A lot of us have probably heard or read news of ambassadors. We know who they are and that they go to different countries, but many of us may not know what exactly they do.

Reader: Wait… ya sia… I have no idea what they do exactly.

About Ambassadors

Ambassadors establish diplomatic relations between two countries. They are appointed by a country’s government to represent their interests in a foreign country and ensure the security of their state citizens living in the receiving country.

Ambassadors have to be aware of current events in their host country and neighbouring countries in the region (like Malaysia and Indonesia) so they can keep their home country’s government informed.

Not only that, but they also have to keep up to date with international current events to see how they might affect their home and host country.

This knowledge helps ambassadors understand relationships and dynamics between various countries, helping him or her to predict potential challenges, forge relationships, and negotiate during high-energy situations.

Imagine trying to win a debate when your opponent is well-prepared but you have no idea what’s going on. You have no knowledge or content, and hence cannot form arguments. That’s the situation an ambassador would be in if he or she is not up to date with current affairs.

Ambassadors also need to be diplomatic and should be able to change their communication style based on who they’re speaking to and what they’re discussing. Language proficiency is extremely important to allow ambassadors to communicate effectively and improve relationships between with other ambassadors and countries.

Cultural awareness also plays a key role in an making an ambassador suitable for his or her job, as one needs to be sensitive to the differences and similarities between various cultures.

Ambassadors also need to be good leaders who also have empathy, and should be able to earn individuals trust by respecting their customs and policies in order to lead them.

As you can see, you need to possess a number of skills to be an ambassador.

If not, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can also be an ambassador. I think that might spell the end for diplomacy and inter-country relations.

A report by the US State Department’s internal watchdog revealed the US Ambassador to Singapore had allegedly conducted unauthorised spending, and was ineffective in dealings with the Singapore government.

Jonathan Kaplan – United States Ambassador to Singapore

Mr Kaplan was appointed by President Joe Biden in July 2021 to fill the ambassadorial left vacant by Mr Kirk Wagar, a Barack Obama appointee, who left in 2017.

During Mr Donald Trump’s presidency, the embassy in Singapore was led by a Charge d’Affaires, which is a person appointed to act as head of a diplomatic mission in a foreign country while the ambassador is away.

Ambassador Kaplan’s nomination was confirmed by the entire United States Senate in November 2021 after hearings were held, and he presented his credentials to then-President Halimah Yacob on 6 December 2021.

Prior to his posting, Mr Kaplan had no government experience. He was formerly the chief executive at Pure Digital, which invented the Flip Video pocket camera.

He was a “first time, non-career chief of mission,” the report noted.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducts congressionally mandated inspections of US embassies every five years, though the last inspection of the Singapore post appears to be from 2012.

According to the 2024 report, United States Ambassador to Singapore Jonathan Kaplan had “poor relationships” with some Singapore ministries, impeding America’s diplomatic goals.

“Multiple embassy sections noted that the ambassador developed poor relationships with some Singaporean ministries,” said a February 2024 report by the OIG that was released on 1 March.

In some cases, this “hurt progress” on diplomatic goals, the report noted, and it recommended further review of his conduct and performance.

Ambassador Kaplan said he took full responsibility and promised to address concerns raised in the report.

“I stand by the work of the State Department OIG,” he said in a statement. “My team and I take full responsibility for quickly addressing the concerns and recommendations found in the report.”

The report’s findings were based on review of documents, surveys and interviews of embassy staff, and observations of embassy meetings and activities.

The report said Ambassador Kaplan “often was unprepared on issues and made statements that were counterproductive to a section’s work.”

People always complain about those who stay quiet and don’t contribute during discussions, but honestly, what’s even worse is when someone says counterproductive things and wastes time. 

“The ambassador’s many projects frequently were unattainable, diverted the embassy’s limited resources and detracted from the staff’s ability to perform core duties. Staff also questioned the utility of some projects in promoting US interests in Singapore,” the OIG report said.

The embassy staff told the OIG they saw the need for the ambassador to conduct more meetings at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). However, Mr Kaplan told OIG that MFA meetings were “unproductive, with only an exchange of talking points and no real discussions.”

The report also found that the ambassador had very limited contact with Singapore’s traditional media. He had held only two press events since his arrival in Singapore, one of which was off the record, the report said.

Ambassador Kaplan has been the United States Ambassador to Singapore since 30 November 2021, and arrived in Singapore in early December 2021, just a little over 2 years ago.

Since one press event was off the record, he basically only held one press event. In two years.

“The ambassador told OIG there was no need for him to deal with Singapore’s traditional media, and he preferred to use social media,” the report said.

He appeared indifferent to the embassy’s social media priorities and focused instead on the number of followers on his official Instagram account, which, as at March 2023, had 825 followers, it added.

As of today, 3 March 2024, his official Instagram account (@usambsg) has 4,791 followers.

The report also claimed that the ambassador spent almost S$14,000 on unauthorised consulting expenditures, S$65,000 on outstanding travel fees and S$37,000 on securing a piano for his acquaintance to play for an event on board a visiting US Navy ship.

The reception on the US Navy ship was aimed at raising awareness about US policy on Ukraine, and led to the embassy cutting funding for other public diplomacy programmes that “might have more effectively advanced US interests in Singapore”, said the report.

The report found that Ambassador Kaplan did not follow many policies for official travel, and was said to have flew unauthorised airlines, routes, and classes.

The audit by OIG found the ambassador “did not model integrity, plan strategically, collaborate or communicate.”

An example cited was his idea to show the 2022 Super Bowl – American football’s marquee event – for free to outdoor public audiences, despite Singapore’s curbs on outdoor events because of COVID-19, the lack of popularity of American football in Singapore and the cost to the embassy to put on the event.

He blamed the staff when the event could not be arranged.

The ambassador previously claimed morale had improved under his leadership.

However, the report stated that embassy staff described his mannerisms as “belittling and intimidating” and accused him of speaking “disparagingly about US government employees and the (State) Department”.

The OIG is responsible for detecting and investigating waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement of the State Department’s resources. Its report may attract criticism for the entrenched American practice of rewarding campaign donors and political allies with ambassadorships.

The Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the US Embassy in Singapore concurred with the OIG’s recommendations, and the embassy in Singapore has already instituted significant organisational and procedural changes that are intended to address them, a State Department spokesperson told The Straits Times.

“The recommendations are focused on ensuring that the US is best positioned to advance our excellent relationship with the Government of Singapore.”

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