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Fletcher Features

A LOOK AT LIFE AFTER THE UN: SHASHI THAROOR F'78

Reprinted from The Straits Times, 25 February 2008

Ex-UN official's life hums with engagements and advisory projects.

You can take Dr Shashi Tharoor out of the United Nations, but you cannot take the UN out of him.

For most of a 45-minute interview, he refers to the UN as 'we' and its job as 'ours'. Suddenly he thumps the wooden table in front of him, the coral ring on his right ring finger adding effect to the sound, and says: 'It's been a year since I left the UN and I still can't stop saying 'we'.'

In fact, it has been 10 months since the former UN under-secretary-general quit the world body. And in those months he has perfected the art of living out of a suitcase. He is back in Singapore, where he once served in a UN post, to give a speech - The Soft Power Of India? - at the Nanyang Technological University tomorrow, among other things. Since leaving the organisation last April, after 29 years of loyal service, his life has been chock-a-block with such other things. In fact, Dr Tharoor has been to about 43 places in these past 10 months. 'And there were days when literally I would be in six to seven countries in one week,' he says.

Dr Tharoor, 51, resigned after emerging a strong second from seven contenders in the race to become the eighth UN secretary-general in 2006. At that time, he told reporters: 'If I hadn't done it now, I would have done it at some point in the not too distant future.'

Now he wears many hats. He is on the boards of the human rights organisation Breakthrough, the American India foundation and the Indo-American Arts Council. He is an adviser to the Wildlife Conservation Society's efforts to protect tigers in India. He also recently agreed to a four-year term as an adviser to the International Committee of Red Cross in Geneva. 'They haven't had an Indian there for some time, so it was a real privilege in that it keeps me engaged in the international humanitarian space, which used to be my first professional engagement,' says Dr Tharoor.

He is also chairman of the Dubai-based Afras Ventures, which is setting up an academy for business communication for young professionals to brush up their presentation skills in his home state of Kerala. 'I have said 'yes' to too many things in the first flush of my post-UN liberation,' he concedes.

While with the UN, Dr Tharoor led peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia and was head of the UN Department of Public Information. On the side, he penned nine books, wrote articles, op-eds and literary reviews for numerous Indian and foreign publications and, in 1998, was hailed by the World Economic Forum in Davos as a 'Global Leader of Tomorrow'. Even before tomorrow's speech, Dr Tharoor's six-day stay in Singapore saw him having lunch with 'old friend' President S R Nathan at the Istana last Friday. Then on Saturday, he gave a talk on his 10th work - The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cell Phone - which was published last September.

Public speaking is one of Dr Tharoor's many passions. 'Some of it is actually for a fee, which is a treat for a former UN official who is used to speaking for free,' he says, his light hazel eyes widening in mock surprise. His Singapore stop, he hastens to add, is not on a fee-paying basis. 'My public appearances here are very much just out of my own interest,' he says. The city-state has a special place in Dr Tharoor's scheme of things. 'Singapore has had a tremendous impact on the making of me as a UN official, as a human being and above all as a father,' he says. He was head of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees office here from 1981 to 1984 during the peak of the Vietnamese 'boat people' crisis. And it was here that his twin sons, Ishaan and Kanishk, were born, eight weeks premature. He attributes their lives to 'the outstanding doctors and nurses in Singapore's KK Hospital'. Both are now journalists in different organisations.

'I came to Singapore as a young man and with a huge responsibility at a very difficult time. There were about 4,400 refugees in the Hawkins Road refugee camp. By the time I left. we had got that number down to under 400. But the individual stories stayed with me,' he adds. 'If I had been in a much larger country like Thailand, where I would be dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees, I would never have had that direct connection between work and lives being changed. Singapore made that possible.'

Dr Tharoor will be speaking on The Soft Power Of India? at the inaugural 'Asia Talks' lecture series, organised by The Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies tomorrow. The event, at the NEC auditorium, Nanyang Technological University, will be chaired by Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

PERSONAL CONNECTIONS

'I came to Singapore as a young man and with a huge responsibility at a very difficult time. There were about 4,400 refugees in the Hawkins Road refugee camp. By the time I left, we had got that number down to under 400. But the individual stories stayed with me.' DR THAROOR on his stint as UNCHR head during the Vietnamese 'boat people' crisis

STAYING ENGAGED

They haven't had an Indian there for some time, so it was a real privilege in that it keeps me engaged in the international humanitarian space which used to be my first professional engagement.' DR THAROOR, on his new role as adviser to the International Committee of Red Cross in Geneva

Background notes

Education: Completed his PhD at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1978.

Career: Joined UNHCR in 1978. Key responsibilities included peacekeeping after the Cold War. Was senior adviser to the secretary-general and the under-secretary-general for communications and public information.

Family: Wife Christa, a Canadian, is deputy secretary of the UN Disarmament Commission. Son Kanishk works with OpenDemocracy in London, while the other son Ishaan is with Time magazine in Hong Kong.

Nilanjana Sengupta