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.

As far as priorities go, Mr Wagar is averse to naming any one in particular but says that one of his first tasks is to lead a Singapore business delegation to the inaugural SelectUSA investment summit in the American capital at the end of October.

He wants to play a bigger role in growing investment links between the two countries.

"Thirty-five thousand Americans work for Singaporean companies," he says. "We enjoy the fact that Singapore is the 18th largest investor in the United States. A lot of it has been happening organically. It hasn't been done with the help of the United States government."

Another key goal is the completion of the ambitious 12-member free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Where Mr Wagar does open up more is when he talks about his family. On his desk are photos of his wife, prominent African-American lawyer Crystal Connor, his seven-year-old son Declan from a previous marriage, and a labrador-mix dog named Harlan.

He also has a 24-year-old daughter, Sarah, from a teen romance.

His wife, he says, will share in the job of representing America in Singapore.

"She is going to be a partner and she is going to be one of the greatest faces America has ever had in the region."

To take up the Singapore posting, he said he had to leave his law firm in Miami and also take a step back from the political arena he has been entrenched in for over two decades.

Yet he calls the assignment the "most humbling experience" of his life.

"I have no idea what I am going to do when this journey is over," he says. "All I'm going to do is focus on trying to do the best job I can for my country and my President... Sometimes it comes across as corny, but I do love my country."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


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