S R Nathan broke down when asked to stand for President: ESM Goh Chok Tong

Singapore's then new president S R Nathan greets supporters outside the nomination centre in Singapore in August 1999.
Singapore's then new president S R Nathan greets supporters outside the nomination centre in Singapore in August 1999.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - When Mr Goh Chok Tong asked Mr S R Nathan to stand for President, he broke down, said the Emeritus Senior Minister in his condolences to the late president's wife, Urmila.

Mr Goh said that it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew who suggested Mr Nathan to him when they were on the look out for presidential candidates in 1999.

"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," Mr Goh wrote in a condolence letter on Tuesday (Aug 23).

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

His was a story of "fortitude, courage and service", said Mr Goh.

That story includes how Mr Nathan dropped out of school as a teenager and ran away from home, how he joined the civil service as a clerk and rose through the ranks, and how he took up the highest office in the land after he "retired".

"From my years of interaction with him, I knew him to be of stout character and loyal to his friends and colleagues. His rise from clerk to President rode on his valour, competence and people-skills," he wrote.

Mr Nathan went on to serve two terms as President, from 1999 to 2011.

"He was sincere, humble and had the people's touch," Mr Goh added.

Mr Goh noted that Mr Nathan not only served in many areas, including social service, the labour movement, the intelligence service and foreign service, but he also started the President's Challenge in 2000 to help Singaporeans in need.

"Sadly, Nathan is no longer with us," he wrote. "I grieve but take solace in that his spirit of public service will continue to live on within Singaporeans."