S R Nathan: Singapore’s No. 1 diplomat

President S R Nathan and Mrs Nathan with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Kristiani Herawati, during a state visit by the Singapore leader to Indonesia in 2006.
President S R Nathan and Mrs Nathan with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Kristiani Herawati, during a state visit by the Singapore leader to Indonesia in 2006. PHOTO: ZAOBAO FILE
Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet and President S R Nathan making their way into the Istana on Nov 16, 2009, for a state banquet hosted by Mr Nathan. With them are Mr Triet’s wife Tran Thi Kim Chi and Mrs Nathan.
Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet and President S R Nathan making their way into the Istana on Nov 16, 2009, for a state banquet hosted by Mr Nathan. With them are Mr Triet’s wife Tran Thi Kim Chi and Mrs Nathan. PHOTO: ST FILE
President S R Nathan greeting the audience from the open-top vehicle which conveyed him around the parade ground during the National Day Parade at Padang in 2010.
President S R Nathan greeting the audience from the open-top vehicle which conveyed him around the parade ground during the National Day Parade at Padang in 2010. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Nathan fulfilled the role impressively, say veterans

Veteran Singapore diplomats yesterday paid tribute to President S R Nathan in his role as Singapore’s No. 1 diplomat, noting how he had, in his 12 years in office, quietly but effectively deepened the country’s relations with its neighbours and the wider world.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh said yesterday that Mr Nathan’s “solid and long background in foreign affairs” had made an impression on many dignitaries at home and abroad.

“He’s able to engage ambassadors in meaningful and substantive dialogue about their countries and our relations with them,” he said.

“When he goes on visits abroad, the conversations he has are not just perfunctory, but very substantive, and he’s able to reinforce messages the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister wish to convey. Because of his high stature – he is the head of state – people listen to him with respect.”

All foreign envoys accredited here present their credentials to the President and visiting foreign leaders also call on him.

Mr Nathan has also, since 2001, made state visits – the highest form of diplomatic exchange – to 29 countries, including eight Asean capitals. In many, he broke new ground as the first Singapore head of state to visit, often opening doors to Singapore’s private sector.

Citing Mr Nathan’s 2007 visit to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, Prof Koh said: “It was significant to our friends for him to be genuinely interested in knowing more about them, and that has managed to improve trade links.” 

Mr Nathan’s state visit to Japan in 2009 to reciprocate Emperor Akihito’s visit here also raised bilateral relations, he added.

Said Prof Koh: “Of all the presidents we have had, he has had the best background in foreign affairs, and was therefore able to carry out his role as our No. 1 diplomat very well.”

Mr Nathan was first posted to the Foreign Ministry in 1966, and served as director of the Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) Security and Intelligence Division, Singapore’s external intelligence agency, from 1971 to 1979 and as first permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry from 1979 to 1982.

In 1988, he was appointed Singapore’s high commissioner to Malaysia and in 1990, he became ambassador to the United States where he served until 1996.

He then became Ambassador-at-Large and founding director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, which later expanded to become the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Veteran Indian journalist Sunanda Datta-Ray, who recently wrote a book on Singapore-India relations, described Mr Nathan as having “a developed sense of history and of geostrategic reality”.

Said RSIS dean Barry Desker: “Because of his diplomatic and Mindef experience, President Nathan has a sure sense of Singapore’s critical interests. He is able to put across Singapore’s concerns effectively in his meetings with foreign leaders in Singapore and abroad.”

“By keeping in touch with friends and contacts developed over many years, President Nathan has also helped to extend Singapore’s reach.”

Former senior minister of state for foreign affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who was with President Nathan on many of his state visits, said: “President Nathan came out well-liked and represented Singapore and what Singapore stands for in terms of meritocracy, professionalism, good governance and racial harmony.

“He was no ceremonial president, as he took his work seriously, reading briefs religiously, and often sharing his advice with many world leaders. Some were surprised at the strong language he sometimes used, especially about the importance of good governance, but they knew he meant well, especially among friends. They welcomed his fatherly counsel.”

Mr Zainul added that Mr Nathan never forgot to meet common people abroad.

And at a time when a growing number of Singaporeans live and work abroad, he made it a point to meet them and talk about home.

Officers accompanying him also note his scrutiny of their briefs and reports. Asked about this, Prof Koh laughed, saying: “This is his lifelong habit. He’s very meticulous, very methodical, and has a reputation for being a tough but loving taskmaster.”