The quiet President

President Nathan resting at his home after his morning exercise, with his favourite bittergourd tea on the table. A family photo hangs on the wall in the background.
President Nathan resting at his home after his morning exercise, with his favourite bittergourd tea on the table. A family photo hangs on the wall in the background.PHOTO: ST FILE
President S R Nathan chats with Mr Wee Hoon Leung, 78, an ex-national footballer, and his friends at East Coast Park.
President S R Nathan chats with Mr Wee Hoon Leung, 78, an ex-national footballer, and his friends at East Coast Park.PHOTO: ST FILE
President S R Nathan and students of Grace Orchard School, which caters to children with special needs, at a concert and carnival organised by Microsoft for The 2009 President’s Challenge.
President S R Nathan and students of Grace Orchard School, which caters to children with special needs, at a concert and carnival organised by Microsoft for The 2009 President’s Challenge.PHOTO: MICROSOFT

Mr Nathan’s drive for pet causes contrasts with velvet-gloved approach to constitutional duty

At a Eurasian Association event in late 2009, President S R Nathan watched its dance troupe perform some of the same dances it had been performing for years.

He had just returned from a trip to Macau where he watched some intriguing Portuguese-style dances. Taking then association president Edward D’Silva aside, he quietly suggested updating the repertoire of the association’s dance troupe.

“I told him that the association did not have the money,” recalls Mr D’Silva. “The long and short is that Mr Nathan arranged for the sponsorship and funding.”

Mr Nathan approached Singapore’s ambassador in France (Singapore does not have one in Portugal) to find a suitable Portuguese dance instructor. Later, he also arranged for her to travel to Singapore from Lisbon twice to work with the Eurasian Association’s dance troupe.

It is perhaps the many such small, seemingly trivial acts that Mr Nathan, 86, was thinking of when he told reporters last month it was hard for him to quantify what he has accomplished in 12 years in office. “Often I ask myself, what have I done? Done nothing? I mean, it’s not like building a housing estate and saying I’ve got so many units and so on,” he said. “It’s a very intangible thing.”

But his friends, acquaintances and those, like the Eurasian Association, who have benefited from his help believe that he leaves a legacy of promoting both big and small acts of kindness.

In 2000, shortly after assuming office, Mr Nathan launched the President’s Challenge, an annual series of community-based activities to rally the public to help those in need.

“He felt that we shouldn’t just have charity events for the social elite,” recalled his principal private secretary at the time, Mr Lim Boon Wee, now a deputy secretary at the Ministry of Transport.

“It’s very important to reach to the masses and to allow people to feel that everyone can do their part,” added Mr Lim of Mr Nathan’s thinking. “It’s not just about who has the most money.” 

As part of the Challenge, organisations like the Boys’ Brigade and local football clubs organise events to raise funds for good causes. In the past decade, the Challenge has raised more than $100 million for more than 50 beneficiaries. 

Mr Nathan has also created a series of “President’s Awards” to recognise luminaries in industries like nursing, social work and environmental activism.

Having begun his career in the 1950s as a social worker and then as a welfare officer for seamen, Mr Nathan became a president, as Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh once wrote, for “the poor, the needy, the disabled”.

He also used his “soft power” to drive projects he believed in, such as books which recorded lesser-known parts of Singapore’s history and heritage. 

One such project was a book on Singapore’s Peranakan Indians, known as the “Chitty Melaka”. Local historian and author Samuel Dhoraisingam told Mr Nathan that he could not find a publisher due to the rather obscure subject matter. 

So Mr Nathan reached out to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, whose director K. Kesavapany found it a worthy project to publish in 2005.

The President was also behind projects like the Istana’s three-part series commemorating its flowers, gardens and trees. He also commissioned and contributed to a number of books on local Tamil history. “He doesn’t believe just in high-profile book projects,” said Mr Kesavapany. “Many of the books he champions tell stories which otherwise would not have been told.” 

Mr Nathan’s drive to bring projects he believed in to life contrasts with his reticent style when it comes to his constitutional duties. 

He has made clear time and again he does not view himself as being in a “boxing match” with the elected Government. 

In this he is often contrasted with his predecessor, the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who famously clashed with the Government over information he wanted on the state of the national reserves.

Mr Nathan’s stand on the comparisons: “I know the limitations of the Constitution and what you have to do.”

For someone reluctant to overstep his legal boundaries, Mr Nathan will ironically go down in history as the first president to have had cause to discharge the office’s heaviest responsibility: that of turning the “second key” to authorise a drawdown of the nation’s reserves. 

In 2009, the Government sent an official request to the President to take $4.9 billion from past reserves for two programmes to battle the economic crisis: Jobs Credit, to incentivise employers not to retrench workers, and the Special Risk-Sharing Initiative, to provide local firms with the credit that was drying up in the market.

After 11 tense days, Mr Nathan gave his approval. This year, the Government returned the money to the reserves after a buoyant economic rebound.

Besides this episode, Mr Nathan’s tenure will be remembered for two controversial characteristics – both of which will likely become relics of history.

The first is that he was an Elected President who was not elected. Both times that he stood, first in 1999 and then in 2005, there was no eligible challenger.

This made him a “legal oddity”, said National University of Singapore constitutional law expert Kevin Tan. “The whole idea of making the presidency an elected office was to have a mandate from the people,” he notes, one which President Nathan did not officially receive. 

This could have resulted in a “crisis of legitimacy” should he have clashed with an elected government, adds Dr Tan. 

With three candidates – former deputy prime minister Tony Tan, former MP Tan Cheng Bock and former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian – having already declared their interest in succeeding Mr Nathan, the unelected Elected President looks set to become a thing of the past.

So does the astronomical salary the president receives, which has been the target of much acrimony.

Mr Nathan’s total salary package this year is about $4 million. However, future presidents are likely to get less as a new committee tasked to review political salaries is all but certain to recommend the presidential salary, along with the Cabinet’s, be lowered. 

Mr Nathan has indicated that he takes all criticism in his stride. He said in an interview last year: “You can’t solve the problems of the world just as you cannot stop the world from talking.”

True to his modest ambition when it comes to the problems of the world, his 12 years in office may ultimately be remembered for quiet efforts to “meet the people” – as his wife once described his daily morning walks in East Coast Park.

He took his non-partisan, unifying role seriously, taking pains, for example, to engage Singaporeans who had become disillusioned with the Government.

One of these was cartoonist Morgan Chua, who left Singapore in the 1980s after his newspaper, the Singapore Herald, was shut down for being “hostile to national interests”. 

When Mr Chua returned to launch his new book of cartoons in 2000, Mr Nathan invited him to tea. The two men have kept in touch over the years, and Mr Nathan has written the foreword for Mr Chua’s forthcoming new book. 

“He reaches out and keeps in touch with people who were at one time unhappy with Singapore,” recalls former Straits Times editor Peter Lim. “He goes out of his way to say, ‘no hard feelings, we welcome you home’.”

Cognizant of his rise from teen runaway to the highest office in the land, Mr Nathan always tried to maintain whatever links he could with the common man.

His home-grown, colloquial Tamil made him a hit with older and less-educated local Indians. And he attended up to three public functions a day, never saying “no” to a photo or autograph request. 
“He tried to bring the president’s office closer to the people,” summed up Mr T. Raja Segar, chief executive of Indian self-help group Sinda.

It was never close enough for his liking. In 2003, former editor of the Indian newspaper The Statesman Sunanda Datta-Ray visited Mr Nathan at the Istana. He told him he had taken the MRT to Dhoby Ghaut station and walked to the Istana gates to take the buggy to the residence.

Wistfully, Mr Nathan replied: “I wish more people came to see me by public transport.”

NOT THE PRESIDENT’S FAULT

“You can’t put the blame on President Nathan – it was a salary scheme devised to make sure that...you get the best talent. He didn’t go and ask for the money. The Government of the day felt that as the highest office bearer of the land, this was what he should be paid. Why go and blame him? As though he asked for the money, which is not true. It is most unfortunate and unbecoming.

Mr K. Kesavapany, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, on the President’s salary being the subject of public criticism

A TRUE, STEADFAST PERSON

“He is the truest people’s person. I say so because...he doesn’t forget his friends, people whom he has worked with. Even in his book, Why Am I Here? he acknowledges every person who worked with him. He’s basically steadfast, a person who stands up in his own quiet manner for what is right and wrong.”

Mr R. Theyvendran, president of the Tamils Representative Council

ALWAYS HAS THE PEOPLE IN MIND

“Whether he is meeting foreign heads of state or ordinary Singaporeans, you will find him very personable. He makes a point to reach out to the person and in particular, to the ordinary man, whether during functions or when the public comes to Istana open houses. He knows how important it is for the president to reach out to people and shake hands. For every single Istana open house, he made it a point to come, even though it’s a public holiday and he has a busy schedule. He is always there as a host, to interact with people.”

Mr Lim Boon Wee, former principal private secretary to President Nathan