Expat Life in Thailand interview with the Singaporean Ambassador.
How long have you been the Ambassador to Thailand? Did you arrive directly from home or were you posted somewhere else before?
Ambassador Kevin Cheok arrived in Thailand 15 months ago. I took up post in Thailand in May 2019. Before this, I handled the Infrastructure portfolio at the Ministry of National Development in Singapore. It was a secondment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Prior to that, I was Singapore’s Ambassador to Cambodia. I have also served as Deputy High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, and First Secretary in Berlin.
Where were you born and brought up? Do you have other diplomats in your family?
My father was a diplomat for over three decades, including stints as Singapore’s Ambassador to Germany and High Commissioner to India. I was born in Singapore, but given the realities of diplomatic life, I spent a fair amount of my childhood abroad. My initial schooling was in New York, followed by primary school in Singapore, and junior high school in Penang. I got my High School diploma from the Dalton School in New York, my Bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and my Masters’ degree from Columbia University in New York.
How do you look at Thailand today? Have you had any obstacles since you arrived?
I see Thailand as a vibrant and dynamic country blessed with abundant natural resources and an enterprising and creative people. Thailand is also an economic force as the second largest economy in ASEAN.
It has been hectic since I got here in May 2019. I arrived in the middle of Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship. This was a busy period with many meetings, Summits, and visits by Singapore political leaders. I did not have the usual “run-in” period to familiarise myself with places, people, and issues. But it worked out fine due to the support and cooperation I received from Thai leaders and officials, as well as from my colleagues at the Embassy. I remain very grateful for that.
∙ Shortly after the Chairmanship, everyone had to shift gears to deal with Covid-19. This extraordinary situation has challenged all of us to adapt and change the way we do things. It was stressful. But it has also been an honour to be able to help Singaporeans in Thailand navigate through the uncertainty. One thing that also impressed me is the strength and resilience of the Thai people. This was underlined by the way Thais banded together to manage the Covid-19 pandemic.
Do you see similarities between your country and Thailand?
The short answer is “yes”. Thailand and Singapore are old friends and close partners. Thailand was the 6th country to recognise Singapore’s independence in 1965. It is a fellow founder member of ASEAN. We are both trading nations. So we share similar views about the importance of free trade, a rules based multilateral order, and ASEAN centrality.
On an individual level, Thais and Singaporeans are both obsessed with food! We love good food. We love finding places to eat. We love sharing food with friends and family, and we love talking about food, usually whilst eating another meal! Thais are some of the most hospitable people I know. When I eat with Thai friends, it feels just like being at home.
Do you have children?
No. We have two spoiled senior cats who have travelled to four postings with us.
How do you look upon your work here? What does an average day look like?
The nice thing about being a diplomat is how varied the work is. It is always new countries, new cultures, new circumstances. You are an advocate, a negotiator, an analyst, an administrator, a representative of your country. You cover politics, economics, culture, protocol, consular, and meet so many different people. So it is hard to have an “average” day. But suffice it to say, I spend a fair amount of time interacting with political leaders, officials, the business community, academics, Singaporeans, etc. I also need to keep abreast of political and economic developments in Thailand and in Singapore. And there are many representational duties.
I assume you have some goals you would like to reach before you leave. What are they?
Thailand and Singapore have been friends and close partners for 55 years so the relationship has deep foundations. Political ties are excellent, economic links are robust, defence links are strong, and people to people links are warm. But having said that, it is always the intention of Ambassadors to further deepen bilateral ties.
On the political level, I want to foster more personal meetings. Relations at the leadership level are excellent, but Singapore has started a leadership transition to what we call our “4th Generation”. So I want to facilitate more contacts between newer Singapore leaders and their Thai counterparts. This will help increase the level of familiarity.
I also want to focus on the economic relationship. Thailand and Singapore are already amongst each other’s top trading partners. Singapore is a significant investor in to Thailand. But there is always room to deepen these mutually beneficial ties. One possible area is agricultural trade. Singapore imports the vast majority of its food so there are opportunities for more food imports from Thailand. Another area is in Fintech and the digital economy. These areas represent economic drivers of the future for both nations. And the trends in this direction have been greatly accelerated by Covid-19. Thailand and Singapore can cooperate to reap the benefits of this transformation. One example is a pilot project between the two central banks to link up Thai and Singapore e-payment systems.
I also want to draw more attention to Singapore’s cultural scene. This part of Singapore is often less well known amongst our foreign friends. But it has grown in vibrance, variety, and sophistication over the years so it would be great to be able to showcase this to our Thai and international friends. Last year, we helped sponsor a performance by Singapore maestro Wong Kah Chun who guest conducted the Thai Philharmonic Orchestra. Earlier this year, we held a concert by Singapore jazz legend Jeremy Monteiro, the JASSO Big Band, and several stalwarts of the Singapore jazz scene. Even Thailand’s Koh Mr. Saxman jammed with the band and it was amazing! Hopefully, this will give Thais another reason to come visit Singapore.
With the Covid situation hopefully normalising soon, there should be a strong bilateral focus next year when official events like the Civil Service Exchange Programme (CSEP) and the Singapore-Thailand Enhanced Economic Relationship Meeting (STEER) resume. These bilateral platforms allow us to review current cooperation and explore new areas for collaboration. I also look forward to the Leaders’ Retreat between the two Prime Ministers.
Have you been travelling around Thailand?
Yes. I want to see as much of the country as I can both officially and personally. It gives me a broader perspective and better understanding. I also want to meet Singapore communities around the country. Thus far, I have been to Chiang Rai, Pattaya, Hua Hin, Pranburi, Ayuthaya, Phitsanulok, Khao Yai, and various parts of Kanchanaburi and Chonburi. But to be honest, I have made fewer trips than I had wanted. It was hard to leave Bangkok last year given the ASEAN Chairmanship. And the trips that I planned for earlier this year were delayed by Covid.
What is your favourite destination in Thailand?
Hua Hin. It is just an amazing place with so much to offer. Everyone knows about the lovely beaches, but there are also great National Parks nearby. We just visited the Phraya Nakorn cave temple and it was stunning. The hotels in Hua Hin are wonderful and the town has varied and delicious restaurants. I really enjoy walking along the beach at dawn and dusk. Sea breeze in your face, surf crashing in the background…. there is something very peaceful about this. We have been to Hua Hin several times. The fact that it is less than three hours away by car makes it so easy to spend weekends there.
When you have a day off, what do you do? Do you have special hobbies?
We try to explore Bangkok or make day trips to get a better sense of our surroundings. I try to exercise – mostly walking, swimming, and gym work – now that old injuries have stopped me playing basketball, golf, and fencing. I try to catch up on my reading, mostly history and non-fiction these days. I still collect old maps, history books, and die cast model planes. But I have not had time to indulge in these hobbies recently.
How many of your countrymen live in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a favourable destination for them?
Prior to Covid-19, there were around 5,000 Singaporeans resident in Thailand. But on any given day, the numbers were much higher because over a million Singaporeans visited Thailand every year. In fact, Thailand is one of the favourite holiday destinations for Singaporeans. It is easy to see why. Thailand has mountains, beaches, islands, vibrant cities, great food, superb shopping, and most importantly, warm and friendly people. There is something for everyone. And with a flight time of just over two hours, this is the destination of choice for Singaporeans.
Do your country and Thailand have any exchange programmes for students today?
Educational cooperation is an important part of our relationship. There are interactions at several levels. For example, our universities and polytechnics have exchange programmes with their counterparts in Thailand. Our universities and polytechnics also have programmes that allow Singaporean students to pursue internships in Thailand.
At the secondary level, there is a wonderful and longstanding collaboration between Singapore’s Northlight School and Thailand’s Chaipattana Foundation. Under the programme, both sides exchange visits on an annual basis. There is obviously great educational value, but it’s the camaraderie and friendships forged that last a lifetime.
Singapore also offers Thai students what we call the “ASEAN Scholarship” which allows them to go to Singapore for their secondary education.
If you could choose your next destination, where would you like to go?
There is a joke in most Foreign Services that the best way to ensure that you don’t get the posting you want is to ask for it. So I’m not going to answer this question! Seriously, I’ve been in Thailand for just over a year and I am very happy here. I’ll think about this a few years from now.
Any memory you would like to share or an awkward situation?
Thailand is a special place for my wife and I. We have spent many happy vacations here. Our first holiday together when we were dating three decades ago was to Bangkok. I was serving in the Singapore Army at the time so I didn’t have much money. I chose a cheap tour package which was what I could afford at the time. Of course, we ended up at a very modest hotel and in a basement room with no windows! It’s amazing that she still agreed to marry me in the end.
Do you regularly meet up with your community?
Yes. It is very important for an Embassy to stay close to its community. We obviously provide consular services. But we are also there to help our community maintain a connection to Singapore. We have hosted several events for the Singapore community in the past year. One was to meet visiting Singapore MPs. Another revolved around a wonderful performance by a Singapore conductor and the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra. A third was a community get together. Unfortunately, I have not been able to host anything since the beginning of this year. But I am looking to host another event for Singaporeans now that the Covid situation has improved.
I attend events hosted by Singapore organisations like the Singapore Club of Thailand and the Singapore -Thailand Chamber of Commerce. These are also good platforms to meet the community and get a sense of how people are doing.
I try to meet the local Singapore community when I visit various provinces. Unfortunately, the Covid situation has delayed several trips planned for earlier this year.
What is your most important task as Ambassador?
∙ I am a conduit between Thailand and Singapore. My role is to deepen and broaden ties between our countries. I want to help Thais understand Singapore and vice versa. I want to facilitate interactions between politicians, officials, businessmen, cultural leaders, students, everyone who has an interest in engagement between Thailand and Singapore. I want to act as a bridge, to foster mutual understanding, and to help resolve misunderstandings. And I want to be there for Singaporeans in Thailand.
It has become a bit of a cliché to say that this is a globalised and interconnected world. But it is true. None of us can go it alone. So increasing bilateral and regional cooperation is crucial for Thailand and Singapore to thrive. This is even more salient in these times of economic turbulence, transboundary problems, and global disruption.