'Rest easy Boss, we will not let you down'

Singapore Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan arriving at Blk 5, SGH on Aug 22 2016.
Singapore Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan arriving at Blk 5, SGH on Aug 22 2016. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

To those privileged to have served him, Mr S R Nathan will forever be The Boss, said ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan yesterday at a remembrance ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Here are extracts from his eulogy:

"One of Mr Nathan's best friends was the late Chia Cheong Fook, who was also once permanent secretary of MFA. Mr Chia was my father's best friend. I grew up vaguely conscious of Mr Nathan as a background presence - obviously a personality to be reckoned with, but without clear resolution.

It was only in the earlier part of the 1970s that Mr Nathan acquired sharp focus in my consciousness. I was then pretending to study in the University of Singapore. I did something that could potentially have had serious ramifications... but things began to go pear-shaped and I thought I'd better come clean before everything crashed.

I telephoned my father, then (Singapore's ambassador) in Moscow... my father said he knew about it and told me to tell Mr Chia. I dutifully called Mr Chia. Again, before I could say anything, he said he knew about it and told me to go and meet Mr Nathan at MFA, which was then in City Hall, now our National Gallery. With more than a little trepidation, I made my way to City Hall and was tremblingly admitted into Mr Nathan's presence... Again, he already knew all about what in the innocence of youth I had thought was secret.

'Why did you do it?' he demanded. I answered the best I could. Mr Nathan sat in grim-faced silence, apparently pondering what I had said. 'Who else was involved?' he suddenly barked at me. 'No one,' I said. 'Don't lie,' he said. 'No one,' I insisted. Again he pondered in silence. I sat before him nervously for what seemed an eternity. 'Will you take responsibility?' he finally asked. Exasperation momentarily overcame fear. 'That's what I've been trying to do,' I snapped.

'What's the worst that can happen to you?' Mr Nathan snapped back. 'I don't know,' I replied, puzzled. 'Will you be hanged?' he asked. 'I don't think so,' I replied, by this time thoroughly discombobulated, which I now realise was his intention.

 
 

Mr Nathan broke into a smile - and those of you who know him should know he had a very charming smile. 'So what are you worried about? You did what you thought was right. It was stupid, but you won't be hanged. Go,' he said. I got up and made for the door. He called me back. 'Good that you are willing to take responsibility for what you thought was right,' he said. 'Never evade responsibility, but if you want to play such games again, ask someone who knows how,' he said. I fled.

... I tell this story in his memory because it eventually dawned on me that the lessons he intended to impart were of great and continuing relevance to foreign service officers...First, clever as you may be, you are not as clever as you may think. You need others. Work as a team. Second, take responsibility for what you do; do your duty without fear. Be loyal to your team.

That was not to be the last time I made my way to Mr Nathan's office with trepidation. Subsequent occasions were as a foreign service officer. Mr Nathan was tough on us. He had to be to whip us into shape. He had high standards that he would not compromise. He treated service to the country with high seriousness and taught us to take service seriously too. He was our mentor - a lifelong mentor.

Mr Nathan left an indelible mark on MFA and all who worked for him. All subsequent PSs (permanent secretaries) only built on the foundations Mr Nathan laid. Today, MFA is an organisation that is respected worldwide. You can be proud of being part of an organisation Mr Nathan shaped. MFA is his monument. Do not let him down.

In March this year, Mr Nathan hosted lunch for a group of the survivors of MFA's City Hall days... 'I was hard on you,' he told us, 'but you all always served me faithfully and I may not have told you before, but I want all of you to know that I appreciate it as this may be the last time we can meet together.' These were not his exact words - I was too moved to remember exactly; in the old days, if he had known I didn't take precise notes, I would have been in for a scolding, but that was the gist. As hard-bitten a crew as those at that lunch all were, I'd bet that the others were as moved as I was.

When Mr Nathan was taken ill, I went to see him in hospital. His daughter told me that of all the many and varied appointments in which Mr Nathan served, he told his family that MFA was special to him, the others were duty.

We may have on occasion grumbled about him being a hard taskmaster, but I think all those who served him knew that MFA was special to him. Mr Nathan demanded loyalty: Loyalty to colleagues, loyalty to the organisation and, above all, loyalty to Singapore. But he more than amply repaid loyalty with loyalty; he took responsibility for us and never denied responsibility for us even when we were the brunt of well-deserved criticism. He scolded us when he had to; he never let us down. Work done, he treated us as family. Long after he left MFA, he kept a paternal eye on us. I suspect he's doing so still.

And thus Mr Nathan, in turn, inspired loyalty, respect and affection. That is why to those of us who were privileged to serve him, Mr Nathan will forever be The Boss. I can now almost hear Mr Nathan's shade growling in my ear: Stop the long palaver and get back to work! Rest easy Boss, we will not let you down."

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline ''Rest easy Boss, we will not let you down''. Print Edition | Subscribe