Former president Nathan pays tribute to friends and family at 90th birthday celebration

Mr S R Nathan waving as (from left) President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Mrs Nathan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joined the more than 700 people at the celebration last night at Shangri-La Hotel, in applauding the former president. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLIN
Mr S R Nathan waving as (from left) President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Mrs Nathan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joined the more than 700 people at the celebration last night at Shangri-La Hotel, in applauding the former president. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Former president recalls ringside seat to nation's growth and people who made an impact on his life

SURROUNDED by the warmth and well-wishes of family and friends, former president S R Nathan celebrated his 90th birthday last night with a heartwarming recollection of the many friendships in his long and fulfilling life.

The people who made a difference to his life included former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew as well as the late deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee, senior minister S. Rajaratnam and former president Devan Nair, he said.

"I count among my greatest privileges the opportunity I had to work among our founding leaders at various stages of our young nation's history," he told more than 700 people who attended the celebration at Shangri-La Hotel.

"I had a ring-side seat," he said, aware of "the courage, even the daring, with which our leaders worked to build the foundations of today's Singapore".

But amid his numerous encounters and experiences, "there is one consistent thread: the importance of friendship". Said Singapore's longest-serving president: "I felt the absence of friends during my school life and as a runaway... During the war, I had many friends but some turned out to be 'fair-weather' ones."

In university in the 1950s, he formed many friendships, including two special buddies to whom "I regret being unable to express my gratitude directly".

They were the late Tay Seow Huah and Chia Cheong Fook, two top civil servants who "stood by me at moments of uncertainty".

In thanking his family, especially his late father-in-law and mother, he paid special tribute to his wife of almost 60 years, Urmila, now 85. "When we met, I had virtually no prospects. She had many suitors, but she stuck to me."

Mrs Nathan is a source of great strength, "always supporting me in her quiet way", he said. "Whatever life threw at us, we weathered together."

The celebration last night was a lively affair. People from all walks of life, including students, shared the joyous occasion with Singapore's top leaders. They included President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Among the many who wished Mr Nathan "happy birthday" was former US president Bill Clinton, whose greeting was read out by corporate leader Jennie Chua, who helped organise the party.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his speech, recounted Mr Nathan's "long and full" life that, in many ways, reflects the many key events in Singapore's modern history.

In his roles in government, PM Lee said, his actions showed the "quintessential Mr Nathan: Always placing country before self".

As president, Mr Nathan helped avert what could have been the country's worst economic recession in 2008. The Government had sought his permission to draw on the reserves for the $20 billion Resilience Package. 

Said Mr Lee: "He understood the gravity of the situation, studied the issue carefully and approved the request decisively."

But his most important role was as a tree planter, he added.

"Wherever he went, he nurtured young seedlings into mature trees," he said, citing how Mr Nathan built up young, nascent organisations such as the NTUC and the Foreign Affairs Ministry into mature institutions.

"He also mentored promising young officers to help them to fulfil their potential, and I count myself a beneficiary," he added, visibly moved.

But Mr Nathan also literally planted trees, Mr Lee said, showing a photograph of a large Japanese maple in Washington, DC, that Mr Nathan planted when he was ambassador to the US. 

Mr Lee had taken the photograph last week when he was in the US on a work visit.

"I'm sure Mr Nathan will be happy to see that the tree is lush and thriving, as are the many other trees that Mr Nathan planted in the organisations he led and the people he touched," he said.

As the party came to a close, Mr Nathan blew out the candle on the cake. Ambassador to Turkey S. Chandra Das said in a video tribute: "I'd like to assure Mr Nathan that we will be here to organise his 95th birthday."

rachelay@sph.com.sg