Undiplomatic US lawyer made a diplomat to S'pore

Undiplomatic US lawyer made a diplomat to S'pore

A profile of Mr Kirk Wagar once described him like this: "In any conversation of more than a few minutes, Barack Obama's top advocate in Florida is apt to bellow, 'I'll kick your a**', become agonisingly corny about the greatness of America, (and) make an off-colour ethnic joke..."

Yet, some six years later, the famously undiplomatic lawyer has been appointed the United States' top diplomat in Singapore. Last Wednesday, the new US ambassador presented his credentials to President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the Istana.

Hence, while the Kirk Wagar who turns up for an interview with The Straits Times still confesses to being "corny" about American exceptionalism and is still prone to occasional bouts of hyperbole, he seems to have reined in his brash, shoot-from-the-hip style.

"It's the folly of youth," Mr Wagar, still only 44, says, trying to answer the question of whether previous descriptions of him have been accurate. "I have never been a public figure before and I have always prided myself on my candour with my friends."

He adds: "I will tell you, after that (profile) came out, my mother read it and I tried to moderate myself."

Over the course of a 40-minute conversation at his office in the American Embassy, there are no off-colour jokes, profanities, or even pronouncements that might ruffle any feathers here.

Mr Wagar deftly dodges any potential landmines when it comes to controversial topics like the Shane Todd saga, the Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) liberal arts school, or civil liberties and human rights.

His predecessor, ambassador David Adelman, had a little bit of a bumpy start to his tenure after he said at his Senate confirmation hearing that he wanted to use public diplomacy to promote greater freedom of the press and more political space.

There will be nothing of the sort for Mr Wagar.

"I think that every system has to continue tweaking it. I'm sure the US is the greatest example of that. What works in one society wouldn't work in another," he says, when the conversation veers into Singapore's political system and human rights record.

But there is a caveat.

"We will always talk about our values. We will always talk about things that are important to us as a country - not to say that we're perfect..."

Mr Wagar declines to wade into any of the controversy surrounding the setting up of the Yale-NUS liberal arts college, which has seen some members of Yale University raising concerns about human rights and academic freedom.

All he will say is that he appreciates the value of liberal arts education and has not gone in depth into the debate surrounding the school.

On the death of American scientist Shane Todd, Mr Wagar sticks closely to the statements on the inquest previously released by the embassy: "All that we ask is that it be open and transparent, and every assessment I've seen is that it has been just that."

Mr Todd's family maintains that he was murdered, even after a coroner ruled that the death was a suicide.

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