What S R did: Create something out of nothing

Singapore and the broader international community were saddened to learn of the passing of S R Nathan, who served as Singapore's President from 1999 to 2011. Much will be written regarding his life in public service, his personal courage and his many accomplishments, but let me add three lessons from a man I had the privilege of working with over the years and was honoured to call a friend.


S R's life began with no promise, yet he shaped it into one of extraordinary promise. He had a childhood of personal turmoil, exacerbated by the tumult of World War II. The idea of grinding poverty did not fully capture his situation. "No shoes?" he once chuckled in response to a question. "The larger problem was no food."

S R's youth had only scattered moments of formal education. His household was beset with an alcoholic father, who committed suicide. S R ran away from home to escape this Dickens-like misery. His unlikely friendship with a Japanese officer during the Occupation and the slow but incessant turnaround in his life all make his memoirs worth reading.

You grow in admiration for a man of considerable equilibrium and geniality. Fate did not extend either to him, but he radiated them both in dealings with others.

Lesson: You can shape your conditions or you can allow your conditions to shape you. S R had the discipline and inner fire to shape his conditions.

Mr Nathan, who served as Singapore's President from 1999 to 2011, did not take his job lightly. At community events, he would go to every table in the room to chat, inquire and offer pleasantries. He did not attend events; he worked at events. ST FILE PHOTO


I met S R when he was serving as Singapore Ambassador to the United States. (The success of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's recent Washington visit blurs the memory that relations can have low points as well as high points.)

S R's tenure was contemporaneous with perhaps the nadir in bilateral relations: the Michael Fay incident. Fay was the American teenager convicted of vandalism and other offences in Singapore, the result of which was if not a rupture in diplomatic relations, certainly a deep freeze. Indeed, S R told me "I am in the refrigerator".

With much diplomatic intercourse cut off, S R took his isolation with aplomb. He was never defensive or with a chip on his shoulder, but always carried himself with the pride of representing his country.

He used the time to explore the US, give talks, and develop reach outside of Washington.

Lesson: Your assignment will have down days as well as up days. You need to acquit yourself regardless.


I saw a great deal of S R when I served as Ambassador to Singapore and this provided a welcome opportunity to renew our friendship. What was staggering to me was his work ethic while serving well into his 80s. This was not a "retirement job" or a "symbolic job". It was a full-time job, one he pursued with ebullience. I might attend a community event on a weekend and say hello to dignitaries. S R would arrive and go to every table in the room to chat, inquire and offer pleasantries. He did not attend events; he worked at events.

Lesson: Public officials must be accessible and energy counts.


I last saw S R at the National Library a few months ago and he greeted me with the same broad grin, one that essentially obligates the recipient to smile back. One of the great joys of life is catching up with old friends, though both of us were unaware this would be the last time we would chat. If achievement and hard work are the mark of a life well lived, S R has certainly attained a place in the top ranks.

I suspect S R is smiling at us still. And we are smiling back.

  • Frank Lavin was United States Ambassador to Singapore from 2001 to 2005 and is currently the chairman of Export Now, a firm that operates e-commerce stores in China for international brands.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'What S R did: Create something out of nothing'. Print Edition | Subscribe