A knack for remembering people

President S R Nathan meeting visitors during an open house at the Istana to celebrate Hari Raya Puasa on Aug 30, 2011.
President S R Nathan meeting visitors during an open house at the Istana to celebrate Hari Raya Puasa on Aug 30, 2011. PHOTO: ST FILE

Wednesday's report ("Relatives remember a generous, kind uncle") mentioned that the late Mr S R Nathan had a great capacity to remember little details about people.

In his letter yesterday, Mr Joseph Hooi Liang Kee recounted how Mr Nathan, who was his classmate in a Malay-language course, still remembered him, and greeted him by name many years later ("Affable man with personal touch").

Indeed, the sixth president of Singapore had a photographic memory.

In 1964, I accompanied Mr Peter Lim, the secretary-general of the Singapore National Union of Journalists, to meet Mr Nathan at the Labour Research Unit for advice about a dispute we had with our company. Mr Nathan gave some valuable counsel.

Some 42 years later, in October 2006, my wife Teresa and I attended a dinner at the Istana hosted by Mr Nathan for members of the Peranakan Association of Singapore.

During pre-dinner cocktails, he mingled easily with the guests.

Then, amid the sea of faces, he spotted me and straightaway approached me.

He extended his hand, saying: "I know you, but have forgotten your name."

I gave him my name and also told him about my former company and of the time long ago when we sought his help.

He remembered the occasion and inquired what I was doing at that point. We reminisced for a few minutes about old times and the people we knew.

We had met only briefly more than 40 years ago and had not seen each other in the intervening years. Yet, he remembered me.

That memorable evening, I also witnessed his humility at work. He was the one who approached me, not the other way around.

Anthony Oei

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'A knack for remembering people'. Print Edition | Subscribe