S R Nathan: Head of state who never forgot friends, common people

President Tan and his wife speaking to Mr Nathan's daughter Juthika Ramanathan at the family's Ceylon Road home, where they paid their respects. Visitors writing tributes to Mr Nathan on condolence boards at the Istana. People from all walks of life
Visitors writing tributes to Mr Nathan on condolence boards at the Istana. People from all walks of life penned their thoughts on Singapore's sixth and longest-serving president, who died on Monday at age 92. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
President Tan and his wife speaking to Mr Nathan's daughter Juthika Ramanathan at the family's Ceylon Road home, where they paid their respects. Visitors writing tributes to Mr Nathan on condolence boards at the Istana. People from all walks of life
President Tan and his wife speaking to Mr Nathan's daughter Juthika Ramanathan at the family's Ceylon Road home, where they paid their respects.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Ministers, ex-MPs and representatives of organisations turn up at private wake to swop stories of personal encounters with Mr Nathan

Singapore's newly minted President was coming for an eye operation and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan was feeling the stress.

But Mr S R Nathan's unassuming manner was disarming.

He did not ask for special treatment, recalled Dr Balakrishnan, an ophthalmologist who is now the Foreign Minister.

"I told him I wished he had come to me a few months before he had become president," he added of his most memorable meeting with Mr Nathan, who became President in September 1999.

Dr Balakrishnan's father and uncle were childhood friends with Mr Nathan.

 
 

"They always spoke about him in admiring tones, describing him as a very loyal and devoted friend.

"No matter how high he rose - and he rose to the highest office in the land - he never forgot his friends," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan was among several politicians who paid their respects yesterday to Singapore's sixth and longest-serving president, who died on Monday at age 92.

It was the second day of the private wake held at Mr Nathan's Ceylon Road home, and they spoke of the qualities they admired most in him, and swopped stories of their personal encounters and relationships with him.

FEARLESS DEFENDER OF SINGAPORE'S INTERESTS ABROAD, AND A PASSIONATE NATION-BUILDER AT HOME

On behalf of the people of Singapore, Mary and I would like to convey our most heartfelt condolences to you and your family on the passing of your beloved husband, Mr S R Nathan.

Mr Nathan lived through an extraordinary period in Singapore's history and was one of our pioneers who had been intricately involved at various stages of our history in building the foundations of today's Singapore. He had an outstanding career in public service spanning more than five and a half decades since the 1950s.

He rose from humble beginnings to become the sixth and longest-serving President of Singapore...Mr Nathan became the sixth President of Singapore in September 1999 and served two six-year terms. He was a fearless defender of Singapore's interests abroad, and a passionate nation-builder at home.

During his term of office, Mr Nathan continued to champion social causes by initiating the President's Challenge in 2000. The President's Challenge gained much support from the community and raised over $100 million for more than 500 beneficiaries during Mr Nathan's two terms in office.

I will always remember S R as a courageous, approachable and honourable gentleman who was deeply committed to Singapore. Whether as a steadfast diplomat or as a resolute advocate for social causes, S R's lifetime focus was always on how Singapore can be a better home for Singaporeans. His heart for the people of Singapore is an inspiration for me and for all Singaporeans

PRESIDENT TONY TAN KENG YAM, in an extract of his condolence letter to Mrs S R Nathan.

Long-time friend S. Chandra Das, a former MP and Singapore's non-resident High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, helped to organise Mr Nathan's 80th, 85th and 90th birthday celebrations.

"There was no protocol, although people such as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as well as former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, were at the celebrations," Mr Chandra Das recalled.

"To him, it was an opportunity to meet up with old friends."

He added: "I promised him I would organise a party for his 95th. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen." He also said Mr Nathan's wife Urmila was doing better yesterday and was holding up well.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam and his wife, Mrs Mary Tan, as well as Old Guard minister Othman Wok, 91, visited the home to pay their respects too.

Other ministers included Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, and Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng.

Mr Nathan's contributions in various fields, from strengthening the labour movement to helping the community, were lauded by many.

When employers and unions were clashing in the 1960s, Mr Nathan, seconded from the civil service to the labour movement, helped develop a labour research unit that made a strong case for protecting workers' rights through tripartism, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

The way Mr Nathan "always put workers' interests upfront, as the top priority, is something we as a labour movement should never forget", he added.

Representatives of organisations that Mr Nathan worked in or was the patron of, including self-help group Sinda and the Inter-Religious Organisation, turned up in force.

Sinda chief executive K. Barathan remembered Mr Nathan as a man who cared deeply about the underprivileged in all communities.

Mr Nathan wanted to ensure equal opportunity for all, especially in education for the common people, said Mr Barathan.

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) chief executive Alan Chan said that when Mr Nathan was appointed executive chairman of The Straits Times Press - the predecessor of SPH - he was met with suspicion from many journalists.

He was given a corner office on a floor away from The Straits Times newsroom, Mr Chan recalled some older journalists telling him.

Instead of taking offence, Mr Nathan instituted "coffee breaks".

"He would come down three times a week and sit with the editors... and they would go through issues of the day, and that alleviated a lot of suspicion," he added.

Mr Nathan was executive chairman from 1982 to 1988.

Former MP Wan Hussin Zoohri recalled Mr Nathan's concern for greater documentation of the Malay community's heritage.

"He wanted to document the Malay pioneers' contributions before independence and before the war," he told reporters at the wake.

 

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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 'Head of state who never forgot friends, common people'. Print Edition | Subscribe