Commentary

A last meeting with S R Nathan

He died still trying to recreate the pioneering spirit which had defined his generation

I visited Mr Nathan last month when he was warded at Singapore General Hospital.

He was seated next to a dialysis machine having his thrice-weekly treatment when I entered Room 12 in Ward 78.

"Fook Kwang..." he greeted me, the gentle smile on his face assuring me he was his good old self despite the surrounding tubes and medical equipment.

Then President S R Nathan signing his name on tile paintings to raise funds for the President's Challenge in 2003. Mr Nathan, who started his public service career as a seamen's welfare officer in 1956 and rose to become President of Singapore in 199
Then President S R Nathan signing his name on tile paintings to raise funds for the President's Challenge in 2003. Mr Nathan, who started his public service career as a seamen's welfare officer in 1956 and rose to become President of Singapore in 1999, succeeded because of, and not in spite of, his difficult beginnings. LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE PHOTO

 

He had complained of being breathless.

 

"I need 45 minutes to recover and catch my breath even when I am just going to the washroom," he said.

We spent the next hour discussing his favourite topic - Singapore, the challenges facing the country, and its future prospects.

At 92, his health failing and hooked up to a kidney cleansing machine, Mr Nathan was still at it, asking questions, raising issues, concerned always about the security and well-being of the country.

It was the reason he had agreed to take part in a forum organised by The Straits Times and the EDB Society, part of a year-long series I had been moderating which had included former prime minister Goh Chok Tong and senior civil servants like Mr Joe Pillay.

Mr Nathan's discussion was to have been held on July 19, but it had to be cancelled because of his hospitalisation.

I had visited him at his office at the Singapore Management University earlier in June to discuss the forum.

He looked then as healthy and sprightly as I had seen him in recent years.

Indeed, both Mr Lee Suan Hiang, president of the EDB Society, and I commented how well he looked and how much we were looking forward to the discussion.

I had wanted to talk about his early years in the public service, what was it like then, especially working with the Old Guard leadership.

He was eager to share.

Mr Nathan achieved much in his long years in public service, starting his career as a seamen's welfare officer in 1956 to finally becoming President of Singapore in 1999.

He wasn't a scholar, he did not have a university degree, though he did obtain a diploma from the then University of Malaya, and he certainly wasn't handpicked for political office.

You wouldn't have expected someone like him to rise to the top in meritocratic, academically- obsessed Singapore.

But he did, and wherever he went - the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Straits Times and the Istana - he would make a difference in his distinctive style.

He succeeded because of, and not in spite of, his difficult beginnings.

It wouldn't have been the same had his childhood been an easy and protected one.

At every stage in his early life - growing up in a single-parent home after his alcoholic father committed suicide, sacked twice from school, facing personal danger during the Japanese Occupation and starting his working life without the requisite educational qualifications - he had to figure out for himself how best to make it work.

He learnt his early lessons in the kampungs and on the streets of pre-independent Malaya and Singapore. But he also knew the importance of formal education and studied in between work for his Cambridge School Certificate.

In his book An Unexpected Journey: Path To The Presidency, he wrote of this yearning to study.

"Learning became a habit, a continuing quest for knowledge, be it about current affairs, contemporary political developments or social issues. I realised how much I did not know. This interest in reading and continuing study even after my university days has been an enormous asset in my subsequent careers, all of which required me to chart my own course without a properly defined brief."

The combination of street-smartness and studious learning partly explains why he was able to perform at the highest levels in whatever he did.

He belonged to the first generation of civil servants - together with men like Mr Sim Kee Boon, Mr Howe Yoon Chong and Mr Pillay - who worked hand-in-hand with the Old Guard political leadership, implementing their plans, and loyal to the end.

They shaped the ethos of the public service, which helped enable Singapore to achieve much economic and social progress.

In the hospital room, as our discussion turned to the current challenges facing Singapore, he remarked on a critical difference between then and now: There isn't the same pressing cause that moved the country to overcome the odds soon after independence.

The pioneer leaders were driven by an all-consuming desire to make sure the fledging nation succeeded, he noted.

They forged a common cause with the people.

"What's the cause today?" he asked.

"Let's get a group together and have a discussion after I leave the hospital," he said.

I was looking forward to it.

As I write these words, I wonder what Mr Nathan would have said if we did have that discussion.

Perhaps it is inevitable that as a nation progresses, it will lose some of that revolutionary fervour which shaped its beginning.

Every generation will have to find its own cause, one in keeping with its circumstances and the temper of the time.

Mr Nathan passed away still trying to recreate the pioneering spirit which had defined his generation.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'A last meeting with Nathan'. Print Edition | Subscribe