during the 1970s as our officers engaged
with their regional and global counterparts
on a range of complex geopolitical issues.
As part of this development, Singapore
also looked beyond its shores to establish
overseas missions, with officers such as
Mr Phang Tai Chee serving as our “arms
and legs”. He recalls the challenges of
his globetrotting Public Service career.
I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in July 1970. It was a small agency then and my job was to look after the new officers and maintain their records. It was an exciting time when Singapore was starting to make new friends in the world, you know.
I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in July 1970. It was a small agency then and my job was to look after the new officers and maintain their records. It was an exciting time when Singapore was starting to make new friends in the world,
The most important thing about visiting a new country is to adapt to the local conditions. The old adage, When in Rome, do as the Romans do, remains true. My first overseas posting was to Moscow, Russia, in December 1971 to assist Mr P. S. Raman, our Ambassador to the Soviet Union. It was hard to set up a mission from scratch, with many obstacles such as not knowing the language and local customs. It was really sink or swim, but we learned from our setbacks.
I enjoyed showing people what Singapore was about, what we stood for. Even in those days, people could see that we were different. We were from a tiny country, still very young, with many different races working together, and all proud to be Singaporeans.
My next posting was to Hong Kong, from 1975 to 1978. We felt welcomed there and had a good relationship with the Hong Kong Government, respecting it and abiding by its rules.
Of course, we also had the chance to help Singaporeans who’d come into trouble overseas. I remember the case of a Singaporean woman who’d been stranded in Hong Kong. Her partner had taken their two children and left her to settle a hotel bill that was almost HK$2,000. This was a very big amount in the 1970s! The hotel had also held on to her passport.
She came to the embassy in tears. We quickly raised HK$1,000 among ourselves and told the hotel staff firmly, “Take it or leave it.
”They accepted the money and returned her passport. To help the woman get back on her feet, I also arranged for the people at the Pacific International Lines, a Singaporean shipping company, to offer her a position on one of their homeward-bound vessels. The company was very helpful and agreed to our proposal. So the woman was able to work as a waitress and return home safely.
After Hong Kong, I was asked to handle consular cases because of my experience, and was part of the team that helped set up our Beijing mission in the 1980s. Again, it was hard making friends in yet another country. But we had to plant the seed somehow.
In those days, China was just opening up and daily goods were controlled as they were in short supply. If we wanted to buy clothes, we had to have clothing coupons. If we wanted to eat, we presented food coupons. We also couldn’t go to the local joints to dine; we had to visit restaurants or hotels meant for foreigners. Again, they’d ask us, “Have you got your rice coupon?”
So you can see how quickly change can come to a country.
I’m now based back home at MFA as a Facilities Manager, but I still love to travel. Today, our missions are everywhere. We’re small but our voice is heard; our journey was long but we’ve taken our place on the world stage.