SR Nathan: 1924-2016

Former president a humble, caring leader

Above: Mrs Lee Hsien Loong exchanging a hug with Mr Nathan's daughter Juthika as she and PM Lee arrived at the former president's home in Ceylon Road yesterday. Below: PM Lee leaving after paying his respects. Mrs Nathan did not step out into the gla
Above: Mrs Lee Hsien Loong exchanging a hug with Mr Nathan's daughter Juthika as she and PM Lee arrived at the former president's home in Ceylon Road yesterday. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Above: Mrs Lee Hsien Loong exchanging a hug with Mr Nathan's daughter Juthika as she and PM Lee arrived at the former president's home in Ceylon Road yesterday. Below: PM Lee leaving after paying his respects. Mrs Nathan did not step out into the gla
Puan Noor Aishah, the wife of Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, at the private family wake at Mr Nathan's home yesterday.ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Above: Mrs Lee Hsien Loong exchanging a hug with Mr Nathan's daughter Juthika as she and PM Lee arrived at the former president's home in Ceylon Road yesterday. Below: PM Lee leaving after paying his respects. Mrs Nathan did not step out into the gla
Above: PM Lee leaving after paying his respects. Mrs Nathan did not step out into the glare of the public eye, but ESM Goh, who also visited with his wife, said she was calm in the presence of visitors. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Leaders and ordinary folk recall how he contributed to country or touched their lives

In 2009, Dr William Tan was diagnosed with Stage 4 leukaemia. The para-athlete was told he had only a year or less to live.

A lifeline came from the head of state. Then President S R Nathan wrote Dr Tan a note telling him to "keep on the fight". He later autographed copies of Dr Tan's memoir so he could raise funds for his cancer treatment.

"I was so touched that Mr Nathan made the effort to sign many copies of the book," said the 59-year-old. "His support invigorated me to battle my cancer."

It left an indelible mark on Dr Tan, who marks his seventh year of remission next month. Yesterday, he was among hundreds of people who turned up at the Istana as well as Mr Nathan's family home in Ceylon Road to pay their final respects.

Among those who went were a former prime minister, an old neighbour from Bukit Panjang, a part-time worker at McDonald's and Singapore's first chief of defence. There was also his old Tamil-language tutor, a former Robinsons salesman and a diplomat.

Some are close confidants or friends. Others have seen him only from afar or on television. All were affected by his death.

At the Istana, Ms Cheren Kwong, a freelance parenting coach, wiped her face of tears.

"While people will think that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and PM Lee Hsien Loong are the big stars, there are others who have contributed to our country too - and I believe Mr Nathan is one of them," said the 49-year-old, who has never met the late former president.

The mood in Ceylon Road yesterday was sombre as Mr Nathan's body was taken home just before 11am for a private wake.

  • Extract of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's condolence letter to Mrs Nathan:

    Mr Nathan's life is an inspiration to all of us. His life was a story of how a young boy strove to triumph over his circumstances, rising through the ranks of the public service, to one day occupying the highest office in the land as our longest-serving president.

    It was a story of how Mr Nathan always put his nation before self, often at great personal sacrifice. It was a story of perseverance, duty and a man's indomitable will.

    Mr Nathan had a varied and stellar public service career. Mr Nathan's career took him to the unions where he played an instrumental role in preventing the communists from taking over Singapore. After independence, he joined the newly formed Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and helped build up our diplomatic networks. When we needed to build up the Security and Intelligence Division, Mr Nathan was again our choice because of his savvy judgment and moral courage. He then returned to MFA as permanent secretary before retiring from the civil service.

    Most Singaporeans will remember Mr Nathan as our longest-serving president who served Singaporeans with dignity and distinction. He impressed visitors with his knowledge of world affairs. He was a warm and approachable president who endeared himself to Singaporeans. During his presidency, he established the President's Challenge to help the less fortunate in our society.

    After two terms as president, he stepped down in 2011 and was finally able to devote more time and attention to his family. Even so, Mr Nathan never stopped giving back to Singapore. He joined the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as distinguished senior fellow, and was generous in sharing his experiences and insights with a younger generation of diplomats, students and Singaporeans.

    I have known Mr Nathan for almost 40 years. I remember him as a man who lived his life guided by a deep sense of duty to the nation. Without fail, he stepped up each time. He was a true son of Singapore.


    Extract of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's condolence letter to Mrs Nathan:

    It was Mr Lee Kuan Yew who suggested Nathan to me when we were looking for suitable presidential candidates in 1999. When I invited Nathan to stand for the highest office in the land, he broke down. He told me about his delinquent childhood, how he ran away from home and stayed away from his family for many years. He worried that this could be a liability.

    I replied that on the contrary, it would be a great story of redemption and determination to succeed.

    Nathan went on to serve two full terms as president with great success. He was sincere, humble and had the people's touch...

    At our regular lunches, he would give his observations and insights on developments in Singapore. It was during one of these lunches that he was inspired to start the President's Challenge in 2000 to champion Singaporeans in need. He encouraged Singaporeans to help each other not just in monetary terms, but also in showing real care and concern.

From inside the house where Mr Nathan lived for more than 40 years, his family emerged now and then to greet visitors. His daughter Juthika, 57, exchanged a hug with Mrs Lee Hsien Loong when she arrived with PM Lee at about 12pm.

Mr Nathan also leaves behind his wife Urmila, son Osith, 53, and three grandchildren.

Mrs Nathan, 87, did not step out into the glare of the public eye. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who visited with his wife, said she was calm in the presence of visitors.

But when Mrs Goh touched on certain subjects - he did not specify which, the woman whom Mr Nathan wooed for 16 years and knew for 74 years lost her composure. "We could see her tearing," said ESM Goh.

For the former prime minister himself, Mr Nathan was not just his president, but also his resident. His home is within Marine Parade GRC.

ESM Goh said he has lost a "distinguished and loyal resident".

"Each time I came over here, he'll be standing at the door. Unlike other residents where we had to knock on the door, this resident was out and waiting for me," said ESM Goh.

He added: "His contributions to Singapore were immense but, I would say, probably under-appreciated by most people."

Singaporeans - and non-Singaporeans - yesterday came with flowers and anecdotes of how Mr Nathan contributed to the country and touched people's lives.

American Association of Singapore president Glenn van Zutphen, 52, took his children Max, seven, and Kate, 10, to the Istana, saying: "Even though many of us are not Singaporeans, we are still appreciative of what he has done."

Besides his well-chronicled public service work - fending off American diplomatic pressure during the Michael Fay incident as ambassador, offering himself as a hostage during the Laju terrorist hijacking crisis and 12 years as president - Mr Nathan's sense of duty quietly manifested itself in little ways as well.

Second-generation leader S. Dhanabalan recounted how, during a meeting to explain to Japanese investors how Singapore was an attractive investment destination, Mr Nathan - who was fluent in Japanese - stepped in to translate the discussion as the official interpreter was not doing a good job.

"That left a deep impression on me," said Mr Dhanabalan, 79.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean recalled how during the 2003 Sars crisis, Mr Nathan called him to ensure special needs children were looked after when thermometers were given to all schools.

Mr Mok Yong Khiam, 84, a part-time worker at McDonald's, said simply: "He is a very good and humble man who always helped our country. I feel very sad."

For others, it was the loss of a friend. Mr S.P. Thinnappan, 82, who used to present tips on learning Tamil on radio, remembered how Mr Nathan called him in 1999, asking for lessons in reading and writing so he could reacquaint himself with the language.

Mr Thinnappan went to his home weekly for the next 15 years.

"He was a very good student. You only had to teach him once, and he would catch it immediately," Mr Thinnappan said, beaming with pride as he recounted how Mr Nathan progressed to make speeches in Tamil.

Singapore's first chief of defence Winston Choo recalled that in 1973, he and Mr Nathan once stayed in the same hotel in Bangkok. It caught fire.

"The first thing I thought of was checking on him. We sat outside watching the hotel burn and thinking of how lucky we were," he said.

He also noted how Mr Nathan was calm in the face of crisis, referring to the Laju hijacking incident.

GOOD STUDENT

He was a very good student. You only had to teach him once, and he would catch it immediately.

MR S.P. THINNAPPAN, 82, who gave Mr Nathan lessons in reading and writing Tamil for 15 years so he could reacquaint himself with the language.

"Let me put it this way. We couldn't have found a better person for that because he was steady, unshaken," he said.

Yesterday, Ms Hilma Hanapi took a day off from her job designing window displays. She and her mother Sarinam Mohamed, 63, took the train from Braddell, where they live. They brought with them a bouquet of chrysanthemums.

Holding back tears, Ms Hilma said: "I told my boss that it is an important day - I have to come here."

•Additional reporting by Jalelah Abu Baker

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Former president a humble, caring leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe