Ridzwan Dzafir

Singapore Infopedia

by Chua, Alvin


Ridzwan bin Haji Dzafir (b. 27 March 1927, Singapore–d. 28 September 2011, Singapore), commonly referred to as Ridzwan Dzafir, was a civil servant best known for his extensive experience in trade promotion and negotiations. As director-general of the Trade Development Board (now known as 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 for over three decades led to his nickname, “Mr ASEAN”.1

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.2

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. He later progressed to Raffles Institution.3

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 one of the few Malay families in the area. In this new neighbourhood, Ridzwan made friends, played and studied with children of various races.4

The Japanese Occupation (1942–45) 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.5

Postwar years and early career
After the end of World War II, Ridzwan returned to Raffles Institution, and passed his Senior Cambridge examination in 1947. He was placed second best at Raffles Institution and among the top 10 students in Singapore and Malaya. Awarded a Raffles College scholarship worth $1,200 per annum, Ridzwan proceeded to the college with additional financial assistance from his elder brother Ahmad.6

In 1949, Ridzwan was disheartened after failing his first year at Raffles College (renamed University of Malaya in 1949) and wanted to leave school to find a job. He was persuaded to stay on 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.7

Three years later, Ridzwan received his Bachelor of Arts degree in geography. After his graduation, he applied to the civil service and, in October 1952, joined the Customs Department as a junior customs officer in charge of licensing.8

At the Customs Department, Ridzwan served in the Land and Harbour divisions as well as 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 widow with two children who was working as a typist there. In 1956, Ridzwan married her despite the objections of family members.9

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 that negotiated arrangements on economic cooperation with the Indonesians.10

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.11 He stayed in Jakarta until 1963, when Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya and during the Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation (1963–66).12

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 the 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. As the embassy’s counsellor and chargé d’affaires, he re-established diplomatic and trade links with Indonesia.13

Later in his career, between 1986 and 1997, Ridzwan served as a roving ambassador to a number of countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Panama and Bangladesh. 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.14

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 the director of trade and oversaw trade policies and promotion, as well as the regulatory functions of the division. His duties included negotiating deals for imported commodities such as rice.15

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 eventually launched in January 1983.16

Ridzwan headed the TDB until 199917 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 and the Common Effective Preferential Tariff scheme in 1992. Ridzwan also participated in Singapore’s delegations to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now World Trade Organization) negotiations and other international meetings.18

Community work and appointments
In 1986, Ridzwan became president of the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS; Islamic Religious Council of Singapore).19 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 restructured the organisation and its programmes,20 bringing economic and sociocultural matters under its expanded purview. Ridzwan chaired the working group that established the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam in 1999, and became chairman of the Malay Heritage Foundation which manages the centre.21

Ridzwan was a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers and the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. He also at on various boards, including those of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore International Foundation, and was appointed a pro-chancellor of the National University of Singapore in 1993.22


In August 2011, Ridzwan was hospitalised after suffering complications from kidney failure, and died of a heart attack on 28 September 2011. Following 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.23


1968: Pingat Pentadbiram Awam (Perak) (Public Administration Medal) (Silver)
1981: Pingat Pentadbiram Awam (Emas) (Public Administration Medal) (Gold)
1981: Friend of Labour medal, NTUC
1984: Royal Decoration of the Order of the White Elephant (Second Class), Thailand
1987: Grand Cross of the Order of the Liberator General San Martin, Argentina
1990: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star)
1991: Medal of Honour (Gold), Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association
1993: Meritorious Service Award, NTUC
1993: 25th Anniversary Award, MUIS
1994: Pingat Bakti Setia (Long Service Medal)
1995: Excellent Achievement Award, Malay Activity Groups Coordinating Council of the People’s Association
1996: Bernardo O’Higgins Grand Cruz, Chile
1997: : 15th Anniversary Award, Mendaki
1998: 30th Anniversary Award, MUIS
1999: 30th Anniversary Award, Majlis Pusat
1999: Exemplary Award, Bawean Association of Singapore
2000: Distinguished Service Award, NTUC
2006: Meritorious Service Medal

Wife: Mushrifah Abdul Aziz
Sons: Ruzman and Mosbah (d. 1982; from Mushrifah’s previous marriage)25
Daughters: Ruzikah; Mushalwah and Mushriah (from Mushrifah’s previous marriage)26
Ridzwan had eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.27

Alvin Chua

1. “Be More Ambitious, Like Our Migrant Forefathers,” Straits Times, 20 March 2010, 38 (From NewspaperSG); Ridzwan Dzafir, Ridzwan Dzafir: From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’: An Autobiography (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2009), 19, 139 (Call no. RSING 352.63092 RID); Wong Kim Hoh, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition,” Straits Times, 1 July 2009, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

2. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 16, 17, 19; “Be More Ambitious, Like Our Migrant Forefathers.”
3. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 31–37; “Be More Ambitious, Like Our Migrant Forefathers”; Sulaiman Jeem and Abdul Ghani Hamid, Aktivis Melayu/Islam di Singapura. (Singapore: Persatuan Wartawan Melayu Singapura, 1997), 332–35. (Call no. Malay RSING 305.89928 AKT)
4. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 27–28.
5. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 48–51.
6. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 63–65; “Be More Ambitious, Like Our Migrant Forefathers.”
7. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 67.
8. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 71; “Be More Ambitious, Like Our Migrant Forefathers”; Zakir Hussain, “Pioneering Envoy, Trade Chief and Community Leader,” Straits Times, 29 September 2011, 8; Wong, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition.”
9. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 73–75; Sulaiman Jeem and Abdul Ghani Hamid, Aktivis Melayu/Islam di Singapura, 332–35.
10. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 76.
11. Wong, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition.”
12. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 87–95; Zakir Hussain, “Pioneering Envoy, Trade Chief and Community Leader.”
13. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 109, 111, 113; Wong, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition”;
Gretchen Liu, The Singapore Foreign Service: The First 40 Years (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2005), 25–26, 83, 131, 183. (Call no. RSING q327.5957 LIU)
14. “Ridzwan Appointed S’pore Roving Envoy,” Straits Times, 26 January 1986, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Wong, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition”; Sulaiman Jeem and Abdul Ghani Hamid, Aktivis Melayu/Islam di Singapura, 332–35.
15. Elgin Toh, “Former High-Ranking Civil Servant Ridzwan Dies,” Straits Times, 29 September 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “He Won the Best Trade Deals for Singapore,” Straits Times, 10 January 1999, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Toh, “Former High-Ranking Civil Servant Ridzwan Dies.” 
18. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 139–45, 149–52. 19. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Pak Wan Shows Mettle as Leader,” Straits Times, 10 January 1999), 34. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Pak Wan Shows Mettle as Leader”; Toh, “Former High-Ranking Civil Servant Ridzwan Dies.” 
21. Wong, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition”; Zakir Hussain, “Pioneering Envoy, Trade Chief and Community Leader”; Sulaiman Jeem and Abdul Ghani Hamid, Aktivis Melayu/Islam di Singapura, 332–35.
22. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 219–23; “Ex-MUIS Chief Ridzwan Dzafir Dies,” Channel NewsAsia, 28 September 2011. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
23. Toh, “Former High-Ranking Civil Servant Ridzwan Dies.” 
24. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 231; Sulaiman Jeem and Abdul Ghani Hamid, Aktivis Melayu/Islam di Singapura, 332–35.
25. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 217; Wong, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition.”
26. Ridzwan Dzafir, From Pondok Boy To Singapore’s ‘Mr ASEAN’, 16–17.
27. Wong, “Ridzwan to Malays: Relish Competition.”

Further resources
Lin YanQin, “Achiever Who ‘Just Did His Job’,” Today, 10 April 2006, 18. (From NewspaperSG)

Saadon Ismail, “Ridzwan Sets Priorities for Muslim Council,” Straits Times, 2 September 1986, 15. (From NewspaperSG)

See Yourself in Singapore Context, Muslims Urged,” Straits Times, 16 September 1985, 15. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.

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