President Nathan says he looks forward to having an easy time
Under the white arches of the Istana foyer, about 30 Istana employees formed a line to bid a fond farewell to President S R Nathan yesterday afternoon.
One of them turned to her colleagues and asked: “Can we hug him?”
As they giggled, President Nathan appeared in a white shirt and dark blue suit.
“Thank you,” he said simply to each of them as he shook their hands and moved slowly down the line.
There were no hugs, nor tears.
President Nathan’s administrative and household staff then stood on the steps of the front porch to wave a final goodbye to their boss – and there was was a palpable sense of an end of an era.
In the past 12 years, Mr Nathan’s face has been synonymous with the highest office of the land, which he occupied as Singapore’s longest-serving president.
He hosted state banquets for visitors from afar, handed out innumerable awards and graduation scrolls, appeared at events like book launches and netball tournaments, and did behind-the-scenes work like reading Cabinet papers and foreign policy briefs.
On his last day in office, Mr Nathan went for his customary morning walk at East Coast Park, where he met many familiar faces and Singaporeans who wished him a happy retirement.
But his work diary was not blank. He had two meetings at the Istana.
First was a business call by commodities supplier Olam International’s non-executive chairman R. Jayachandran and non-executive director Narain Girdhar Chanrai.
He then had a working lunch of mee siam and Chinese rojak with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, former senior minister S. Jayakumar, and ambassadors Gopinath Pillai and S. Chandra Das.
Typically, Mr Nathan’s daily schedule would include two or three meetings or engagements such as charity events and award ceremonies.
His office yesterday, however, was almost bare, with his books and photos of him with government officials and foreign dignitaries all packed and sent home two weeks ago.
What remains are newspapers, some documents and empty trays.
Asked for his thoughts on his last day, President Nathan said:
“It’s another day. I’ll finish today. I’ve made up my mind to step down so as far as I’m concerned I’m ready to retire.
“I’ve been here 12 years. I won’t say I’ll miss the place. It’ll be a different life (from now). I look forward to having an easy time.”
Mr Nathan will spend time in academia after stepping down.
“Nothing is substantive in what I am going to do. I don’t want any responsibility. I want to be free to do what I want,” he said.
Mr Nathan will be a distinguished senior fellow at think-tank Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
He will also be a distinguished fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). He was the founding director of its predecessor, the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.
RSIS dean Barry Desker said in a statement yesterday: “We are pleased to renew our association with President Nathan as we will benefit greatly from his intellectual inputs, wise counsel and vast experience in diplomacy, defence and international affairs.”
Mr Nathan also said his memoirs on his childhood, war years and career are with the publishers and will be out on Sept 19.
Istana staff interviewed described him as an approachable and understanding boss whom they will miss.
Chief butler Francis Ho, 49, who has worked at the Istana since the time of former president Ong Teng Cheong, said: “I’m very sad. I remember his kindness. He has looked after us well.”
Assistant principal private secretary Lai Choon Yen, 39, added: “He greets you first and uses both hands in a warm handshake.”
Protocol assistant Lily Soh, 41, recalls his soft-spoken nature: “He’s tactful and won’t let us feel embarrassed if he is not satisfied with our work.”
Madam Soh, who has worked at the Istana for seven years, spoke of his remarkable memory for gifts he received from people and countries, some as long as 20 years ago.
“He also studied Chinese and calligraphy and used his works for charity. He has been an active president,” she added.