Former president S R Nathan was too humble to ever think of his life as exceptional. But there is no other way to view the path that took him from childhood adversity to public service and later to the Istana - described simply by him as "unexpected". It is a term one would not apply to Singapore's clear-eyed, meritocratic system of picking the best person for the job on the basis of proven credentials. That Mr Nathan, the longest-serving president, succeeded extraordinarily within the system - coming as he did from a school of hard knocks and armed with a diploma acquired only later - speaks volumes about the man. Alongside his natural ability to focus unremittingly on what was essential and to get things done, Sellapan Ramanathan demonstrated conviction and an uncanny knack to connect with a range of people.
With the loss of Mr Nathan, the nation has one fewer precious source of first-hand experiences and memories spanning key periods and relating to critical events. Books, photos, videos and websites capture useful representations of past times. But these are a poor substitute for nuanced judgments based on the knowledge and experiences that Mr Nathan and other leaders of his generation accumulated. As a top-ranking civil servant, media chief and ace diplomat, he had what he described as a "ringside seat" to the vicissitudes of the nation's young life. He was in fact very much in the ring himself, risking his life four decades ago to avert bloodshed when terrorists hijacked the ferry Laju. By offering to be guarantors of safe passage for them, Mr Nathan and his team secured the release of the hostages.
He worked closely with pioneer leaders like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam and former president Devan Nair. And he interacted with royalty, captains of industry and leading lights of arts circles. But he always remained a people's person. "He will dive into a crowd and Mr Nathan will know the uncle, brother or cousin of every Ah Tan, Ahmad or Arokiasamy," noted a community leader and ambassador-at-large. "He puts at ease everyone he comes in contact with." That included the many children he met at his President's Challenge events in aid of charity and ordinary people he saw at public gatherings. No official protocol or schedule could prevent him from stopping to have a chat and to grant Singaporeans a photo opportunity or autograph. He was simply a man who genuinely liked and remembered people. Archived photos show Mr Nathan, before his nomination as president, greeting people outside his home with no airs whatsoever, clad in a sarong and barefoot. Such was the authenticity associated with him that will be long remembered by many, alongside his distinguished contributions. Characteristically, Mr Nathan summed it up thus: "I am what I am."