On the trail of a busy president

President S R Nathan (left) at a convocation ceremony at Nanyang Technological University in July 2011, during which he witnessed the inauguration of its third president.
President S R Nathan (left) at a convocation ceremony at Nanyang Technological University in July 2011, during which he witnessed the inauguration of its third president. PHOTO: ST FILE
President S R Nathan (third from left) is the guest of honour at the launch of an encyclopaedia on Singapore’s biodiversity at the National University of Singapore in July 2011.
President S R Nathan (third from left) is the guest of honour at the launch of an encyclopaedia on Singapore’s biodiversity at the National University of Singapore in July 2011. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Nathan appeared in an average of five events every two days over a 10-day period
A long, snaking line wound across the Istana’s Reception Room. At its end stood President S R Nathan.

He shook the hand of each member of the Congolese delegation, chatting briefly as each visitor introduced himself.

It was to be yet another typically busy day for the President. He spent an hour in the stately West Drawing Room discussing bilateral relations with Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso. That night, he hosted a state banquet for his guests.

Just that morning, he had greeted an even longer line in his role – part and parcel of the job – as chancellor of the National University of Singapore.

Mr Nathan, donning azure academic robes with bright yellow lining, handed out graduation scrolls to more than 600 medical students.

“The only event at which he has to stand and shake hands with more people is possibly the National Day Awards ceremony,” whispered one presidential aide.

Yet, that day’s activities were fairly typical in the President’s calendar last month, if by no means the most hectic. Trailing the President over a 10-day period last month, The Sunday Times counted an average of five events every two days, with no let-up during the weekends.

Aides say his appearances have intensified in the last two years, with more groups sending in invitations and the President being most accommodating.

From book launches and school openings to charity dinners and netball tournaments, Mr Nathan seemed always to be on the move.

Apart from such publicly visible scheduled events, there is his behind-the-scenes work, such as his performance of custodial duties, which involves poring over reports on Singapore’s national reserves.
“Those who know, know it’s heavy going,” as the President himself put it in an interview with The Sunday Times.

“(But) there are members of the public who think I’m not working, that I’m only cutting ribbons,” he said.

However packed his weekday schedule is, he likes to start it the way he has for more than a decade now – with an early morning walk at East Coast Park.

After tea and a single slice of kaya toast, and a cursory browse of the morning papers, he drives himself to the park, about 10 minutes from his Ceylon Road home in Katong.


President S R Nathan putting on his shoes in his Ceylon Road home before a morning walk at East Coast Park, in July 2011. PHOTO: ST FILE

Fellow park users greet him readily. Some stop to chat, occasionally bringing up issues of concern to them. The President calls these his Meet-The-People sessions.

On his walks, Mr Nathan, 87, stops to rest each time his heartbeat exceeds 90 – that is on his doctor’s orders. But even as he pauses, his mind is ever at work.

“I may be going through the day’s engagements and formulating my thoughts, for example, ‘What line would I take with that visiting head of state?’” he said.

Back at the Istana, the President again played host, this time to Asean Schools Games athletes and their teachers. Diplomacy was not on the agenda, but the President engaged his young guests with the same cheerful mien.

An Education Ministry official stepped forward and introduced herself. After a few polite exchanges, he sounded her out about his own ideas on good pedagogy. He stressed the benefits of reading aloud and the need to encourage the art of argumentation, something lacking in most Asian families.

“He’s got good instincts and the heart of an educator,” Ms Haslinda Zamari, the official whom he met, later told The Sunday Times.

At events, the President enjoys mingling with ordinary folk, who are put at ease by his avuncular approachability, such as the way his hand rests lightly on your wrist as he speaks to you.

Yet others noted his quiet dignity as the head of state.

At a recent netball game between Singapore and Botswana at Singapore Indoor Stadium, even as excited VIPs around him punched the air or lifted their heads back in disappointment each time Singapore scored or missed a shot, the President was a picture of equanimity and decorum, never venturing beyond restrained applause.

“That’s been my temperament,” he explained. “Even for football, my wife gets more excited. I’m very calm.”
That cool, calm persona is his trademark timbre.

The most memorable display of that was more than three decades ago, when Mr Nathan – when he was a senior civil servant – kept his cool as he and other officials accompanied four international terrorists aboard a plane bound for Kuwait.

The terrorists – who had hijacked the ferry Laju in Pulau Bukom waters in 1974 – had demanded their presence to ensure safe passage.

An approachable ‘uncle’

At events, the President enjoys mingling with ordinary folk, who are put at ease by his avuncular approachability, such as the way his hand rests lightly on your wrist as he speaks to you.

Stays neutral on politics

“He’s still as humble and approachable as he was in university. He’s done remarkably well as president. He is a symbol for all Singaporeans. He makes an effort to reach out to all the races, by practising calligraphy and by attending events for different community groups. And he also doesn’t comment on political matters. He stays strictly neutral, and I think that’s important for a president. We don’t want a president who politicises the office.”

Mr Tan See Peng, 82, retiree, who studied with Mr Nathan at the then University of Malaya.

A people’s president

“When he doesn’t see me at East Coast, he would get his people to call me to see if anything is wrong. He’s a real people’s
president. He would often ask me about Mandarin phrases. He wanted to learn the phrases that ordinary people use, so that he could mix better with people on the ground.”

Mr Wee Seng Tiong, 72, retired accountant, who meets the President at East Coast Park every weekday morning.