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Born with a ‘chakra wheel’ on sole of right foot, he was destined to travel

Retired diplomat K. Kesavapany reminisces about life and career in upcoming memoir ‘From Estate to Embassy’.

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HE grew up in a rural Malaysian plantation in Glenmarie, about 30 km from Kuala Lumpur where his conductor-father told a teenaged Krishnasamy Kesavapany that he was destined to travel.

“It is destined that you will not stay in one place but move to distant horizons,” foretold Muthial Krishnasamy,  who, sadly, did not live long enough to know how accurate his prediction of his son’s life would turn out to be.

The patriarch’s prediction was not a fluke as it had to do with a “chakra wheel” on the sole of Kesavapany’s right foot.

Kesavapany did indeed travel the globe — to Australia, Turkey, Switzerland, Jordan, Indonesia, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and other countries, not as a tourist but as an exemplary diplomat for close to half a century.

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As he approaches his 82nd birthday, the soft-spoken ambassador writes over 190 pages of his memoirs in a biography “From Estate to Embassy” which will be formally launched by Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on Fri (Apr 5).

He dedicates the 20-chapter book to wife, Padmini, sons Murali and Sashi, daughter-in-laws Jyoti and Geetha, and grandkids Kishan, and Jaynna for their “love and affection”.

FAMILY BONDSHIPS

Photo: Kesavapany family

Family bondships rank highest in Kesavapany’s heart, followed by friendships. His detailed descriptions of family and friends reflect his humble character, grateful for the smallest deed extended to him.

What strikes me of Pany (as he is known to buddies) is his unassuming nature and friendly demeanour. He can mix with royalties and world leaders on the same level as he does with the poor, and under-privileged in the Singapore heartlands.

His biography, co-authored with Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, is a revelation of an Indian gentleman.

His supreme trump card, as I observe, is his big heart; always caring for the challenged, with his simply exemplary concern and readiness to do more than “something” by way of tangibles.

He simply ran, and continues to run, the extra mile after retiring as a diplomat. He has been decorated for services to the community with grassroots involvement with the Singapore Indian Association (SIA), Hindu Endowments Board (HEB), Hindu Advisory Board (HAB), Indian Heritage Centre (IHC), Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), just to name a few.

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan says: “From Estate to Embassy is not just a biography. It’s our history presented through Pany’s story. It’s a story about finding joy in circumstances, about self-belief and passion and the need for compassion.”

As I sat and read the 190 pages in one sitting without a break, I could feel his autobiography was not an ego-trip of one of Singapore’s most travelled diplomats who, ironically, was born in a Malaysian oil-palm plantation, became a Singapore citizen and, in a twist of fate, was assigned his last diplomatic posting as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia (1997 to 2002) in a homecoming of sorts .

GRADUATED IN MALAYSIA

Like some of our first-generation political leaders, Pany graduated from the University of Malaya with a  Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree and applied to join the Malaysian civil service. Because of the New Economic Policy favouring Bumiputeras, however, he was reportedly rejected. Malaysia’s loss turned out to be Singapore’s gain.

Among his many contributions to his adopted country was  his elevation as the first Chairman of the Council of WTO (World Trade Organisation) in Geneva in 1996, during which Singapore made a success of hosting the first Ministerial Council in spite of objections from the US Clinton administration who had then saw red with Singapore after the much-publicised caning of American schoolboy Michael Fay for vandalism.

Pany bluntly says that the “moral of the Michael Fay incident is, where national interest is concerned, one does not buckle … Mr S R Nathan (then Singapore Ambassador to USA) did not. Neither did I.”

You may well ask: What makes Pany a successful diplomat?

The kudos in the book’s foreward comes from Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large, at Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA): “He’s a successful diplomat because he’s well-read and knowledgable. He has high EQ (Emotional Quotient) and able to connect with people. He’s able to win the friendship and trust of his colleagues. He has the ability to build bridges and to create consensus.”

ISTANA MEETING

Photo: Kesavapany family

I particularly enjoyed reading Pany’s bold recount of an Istana meeting with (the late) Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in 2005. After a crucial decision to a matter relating to Malaysia, Lee asked him: “Pany, don’t you think that the Malaysians now know that the second-generation ministers are calling the shots?”

Looking at the statesman straight in the eye, Pany replied: “No! The Malaysians still think you’re calling the shots. Mr Lee, obviously not pleased with the reply, hitched up his trousers and paced up and down in the room, Pany recounts.

And, with a cautious self-indulged bravery, Pany writes in the book on Chapter One: “However, I felt that he (Mr Lee) was secretly pleased about still having a role to play in the management of Singapore-Malaysia relations.”

Chapter 13 was to me, very poignant, as Pany talks of “Returning to my Roots” and his March 1997 posting to perhaps the most significant overseas embassy for a Singapore diplomat: High Commissioner to Malaysia.

And, Pany makes no bones of his fragile homecoming as it was a particularly turbulent period in bilateral relations: “…as any diplomat knows, working in a country’s closest neighbour can be challenging and fraught with uncertainty, I was proved right.”

OBSCENE GESTURE

There were a number of unpleasant scenes but none prominent when Pany and his wife arrived at Subang Airport and on the way to the official residence, he says, “a motorcyclist came close to the car, and made an obscene gesture … this was the first indication that bilateral relations had taken a sharp downswing”.

Overall, his memoir comes with a very passionate beat. He says: “Whenever people ask me: ‘So Pany, have you retired?’ I say: “No, I have merely moved on.’”

From an estate teenager who looked after six goats providing his family milk to a senior Singaporean diplomat, Kesavapany seems divinely set to have risen from estate to embassy, always wearing his trademark Pany-smile.

The biography “From ESTATE to EMBASSY”, will be formally launched by Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday (April 5) at 6.00pm at the PGP Hall, Serangoon Road.

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