook immediately by leading a delegation to the United Nations (UN). The mission proved successful and on 21 September 1965, Singapore was admitted to the UN as its 117th member.

It was a heady moment for the delegation, but much work remained. Having scored their first success, the officers now embarked on a whirlwind Afro-Asia Goodwill Mission. From New York, the delegation traveled to eight African and four Asian nations, as well as to Britain, Russia, and Yugoslavia. By the end of 1965, Singapore had been formally recognized by more than 50 countries.

Back home, the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also began to take shape. Office space was secured at City Hall and a first slate of ambassadors, protocol officers and clerks was recruited, often directly from other ministries.

Despite a lack of resources, the new officers took to their tasks with vigour. Mr Francis D’Costa was among the few who could claim any diplomatic experience, having taken a Foreign Service training course in London in 1956. “I was 33 years old in 1965, working in the Ministry of Law,” he recalls. “On 9 August in the afternoon, [Minister for Law] Eddie Barker called and said I was moving to MFA. I asked him where it was and he said I had better go and find out… Events were dictated by circumstances and we rallied together.”

The new MFA officers were also grateful to get practical advice and support from other Commonwealth missions. “I remember attending a session conducted by the Australian High Commissioner,” recalls Mr V. K. Rajan. “He covered a large amount of ground in great detail – from the day of arrival in the host country to the day of departure on completion of posting!”

Mr Rajan would go on to serve in various diplomatic missions as Ambassador to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and High Commissioner to Cyprus and Zimbabwe. He recalls the pride of the young officers as they carried Singapore’s flag around the world. “What we lacked in knowledge and experience was more than matched by the excitement and the iron determination to do our best for the country,” he says.

Mr Chia Cheong Fook, who’d later serve as MFA’s Permanent Secretary and Singapore’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, traveled to London in 1966 to open a mission. Frugality was very much the order of the day. “I am afraid the property bill is tremendous,” he wrote back. “I am fully aware that we have to cut our coats according to our cloth and that the Singapore government is not in the position to indulge in extravagances.”

Overcoming these early challenges, MFA soon founded missions in Australia, Burma, Cambodia, Egypt, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. By the end of 1969, 36 diplomatic missions and 14 consular missions had also been established here. Singapore had taken its first step onto the world stage.