The Asean mind

Prof Kernial Singh Sandhu provided ISEAS leadership in its early days. His most prominent contribution to Singapore and Southeast Asia lies in building economic cooperation which eventually led to establishment of the Asean FTA in 1992

Prof Kernial S. Sandhu, 1929–92 – Photo Courtesy of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Upon finishing his Doctor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, the late Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu, a rising academic from Southeast Asia, was appointed Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in 1972. The institute was set up in 1968 by Dr Goh Keng Swee, then-Singapore’s Minister for Defence, to become the leading hub for interdisciplinary research for the region. [1]

Many found the move wasteful of crucial monetary resources. [2] Singapore had then just acquired independence and was a third world country that needed all the resources it had. Furthermore, Southeast Asia was a poor region and the western world was at its peak. All in all, there appeared to be little reason to study the region extensively.

Given this, Kernial had two key challenges. The first was for ISEAS to produce highly prized and relevant literature on the region. Secondly, and more importantly, he had to spark interest and help others realise the underlying potential of Southeast Asia. In his 20 years at the institute, Kernial transformed it.

An interview with Dr Sharon Siddique, then-Deputy Director of ISEAS, offered an integral insight into the world of the institute under Kernial’s leadership. First and foremost, Kernial ensured that ISEAS operated with a regional mindset and not just a national one. [3] He implemented a regional culture through nurturing and retaining Southeast Asian talent at the institute. He fully appreciated the concerns of many regional scholars who faced financial constraints in completing their research and extended ISEAS’ funds to help them complete their work.

Putting financial support aside, Kernial was also a man who had time for everyone. He saw equal importance in the work of prominent senior scholars and newly-graduated researchers. “He gave everyone the benefit of doubt for producing good pieces of work. He would continuously allow extension of deadlines. I was amazed by his patience and honestly,” Sharon noted [4].

Kernial’s effort to make ISEAS a regional body with an international appeal was highly successful. By 1992, it had researchers from all over the world, with 40 per cent of them coming from Southeast Asia. [5] Also, by 1992, ISEAS had published over 640 titles and was the region’s largest publisher of scholarly material on the Asia Pacific region. [6] It is clear, this was a man who believed in anyone who walked through his door and it was a quality that is still remembered and deeply appreciated by researchers and ISEAS alike.

Kernial was also behind the movement to develop a world-class library at ISEAS. He believed in equipping the library with excellent updated material and filling it with relevant material. He worked very closely with the librarian to make sure that researchers could get whatever they needed from the library itself. By 1992, the library stood in its own glory and was known to be a regional information centre, hosting more than 300,000 materials. It had increased its usership by 5,330 people in the same year, whereby usership was not exclusive to just researchers of the institute. [7]


Under Kernial’s guidance, ISEAS grew tremendously. However, he had even greater ambitions for the institute and the region. He foresaw a great potential in Southeast Asia and understood the role ISEAS had to play in helping everyone realise the same. To do this, the institute needed to expand much more rapidly in size and reputability.

He used his high stature with the government and international scholars to help acquire funds and academic freedom that would further hone ISEAS’ legitimacy as a reputed source of information on Southeast Asia. Kernial succeeded in acquiring funding from renowned organisations like Volkswagen and Ford Foundation. [8] In fact, by the late 1980s, Konrad Adenauer Foundation was one of ISEAS’ main financial supporters, contributing more than S$400,000 in 1989-90, second only to America’s Ford Foundation. [9] In addition, Australia contributed S$917,633 towards 21 ISEAS research fellowships. [10]

Kernial also saw the value of dialogue in plugging the institute into issues that mattered to the government and the public. Numerous conferences, seminars, public lectures and workshops were conducted throughout the year. He invited former congressmen, ministers and even ex-presidents like Mr George W Bush to deliver public lectures on various topics. [11]

Kernial also sought to make ISEAS a “public education tool” through journals. [12] Some of these journals included The ASEAN Economic Bulletin and Contemporary South East Asia and Trends. [13] These journals comprised materials contributed by scholars at the institute as well as ministers, policy-makers and senior research fellows from all over the world. The willingness of so many big names to contribute to the journals published by ISEAS again demonstrated the institute’s growing reputability and its positive reputation amongst an international crowd. These publications were distributed in 73 countries, 53 per cent of them in Asia. [14]


Prof Kernial S. Sandhu (middle) with Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew and George Bush – Photo-Courtesy of ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

“Professor Sandhu was one of the brightest minds of his time. He had an astute understanding of regional and global affairs. A wonderful intellectual, he was much- sought after by local and international institutions for his views on geo-political issues confronting Singapore and the region at that time. Above all, he was generous with funding, advice and time – he was always willing to help fellow colleagues and young academics who wanted to understand his thoughts and perspectives. Professor Sandhu spent much of his life at ISEAS and transformed it into one of the most, if not the most, respected institutions in Southeast Asia. When I took over as Director of ISEAS in 2002, some 10 years after Professor Sandhu, I inherited an organisation that owed so much of its progress to him. His unfortunate demise in 1992 shocked all of us who knew him. He left a huge void in the academic arena.“


Adjunct Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and Former Director, ISEAS


Despite having so much on his plate, Kernial also continued with his own research and authored seven books centred mainly on migration of Indians to Southeast Asia and the rise of Melaka in the 18th century. [15] According to Sharon, Kernial’s books are still highly regarded and known as classics till today. In particular, his book, Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore even caught the attention of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. A joint effort by Kernial and Professor Paul Wheatley, Sharon explained that no one has been able to beat the 1,134-page reference material till today, some 26 years later. [16]

The professor’s most prominent contribution to Singapore and Southeast Asia, however, lies in building economic cooperation which eventually led to the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Agreement in 1992. [17] He led the way by organising annual ASEAN roundtables and invited officials and ministers from ASEAN to discuss economic potential of and possible challenges to ASEAN cooperation. By 1992, a new chapter was opened by the region with the free trade agreement.


Not surprisingly, towards the end of his tenure at ISEAS in 1992, Kernial showed no signs of slowing down. He was preparing the launch of another compilation called the ASEAN Reader [18] when he suddenly passed away of a heart attack on 2 December 1992.

Suggestions were made to put the book launch on hold. Instead, Sharon explained that the book launch was used as a platform to celebrate the legendary professor’s magnificent career. She stated: “It is, to-date, one of the most moving book launches I have ever been to.” [19]  

Guests flew down from all parts of the world for the launch and memorial service for Kernial. Among the guests were former Senior Minister, Mr S Rajaratnam, Distinguished Senior Fellow at ISEAS, [20] and Justice Punch Coomaraswamy, Chairman of the ISEAS Board of Trustees. His Excellency Dato’ Ajit Singh, ASEAN Secretary General-designate, delivered a moving speech where he said: “It is a tragedy that the one man to whom we owe it all is not with us today. This would have been one of Kernial’s proudest moments for I know how much it meant to him.” [21]

An active member in public service, Kernial was awarded the Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Public Administration Medal) (Gold) [22] in 1985. [23]

Sharon also revealed that Kernial was one of the most respected members of the Sikh community, taking part in many Sikh committees to lend support to members of the community. However, she added that he was, first and foremost, a devoted husband, stating: “In fact, on the evening of the 2 December 1992, he left office early as he was taking his wife to see the Christmas lights in Orchard Road.” [24]

Kernial was a man who dedicated his life to service, believed in breaking scholarly boundaries and lived for the unification of ASEAN countries for economic success. He was also one of the most respected academics of his time. His legacy lives on.


IN MEMORIAM: Professor Kernial S. Sandhu, 1929–92 by Derek da Cunha, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 14, No. 4 (March 1993), Published by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute



1 A Chen, What other Singapore think tanks do, The Straits Times, February 19, 1991, Factiva. 2 K James, Research Institute Worth Backing, The Straits Times, November 19, 1989, Factiva. 3 Ibid. 4 Interview with Dr Sharon Siddique, May 6, 2015. 5 ISEAS Annual Report (1992-1993), 1993, 1-73.  6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid. 9 Dr Seet awarded fellowship to do research at Iseas, The Straits Times, September 28, 1991, Factiva.

10 Australian government gives fellowship grant, The Business Times, July 3, 1991, Factiva. 11 Bush to give Singapore Lecture in January, The Business Times, December 17, 1991, Factiva. 12 P Daniel, Returned émigré pays tribute to human spirit, The Straits Times, November 14, 1989, Factiva. 13 ISEAS Annual Report, op cit. 14 Ibid. 15 K James, The Business Times, December 4, 1992, Factiva. 16 James, The Straits Times, op cit. 17 P Imada, In AFTA, the way ahead, Singapore: ASEAN Economic Research Unit, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1992. 18 Iseas book in memory of Sandhu, The Straits Times, December 11, 1992, Factiva. 19 Interview with Dr Sharon Siddique, op cit.

20 Daniel, op cit. 21 Iseas book in memory of Sandhu, op cit.

22 The Pingat Pentadbiran Awam was instituted in 1963. There are three grades of the medal, namely, gold, silver and bronze. The medal may be awarded to any of the following persons for outstanding efficiency, competence and industry – any person who is or has been a public officer; any person who is or has been an officer employed by any stat- utory authority (other than a Town Council); any person who is or has been in the service of any organisation, association or body rendering services in the field of education; or any person who is or has been employed in any company which is wholly-owned by the government and which is carrying on business mainly as an agent or instrumentality of the government.

23 K James, The Business Times, op cit.

24 Interview with Dr Sharon Siddique, op cit.


final-sg50-book[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published in 2015 by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]


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