SINGAPORE – Mr Joseph Francis Conceicao, a former MP and diplomat, died on Tuesday (Aug 13) night at the age of 95.
He was MP for Katong from 1968 to 1984, and served in various parliamentary committees. He was also involved in the then-Adult Education Board, then-National Museum Board and the People’s Association, among others.
Mr Conceicao began his career as a teacher at St Patrick’s School, where he taught O- and A-level English Literature.
His diplomatic career included ambassadorial appointments to Moscow, Russia from 1977 to 1981 and 1990 to 1994, and Jakarta, Indonesia from 1981 to 1986.
He was high commissioner in Canberra, Australia from 1987 to 1990 and retired from the foreign service in 1994.
Mr Barry Desker, Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to the Vatican and Spain, said Mr Conceicao had a sound grasp of Singapore’s key foreign policy interests, and enjoyed the confidence of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee.
The veteran diplomat had succeeded Mr Conceicao as Singapore’s Ambassador to Indonesia in 1986.
“He had built excellent ties with the Indonesian military, in particular, General Benny Moerdani, the commander-in-chief of the Indonesian armed forces,” Mr Desker told The Straits Times.
In an interview with ST in 2001, Mr Conceicao recalled a planned meeting between Mr Lee and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1990.
Mr Lee had waited in his hotel for three hours but the Russian leader, who was in his last days in power, did not appear.
“Everyone panicked, including the Russian protocol officers, who disappeared from the hotel because they knew Mr Lee as a hot-tempered man,” he had said.
Mr Lee, on the other hand, told him coolly: “Don’t be agitated, Joe. You must realise that this is a great opportunity for us. We are sitting and watching the vanishing of an empire!”
The two leaders finally met after a long delay.
A talented linguist, Mr Conceicao learnt Russian in addition to English, Malay, Mandarin, Latin and his native Kristang, a Portuguese-Malay patois spoken by Portuguese Malaccans.
Mr Desker also remembers Mr Conceicao as a dedicated teacher.
“I was one of his students from 1962 to 1964, before he moved to the Extra-Mural Studies Department at the University of Singapore. He was particularly effective in my case in promoting an interest in literary criticism,” he said.
Mr Conceicao pursued his literary interests with vigour after retirement.
His 2004 autobiography, Flavours Of Change: Destiny And Diplomacy, Recollections Of A Singapore Ambassador, described his experiences during the Japanese Occupation.
He also chronicled Singapore’s racial riots in the book Singapore And The Many-Headed Monster.
In another book, Indonesia’s Six Years Of Living Dangerously, he followed key developments in Indonesia between 1998 and 2004 during the terms of Indonesian presidents B. J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri.
To the Eurasian community in Singapore, he was simply Uncle Joe because of his caring and jovial nature, said president of the Eurasian Association Alexius Pereira.
“As Trustee of the Association, Joe was always concerned about the welfare of the community. He wanted to make sure that our programmes to help the needy were targeted and efficient.”
Added Mr Pereira: “As MP for Katong, he was called Mr Kong, and he jokingly said therefore he was an honorary descendant of Confucius, or Kong Zi.”
Mr Conceicao is survived by his wife Anita and three children.