S R Nathan: 1924 - 2016

What Singaporeans say: A precious gift for his son

Service engineer S. Sathanantham's (above) son Russell began racing go-karts in 2009 when he was a Primary 3 pupil. He wanted to give the nine-year-old a surprise to encourage him.
Service engineer S. Sathanantham's (above) son Russell began racing go-karts in 2009 when he was a Primary 3 pupil. He wanted to give the nine-year-old a surprise to encourage him.ST PHOTO: CHONG ZI LIANG
Madam Rohani Dukiran, 48, pushed back her dialysis session yesterday so that she could pay her last respects to Mr Nathan.
Madam Rohani Dukiran, 48, pushed back her dialysis session yesterday so that she could pay her last respects to Mr Nathan.ST PHOTO: PEARL LEE
Ms Lim Lee Lee (above), who is visually impaired, grew up being told by her parents that blind people do not need an education.
Ms Lim Lee Lee (above), who is visually impaired, grew up being told by her parents that blind people do not need an education.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Ms Nursyaheeda Ahmad (above), 27, remembers meeting former president S R Nathan twice: once in 2005 as a student at Admiralty Secondary School, and again in 2014, during an event at the Supreme Court to honour the contributions of the late criminal l
Ms Nursyaheeda Ahmad (above), 27, remembers meeting former president S R Nathan twice: once in 2005 as a student at Admiralty Secondary School, and again in 2014, during an event at the Supreme Court to honour the contributions of the late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan.ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
Mr Lawrence Koh (left) presented former president S R Nathan with a caricature in 2015. In attendance is former MP Seng Han Thong (centre).
Mr Lawrence Koh (left) presented former president S R Nathan with a caricature in 2015. In attendance is former MP Seng Han Thong (centre).PHOTO: LAWRENCE KOH

As president, S R Nathan reached out to Singaporeans from all walks of life. Several of those who paid their last respects at his lying in state at Parliament House fondly recall their encounters with him.

A precious gift for his son

Service engineer S. Sathanantham's son Russell began racing go-karts in 2009 when he was a Primary 3 pupil. He wanted to give the nine-year-old a surprise to encourage him.

He bought a go-kart helmet and passed it to a family friend who knew then President S R Nathan.

The President signed it.

Russell proudly wore the helmet for his next go-karting session, but there was no next time after that.

 

"We didn't want any scratches or damage to something with the President's signature. It's just too precious," said Mr Sathanantham, 48. He spent about $600 to buy Russell another helmet.

The autographed helmet is now displayed in their home off Upper Serangoon Road.

Mr Sathanantham was at Parliament House at 7.30am yesterday, the first person in line to pay his respects.

"This is the least I can do. Mr Nathan was part of the Old Guard who did a lot for this country," he said.


Delayed dialysis to say farewell

Their encounter was brief but 12 years on, Mr S R Nathan's words of advice still ring loud and clear for Madam Rohani Dukiran, 48.

She was then at the Istana, where two of her four children were performing as their primary school's brass band snagged the gold award at the Singapore Youth Festival.

"He asked the children if they liked music and they said, 'Yes'. He told them they cannot just love music, they must also love their studies and get a good education," she said.

The mother of four, who has kidney failure and uses a wheelchair, added tearfully: "He also advised us parents to encourage our children."

She delayed her dialysis session yesterday to pay her last respects with two of her children.

"I got permission from the nurse to come here first," she said.

She met Mr Nathan some years later at a mosque, where he helped to prepare briyani for charity.

"He was a very nice president," she said, her voice trailing off as she broke down in tears.


'Such courage is hard to come by'

When Mr Wong Chee Sun, 64, found out where Mr S R Nathan lived a few years ago, he would ride past Ceylon Road on his way to work at East Coast Seafood Centre.

"I wanted to see if I could bump into him, and I did. Whenever I passed by and he was at the gate, he would wave and smile - he was a very friendly man," said the now- retired chef.

Yesterday, Mr Wong, now in a motorised wheelchair, took a bus from his home in Geylang Bahru to Parliament House to pay his respects.

He had just completed his national service when the Laju hostage crisis unfolded in 1974, he added.

"It made me sit up. We used to think it was very safe being a soldier in Singapore, that you would never lose your life," Mr Wong said.

"Yet, there was this person, a civil servant, who offered himself to the terrorists in exchange for the hostages," he said, referring to Mr Nathan. "Such courage is hard to come by," said Mr Wong, who added that he had "taken notice of Mr Nathan since then".


He inspired her to keep learning

Ms Lim Lee Lee, who is visually impaired, grew up being told by her parents that blind people do not need an education.

But more than 10 years ago, she met Mr S R Nathan when he presented a cheque to her organisation. And his words inspired her.

"He said to never stop learning - continuous learning is key, it's powerful. From then on, whatever I was interested in, I would go and learn," said Ms Lim, who is in her late 40s and paid her last respects accompanied by her guide dog, Nice.

She added that she used to sign up for courses before skills upgrading became common.

She took him as a role model as he beat the odds to get an education.

Ms Lim went on to get a degree in English language and literature, and is now a motivational speaker.


A lesson in humility

Ms Nursyaheeda Ahmad, 27, remembers meeting former president S R Nathan twice: once in 2005 as a student at Admiralty Secondary School, and again in 2014, during an event at the Supreme Court to honour the contributions of the late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan.

From both encounters, the childcare teacher gleaned two things that cemented her view of him as a people's president.

Whether in her school hall or the Supreme Court, Mr Nathan knew how to light up a room, she said.

"He would wave and smile at us secondary school kids, and ask us whether we had eaten," she recalled last night. "When I met him again so many years later, he'd still ask, very politely, if we'd had our meals."

He was also ever-obliging when people wanted photos taken with him, she said, adding: "Mr Nathan has taught me that no matter what race or religion we come from, we must always remain humble and be kind to one another."


Cards every Deepavali

Ms Amaravathy Sarojam, 64, remembers the Deepavali greeting cards Mr S R Nathan would send to her workplace every year.

She works at the Sree Narayana Mission, a home for the aged, and Mr Nathan would send its residents festive cards every year.

He also visited the home and interacted with its residents a few times, which cheered the elderly folk.

Ms Sarojam yesterday bade Mr Nathan a final farewell as part of a contingent from the National Council of Social Service.

"He was very down-to-earth," she said of Mr Nathan, a passionate advocate for the social services and those in need.

Her colleague, Ms Ambarasi, 50, who goes by only one name, also recalls Mr Nathan attending the annual fire-walking ceremony at the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road, where she goes.

She was looking forward to seeing him this year, but that wish was not fulfilled due to Mr Nathan's ill health.


Animating his dream

Mr Lawrence Koh created two digital paintings of Mr S R Nathan as a tribute to the former president. PHOTO: LAWRENCE KOH

In 2003, at the age of 31, Mr Lawrence Koh was accepted into a US university to study animation but he could not afford to go.

He wrote to many organisations for support, and even applied for a President's Scholarship.

He was surprised that then-President S R Nathan wrote to him to suggest that he try the Media Development Authority (MDA) instead.

Mr Koh was among MDA's pioneer batch of scholarship recipients. He is now a bestselling author, caricaturist and lecturer of 3D media technology at Temasek Polytechnic.

The writer of Growing Up with Lee Kuan Yew said that when he was studying and working overseas for about 10 years, he and his family sent Mr Nathan Christmas cards, and the former president would reply each and every one.

Last year, he finally met Mr Nathan and presented him with two caricatures as a gift. Mr Nathan jokingly thanked him for "making his hair so black", Mr Koh said.


• Reports by: Chong Zi Liang, Pearl Lee, Lim Yan Liang, Charissa Yong, Jalelah Abu Baker, Joanna Seow, Tessa Oh and Charmaine Ng

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'What Singaporeans say '. Print Edition | Subscribe