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Ridzwan Dzafir (b. 27 March 1927, Singapore – d. 28 September 2011, Singapore) was a civil servant best known for his extensive experience in trade promotion and negotiations. As director-general of the Trade Development Board (now IE Singapore) from 1983 to 1999, he represented Singapore at more than 500 international conferences and meetings, and participated in 60 trade missions. Ridzwan’s involvement in negotiating trade and economic agreements in the region over 30 years led to him being nicknamed “Mr ASEAN”.
Early life and education
Soon after Ridzwan’s birth, his family moved to a rented room in a pondok (communal accommodations favoured by the Boyanese) on Jalan Klapa. His father Dzafir Abdul Karim had arrived in Singapore from Pulau Bawean in Indonesia in the early 1900s and later married Rugayah Khodri, who was born in Singapore to Madurese migrants.
Ridzwan attended Kampong Gelam Malay School, Kota Raja Malay School and Geylang Malay School, where he completed Standard Four of Malay education. Many Malay children of that time would have stopped their education there, but Ridzwan’s family saw the value of education. He entered Telok Kurau English School where he was a scout and competed in athletics, football, badminton, table tennis and swimming, and later moved on to Raffles Institution.
Having previously lived in city areas where the various ethnic communities largely kept to themselves, the family then moved to a bungalow in Geylang where they were the only Malay family in the area. In this new neighbourhood Ridzwan made friends, played and studied with children of various races.
The Japanese Occupation interrupted Ridzwan’s secondary education and he was conscripted into a forced labour scheme to dig tunnels at Pasir Panjang Hill for a few months. After being released from the scheme, Ridzwan helped manage a restaurant set up by his brothers Razak and Karim. He also learnt Japanese and worked for a few weeks as an interpreter, but soon returned to the restaurant.
Return to school and early career
After the end of World War II, Ridzwan returned to Raffles Institution and in 1947 passed his Senior Cambridge examinations. His results made him the second best student at Raffles Institution and placed him among the top ten students in Singapore and Malaya. He was also awarded a Raffles College scholarship worth $1,200 per annum, and proceeded to the college with additional financial assistance from his elder brother Ahmad.
In 1949, Ridzwan was disheartened after failing his first year at Raffles College and wanted to leave school to find a job. He was persuaded to stay by friends and professors at the college, and obtained a government bursary to replace the scholarship which had been withdrawn. He also received financial assistance from a professor, Alexander Oppenheim, and taught part-time at the Anglo-Malay Evening School.
Raffles College had become the University of Malaya in October 1949, and Ridzwan received his Bachelor of Arts in economics in 1952. After his graduation, he applied to the Civil Service and joined the Customs Department as a junior customs officer in charge of licensing in October 1952.
At the Customs Department, Ridzwan served in the Land and Harbour divisions and the Prosecution Unit, where his duties included searching for contraband, dutiable items and smugglers. He also signed up for the Rescue section of the Civil Defence Force, and in 1954 met Mushrifah Abdul Aziz, a typist with the force and a widow with two children. In 1956, Ridzwan married her despite the objections of family members.
In 1958, Ridzwan became head of the Tampines customs sub-station. The following year, he was appointed assistant trade and cultural representative to Jakarta, as well as secretary on the Singapore trade team which negotiated arrangements on economic cooperation with the Indonesians.
Experience in foreign affairs
In 1961, Ridzwan was recruited to the Administrative Service as an official in the Trade Division at the Ministry of Finance. He was then posted to Jakarta as a trade and cultural representative, and established a Singapore office there at an early stage of formal diplomatic relations with Indonesia. He stayed in Jakarta until 1963, when Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia and Indonesia broke off diplomatic and trade ties.
Following Singapore’s exit from Malaysia in 1965, Ridzwan established the newly independent nation’s High Commission in Kuala Lumpur in September that year. As first secretary at the High Commission, he dealt with economic, trade and consular matters at a time of strained diplomatic relations between Singapore and Malaysia. Ridzwan was then tasked with setting up the Singapore embassy in Indonesia in August 1966, and as the embassy’s counsellor and charge d’affaires, he re-established diplomatic and trade links.
Later in his career, Ridzwan served as roving ambassador to a number of countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Panama and Bangladesh between 1986 and 1997. He was also an ambassador-at-large from 2005 to 2008. For his services in promoting trade and diplomatic ties, he received honours from the governments of Argentina, Thailand and Chile.
Career in trade promotion and negotiations
Upon his return to Singapore in September 1968, Ridzwan became deputy secretary at the Regional Economic Division, before returning to the Trade Division as deputy director of trade in October 1969. He later became director of trade and oversaw trade policies and promotion, and the regulatory functions of the division. His duties included negotiating deals for imported commodities such as rice.
In 1975, Ridzwan proposed the conversion of the Trade Division into a more autonomous agency and was made director-general when the Department of Trade was established. He continued to push for a statutory board along the lines of trade promotion agencies in South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the Trade Development Board (TDB) was launched in January 1983.
Ridzwan headed TDB until 1999 and continued to lead Singapore’s team to ASEAN’s senior economic officials meetings. He promoted Singapore’s agenda of free trade in the region, and was involved in the negotiations that resulted in the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) scheme in 1992. Ridzwan also participated in Singapore’s delegations to General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, now World Trade Organization) negotiations and other international meetings.
Community work and appointments
In 1986, Ridzwan became president of Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS, the Islamic religious council of Singapore). During his four-year term, he reorganised the administrative structure of MUIS and expanded its operations. He then became chairman of the community self-help group MENDAKI in 1990 and also restructured that organisation and its programmes, bringing economic and socio-cultural matters under its expanded purview. Ridzwan chaired the working group which established the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Gelam in 1999, and became chairman of the Malay Heritage Foundation which manages the centre.
A member of the Council of Presidential Advisers between 1991 and 2007, Ridzwan also sat on the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. He sat on various boards, including those of the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore International Foundation, and was appointed a pro-chancellor of the National University of Singapore in 1993.
In August 2011, Ridzwan was hospitalised after suffering complications from kidney failure, and died of a heart attack on 28 September 2011. After his death, government and community leaders paid tribute to his contributions to Singapore’s trade, work with the Malay-Muslim community and espousal of multiculturalism.
1968 : Pingat Pentadbiram Awam (Perak) (Public Administration Medal) (Silver).
1981 : Pingat Pentadbiram Awam (Emas) (Public Administration Medal) (Gold).
1981 : Friend of Labour medal from National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
1984 : Royal Decoration of the Order of the White Elephant (2nd class), from government of Thailand.
1987 : Grand Cross of the Order of the Liberator General San Martin, from government of Argentina.
1990 : Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
1991 : Medal of Honour (gold) from Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association.
1993 : Meritorious Service Award from NTUC.
1993 : 25th Anniversary Award from MUIS.
1994 : Pingat Bakti Setia (Long Service Medal).
1996 : Bernardo O’Higgins Grand Cruz, from government of Chile.
1997 : 15th Anniversary Award from Mendaki.
1998 : 30th Anniversary Award from MUIS.
1999 : 30th Anniversary Award from Majlis Pusat.
1999 : Exemplary Award from Bawean Association of Singapore.
2000 : Distinguished Service Award from NTUC.
Father: Dzafir Abdul Karim.
Mother: Rugayah Khodri.
Wife: Mushrifah Abdul Aziz.
Sons: Ruzman, Mosbah (from Mushrifah’s previous marriage).
Daughters: Ruzikah, Mushalwah, Mushriah (from Mushrifah’s previous marriage).
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Be more ambitious, like our migrant forefathers. (2010, March 20). The Straits Times. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from Factiva.
Crutches to aid Malays get on their feet. (1970, December 14). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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Let’s look for unifying factors in religions, says Muis head. (1990, January 21). The Sunday Times, p. 16. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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(Call no.: 352.63092 RID)
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See yourself in Singapore context, Muslims urged. (1985, September 16). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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Zakir Hussain. (2011, September 29). Pioneering envoy, trade chief and community leader. The Straits Times. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from Factiva.
Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, January 10). Pak Wan shows mettle as leader. The Sunday Times, Review, p. 34. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, January 10). He won the best trade deals for Singapore. The Sunday Times, Review, p. 34. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Ridzwan Dzafir, 1927-2011
Singapore--Officials and employees--Biography
Law and government>>Public administration
Business, finance and industry>>Economics>>International trade and economics