SR Nathan: 1924-2016

S R Nathan: Caring boss who led by example rather than rebuke

Mr Nathan giving Mr Redhza his appointment certificate when the latter was made an honorary aide-de-camp in 2001 after his stint as full-time ADC. The President later wrote a message on the photo as a keepsake for Mr Redhza.
Mr Nathan giving Mr Redhza his appointment certificate when the latter was made an honorary aide-de-camp in 2001 after his stint as full-time ADC. The President later wrote a message on the photo as a keepsake for Mr Redhza.PHOTO: COURTESY OF REDHZA ABDUL RAHIM

Former aide-de-camp remembers the day he made a mistake and expected a tongue-lashing

When Mr Redhza Abdul Rahim saw the President wearing batik, he realised he had made a big mistake.

The aide-de-camp (ADC), who was supposed to ensure that presidential events ran smoothly, had informed the President's guests at the Istana that the dress code required them to be in lounge suits.

But he had asked Mr S R Nathan to wear batik instead, resulting in the faux pas. "He looked at me and his face turned a bit red. Of course he wasn't happy, but he didn't say anything," Mr Redhza said of the incident that took place when he was a full-time ADC to the President from 1999 to 2001.

A MAN WITH NO AIRS

There was just something in his demeanour that made people feel comfortable.

MR REDHZA ABDUL RAHIM, on Mr Nathan.

The next morning, when Mr Nathan called Mr Redhza into his office, he expected a tongue-lashing, as it was not his first day on the job and he had no excuse for his error.

But all that the President did was to speak to him calmly about the importance of checking and double- checking the smallest details.

For Mr Redhza, who was an assistant superintendent of police during the posting, that incident typified Mr Nathan, the boss: He was exacting and expected excellence from his staff, but it was not his style to turn to rebuke when they fell short.

Instead, Mr Nathan preferred to lead by example.

SHOCKED

I was shocked to learn the unfortunate passing of Mr S R Nathan, former president of the Republic of Singapore. I would like to express my deepest condolences and sincere wishes to you and, through you, to the family of Mr Nathan.

CHINA'S PRESIDENT XI JINPING, in a message to President Tony Tan Keng Yam.


LASTING LEGACY

His personal dedication and accomplishment in the public service will serve as a lasting legacy for Singapore.

BRUNEI SULTAN HASSANAL BOLKIAH, in a condolence message to Singapore leaders.


AN INSPIRATION

Mr Nathan is the epitome of the spirit of hard work and a never-give-up attitude. The early struggles and challenges he faced provide many lessons for the young and are an inspiration to the community. Mr Nathan's firm belief in the role of education as a social leveller is aligned to Mendaki's mission and vision.

MENDAKI CHIEF EXECUTIVE TUMINAH SAPAWI, paying tribute at an event organised by self-help groups to remember Mr Nathan.


A GREAT MAN

I've known Mr Nathan since I was 11 years old. We met at a National Kidney Foundation book launch and kept in touch. He was a great man because he treated the little people very well. I majored in Japanese studies, and Mr Nathan and I used to converse in Japanese. I'm not sure if many people knew this, but he was very fluent in the language.

AUTHOR JEREMY LIM, 26, who paid his respects at Mr Nathan's home in Ceylon Road. Mr Nathan wrote a foreword for his book, Beyond Bone Breaking, about his experience with brittle bone disease.


DEDICATED TO SINGAPORE

What I've learnt about his life from reports in the past few days made me realise how dedicated he was to Singapore. It touched my heart how he had so many hurdles in life and how he managed to overcome all of them.

EXECUTIVE TAMILSERI NADASON, 56, who was at the Istana to pen a condolence card.


STRIKING EXAMPLE

What struck me was that he once offered himself in exchange for some people who were held hostage. Another time, he stood with recruits in the rain. Neither is something that people in authority usually do.

SIM UNIVERSITY STUDENT YAN XING QIN, 22, who was at the Istana to pen a condolence card.

For his own swearing-in ceremony in September 1999, he personally went through every detail, from the seating arrangements, down to the minute-by-minute programme flow, to make sure the event ran smoothly.

This inspired respect from his staff, who were spurred on to do better so as to not disappoint him, said Mr Redhza, 47.

Despite his position, Mr Nathan had no airs.

Before their first meeting in the President's office, Mr Redhza was feeling nervous. But his anxiety dissipated when he saw Mr Nathan stroll in wearing a short-sleeved white shirt.

"I expected him to be in a suit, all businesslike, but he was very disarming when he spoke.

"There was just something in his demeanour that made people feel comfortable," Mr Redhza said.

Mr Nathan was also someone who truly cared about the welfare of his staff, and organised gatherings for those who worked at the Istana every few months so that they could let their hair down.

At these gatherings, he and Mrs Nathan made the effort to chat with everyone and took photos with every staff member who wanted a picture with the President.

"He made time for everybody, from the butlers, to the cooks, to the drivers," said Mr Redhza, who retired from the police force as a superintendent in 2014 and now runs a business that helps companies source for manpower.

When he received gifts of food, such as special fruit from overseas, Mr Nathan never kept them, preferring to distribute those items to the staff. He also made sure to set the right tone from the top when it came to work and matters of propriety, Mr Redhza said.

For instance, Mr Nathan made clear that he did not want special treatment, and expected the same of his staff. During a family holiday at a beach resort in Phuket, he reminded Mr Redhza to get the bill quickly so that he could pay out of his own pocket. He did not want the resort to pick up the tab just because he was Singapore's head of state, said Mr Redhza.

"He wanted us to be committed and devoted to the job. And it was easy for us to do so because we saw that he was a president who was devoted and committed to his office. So everything fell into place."

 

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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 'Caring boss who led by example rather than rebuke'. Print Edition | Subscribe