In his last days, former president S R Nathan was bent on finding answers to one question: What national cause would Singaporeans rally around for a brighter future, and deepen the bond between them and their leaders?
The Straits Times (ST) editor-at- large Han Fook Kwang yesterday told about 150 people at The Arts House that Mr Nathan had urged him to help find an answer to that question when he, EDB Society president Lee Suan Hiang and the society's honorary secretary Daisy Goh visited Mr Nathan in hospital on July 13, over a month before he died on Aug 22.
Yesterday, four of the late statesman's former colleagues proffered answers to his question at a forum Mr Han moderated, which the society and ST organised as part of its Pioneering The Future series.
They were Mr S. Dhanabalan, a former minister and member of the Council of Presidential Advisers; academic Cham Tao Soon, who is Professor Emeritus at Nanyang Technogical University; ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; and ST's former editor-in-chief, Mr Peter Lim.
To Mr Nathan's question about the burning cause for citizens, Mr Dhanabalan noted how successful Singapore had been in turning former Indonesian president B. J. Habibie's jibe about it being a little red dot and so "of no consequence" into "a badge of honour".
He rued, however, that because Singaporeans absorbed many global "values, fashions and trends", they risked winding up with "no clear identity" and being just like any other global city.
So he did not see why Singaporeans should be so keen on celebrating when Western media commended the Republic on being No. 1 in various fields, saying: "Why do we have no self-confidence to say we are different?"
Mr Ong said Singaporeans should stop harking back to the past, and instead build on the country's success today. He added: "We have to look at Singapore as having made it... Singapore is now reputable and well-regarded with high standards and, going forward, we should substantiate that idea."
And while it had "leapfrogged" neighbours such as Malaysia and Indonesia to seize opportunities farther abroad, Singapore "must now find a way to... get better value" from its relationships with such neighbours, he said.
Prof Cham, who had visited Mr Nathan a few months before his death, said that if current and future Singaporeans worked smart and hard, the nation would continue to do well, barring a global disaster. "I know they work smart, but I'm not sure they work hard," he added.
Mr Lim noted that Mr Nathan had "empathy and quiet courage" and had done much to "strengthen multi-culturalism", adding: "Why are we still wondering whether to accept (Deputy Prime Minister) Tharman (Shanmugaratnam) as prime minister or who should be the next president?"
All four paid tribute to the late labour-movement pioneer, diplomat, intelligence officer, media chief and head of state for being sharp, fierce about work, compassionate, very good with people and humble.
Mr Dhanabalan said Mr Nathan "could balance a bird's eye view with a worm's eye view", never forgetting a face or a name while never losing sight of broad policy issues.
The forum began with Economic Development Board managing director Yeoh Keat Chuan, Mr Lee and Ms Goh presenting the society's top award posthumously to Mr Nathan, calling him "a man for all seasons".
His older grandson, Kiron Cheong, 24, received the award on his behalf. Mr Nathan's widow, Urmila, was absent but their children, Juthika and Osith, were there.
Mr Osith told The Straits Times that his father had been informed of the award before he died, and was chuffed to accept it. "He thought it good that economic development here did not just involve economists, but was more holistic."