S R NATHAN 1924 — 2016: The mentor and unionist

Humble champion of 'the small man'

The funeral service booklet, in honour and memory of Mr Nathan's lifetime of achievements and his dedicated service to Singapore. Government leaders and their wives who attended yesterday's funeral service included (above, from left) Mr and Mrs Lim S
A 2,000-strong crowd turned up to pay their last respects and to attend the state funeral service for Mr Nathan at the University Cultural Centre yesterday.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The funeral service booklet, in honour and memory of Mr Nathan's lifetime of achievements and his dedicated service to Singapore. Government leaders and their wives who attended yesterday's funeral service included (above, from left) Mr and Mrs Lim S
Mr Nathan's family members – (from left) his grandchildren Kheshin, Kiron and Monisha; son Osith’s partner Hooi; Osith; son-in-law Cheong Gay Eng; daughter Juthika and Mrs Nathan.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The funeral service booklet, in honour and memory of Mr Nathan's lifetime of achievements and his dedicated service to Singapore. Government leaders and their wives who attended yesterday's funeral service included (above, from left) Mr and Mrs Lim S
Government leaders and their wives who attended yesterday’s funeral service included (above, from left) Mr and Mrs Lim Swee Say, Mr and Mrs Khaw Boon Wan, Madam Halimah Yacob, Mr Lim Hng Kiang and Dr Ng Eng Hen.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The funeral service booklet, in honour and memory of Mr Nathan's lifetime of achievements and his dedicated service to Singapore. Government leaders and their wives who attended yesterday's funeral service included (above, from left) Mr and Mrs Lim S
The funeral service booklet, in honour and memory of Mr Nathan’s lifetime of achievements and his dedicated service to Singapore.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

To a young army officer back in the 1990s, Mr S R Nathan, who had just returned to Singapore after serving as Ambassador to the United States, made a big impression.

Not just for what Mr Nathan had achieved. But for being a mentor to younger staff officers, giving them a free hand to work and trusting them to execute plans, labour chief and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

He thanked the late Mr Nathan "for planting the seeds in us younger Singaporeans, to be better Singaporeans for a stronger Singapore", in his eulogy at yesterday's state funeral service.

He recalled that in 1996, he was assigned to assist Mr Nathan in setting up a new think-tank, the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

It turned out that neither of them had any experience in setting up such an organisation, but Mr Nathan saw it as being "given a free hand" and told Mr Chan that only the lack of imagination could set them back.

Meticulous, but trusting people to execute plans, Mr Nathan travelled the world to look for the best in academia to join the institute, while leaving Mr Chan to set up the facilities.

It was a style he picked up from pioneers such as the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, said Mr Chan.

 

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Chan said that Dr Goh gave the team at the Labour Research Unit, which Mr Nathan joined in 1962, similar freedom when tasking them simply to fight for the welfare of workers (wei gongyou zhengqu fuli).

"Just like the other members of our pioneer generation, armed with a sense of mission and fearing no hardship, Mr Nathan gradually built up Singapore one step at a time."

Subordinates were not just staff officers to him, but like family, said Mr Chan, who was invited to Mr Nathan's family festive celebrations every year without fail, ever since they worked together.

After Mr Nathan retired as President in 2011 - the same year Mr Chan entered politics - he wanted to call on Mr Chan at his office in the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports to affirm him.

"His humility and magnanimity of spirit to help the younger generation is something that we should learn," said Mr Chan.

Among other lessons the labour movement learnt from Mr Nathan is how to care for fellow Singaporeans, especially the most vulnerable, said Mr Chan, who is secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

He added that Mr Nathan also showed that it is possible to remain united by a common future, values and purpose, even though Singaporeans may not be able to claim a common ancestry, race, language or religion.

"You once said: 'The trade union movement is the place where the small man rises. The small man is important. Don't take him for granted. The trade union movement gave me the courage to stand up and speak to big people without fear.'

"Yes, Mr Nathan, the labour movement will always remember your words," said Mr Chan.

 

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Mr Nathan maintained his ties with the NTUC until May this year, when despite poorer health and a busy schedule, he had a talk with unionists.

He was passionate and incisive as usual, Mr Chan recalled, reminding them to stay focused on being a labour movement that not only takes care of working people, but also of the country as a whole.

He also asked if the labour movement would be "our brothers' keeper" and "our sisters' keeper", looking out for one another no matter what.

"Yes, we will, Mr Nathan," said Mr Chan. "We will take care of each other. We will take care of Singapore. Your pioneer generation toiled with blood, sweat and tears to give us the chance to be called Singaporeans. We, the younger generation, will build upon it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'Humble champion of 'the small man''. Print Edition | Subscribe