In his farewell interview, President Nathan sheds some light on his roles and responsibilities in the past 12 years.
There is something about Mr S R Nathan that makes some senior citizens call him anak, or “son”. The irony is that they are probably much younger than him, he muses.
“It’s an expression of endearment,” he beams, adding: “These are the things that make my day.”
The pleasure he draws from such familial embraces from ordinary Singaporeans may not seem to square with his status as the sixth president of the Republic of Singapore and his background as a consummate civil servant and diplomat.
But then again, this could be what made him the right man at the right time for the job that he relinquishes at the end of this month. Aware of the dignity of his office but dispensing with affectations, President Nathan did not feel the need to assert himself forcefully in his position. He has been comfortable operating his constitutional powers away from the limelight, and offering an unthreatening face to the public.
With a reputation as a thoroughly dependable and discreet public servant, he was regarded as a steadying force after the somewhat rocky Ong Teng Cheong presidency. Mr Ong had publicly expressed his unhappiness with how the Government was treating him. While he wanted to strengthen the presidency’s capacity to serve as an independent watchdog, his former Cabinet colleagues felt he was overreaching.
In 1999, Mr Nathan was persuaded to run for President and stabilise the office. But how independent would he be?
On the day he announced his candidacy, The Straits Times asked him this question. He gave it short shrift.
Twelve years on, in the run-up to this month’s Presidential Election, the issue of independence is again being debated. Again, Mr Nathan refuses to be drawn into proving that he is his own man.
“I have my independent opinions, but I don’t have to beat the drums every day to say that I’m independent,” he says.
In this farewell interview conducted last month, days after celebrating his 87th birthday, Mr Nathan sticks resolutely to a narrow definition of the president’s discretionary powers.
He cautions that the elected presidency is a new institution that must be handled with care.
“It’s got to strike roots,” he notes. He and his two predecessors who wielded the strengthened powers had tried their best to do things in a way that would preserve the institution’s image, he says.
“I’ve tried to preserve in some ways the aura of the presidency, which must be kept because it’s an institution above politics,” he says.
He is careful not to pass judgment on the current candidates’ own interpretations of the president’s role.
“Very soon I will be yesterday’s man. So it’s not proper for me to say,” he says, although he adds that he would be willing to share his views with them in private.
On the president’s responsibility to protect past reserves, Mr Nathan notes that these savings are “strategic assets” for a country that needs to import its food and fuel.
In the 20 years since the laws were amended to protect past reserves, the Government has drawn on the reserves only once, in January 2009, under Mr Nathan’s watch. He took 11 days to approve the drawdown of $4.9 billion, in consultation with the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA).
He reveals, for the first time, that he has had to approve instances when state land, which is considered as past reserves, was being created or enhanced, such as in the case of land reclamation and the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme. He reveals that the president and the relevant government departments have “worked out guidelines to process such cases”. (See story below).
On the appointment of individuals to key positions, he says CPA members “interview the candidates and they come up with a consensus”. There have been occasions when the CPA has queried why an appointment holder is put up for another position.
“Then the CPA will say, ‘Look, why the same person? Why not somebody else?’
“But we don’t, we can’t, publicise these things,” he says.
He and the council have had no occasion to reject anyone the Government recommended, he adds.
The President meets his council at least four times a year to keep updated on the latest developments. He also meets the council chairman regularly and requests for briefings by the relevant agencies.
The council scrutinises everything, he says. There are also “many instances” when he queried decisions or asked for information.
“I don’t do it perfunctorily. I pursue it with as much intensity as I can. For knowledge that I don’t have, I ask the Attorney-General or Chief Justice on law matters, on financial matters the CPA, people like Mr Joe Pillay, Bobby Chin. These are people well-versed in matters of finance. So, consultation takes place.”
Asked if he faced any frustrations working with the Government, he says: “No, I didn’t. I engaged them. They showed deference to me. And whenever I wanted something, apart from the Cabinet papers that kept me abreast of what was going on, what policy was being contemplated and so on, they kept me abreast.”
He says the late Mr Ong’s friction with the Government was short-lived.
“He had a disagreement, he raised the issue, he had the matter sorted out and, as far as he was concerned, that’s finished. He gave me no sense of being aggrieved about that. For him it was a message passed.”
Mr Nathan reveals that he meets the Prime Minister and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong separately once a month, with both sides taking turns to host.
“They always showed deference to me and I appreciated that because before the eyes of the world, I had to appear above them, and I think they made sure,” he says.
He adds that he has spoken privately to PM Lee Hsien Loong about domestic policy. Asked if he discussed the results of the last General Election, for example, he says yes.
He lets on that he would have liked to drop in on former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew now and then, but is prevented by protocol from doing so.
Mr Lee insists that he should call on him and not the other way around, to show the head of state due deference. But after Mrs Lee died last October, Mr Nathan has seen less of Mr Lee.
“I can understand. His health isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Envoy and unifying figure
Mr Nathan has put his experience as a diplomat to good use. He was Singapore’s high commissioner to Kuala Lumpur from 1988 to 1990 and ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1996.
Meeting heads of state and ambassadors is an almost daily activity. Professor Tommy Koh has called him Singapore’s No. 1 diplomat.
Mr Nathan does not accept that label, but there is no doubt he takes this aspect of the job seriously.
“I seek to profile Singapore in their minds,” he says.
He prepares thoroughly for such meetings, poring over briefing notes and trawling his own memories for a more personal touch. When he was in South Africa, for example, he mentioned knowing an African National Congress activist from 40 years ago, which paved the way for an engaging conversation.
Informally, he also keeps in touch with friends and other visitors from overseas. “This enhances my understanding of happenings relevant to Singapore’s interest in areas such as world affairs and economics, while getting them to understand Singapore,” he says.
But it is his interactions with ordinary citizens that he holds most dear.
Rejecting an activist executive role, he has sought to emphasise the ceremonial aspects of the job and his responsibility to serve as a unifying figure.
Recalling his interview with The Straits Times on Aug 6, 1999, he says: “I told you then that everyone is part of my parish. I’ve tried to live up to that, whether they’re Taoists, they’re Buddhists, non-believers, Christians of different persuasions, Muslims, Hindus, I’ve given them space, I’ve provided them patronage, I’ve provided them support for the work that they do with the less fortunate particularly.”
He says he has made a special effort to engage heartlanders. “For them, life is a daily struggle.”
A president’s challenges
He launched the President’s Challenge in 2000 as a way to get more Singaporeans involved in contributing to charity. What started as a month-long campaign each year has since grown into an annual six-month-long charity drive.
“We have emphasised that even a single dollar is worthy of acknowledgement,” he said.
The President’s Challenge has raised over $100 million to date, benefiting more than 500 welfare organisations.
He also launched the annual President’s Social Service Award in 2001 to recognise the efforts of individuals, groups and corporations in community involvement.
Compared with 12 years ago, Mr Nathan has lost weight and looks fitter – the result of exercising for two hours every weekday. His aides say he stopped doing weekends only because his wife said his security officers needed a break.
His steps are steady, purposeful and, when necessary, brisk – ask anyone who has seen him on his morning walks at East Coast Park. His relatively unwrinkled face and alert eyes belie his long years.
His memory is sharp: he cites names from decades ago.
And when he granted ST his first interview on his candidacy 12 years ago, he promised the reporter he would call her again when he retired. He kept his word.
Asked how he would like his presidency remembered, he replies: “I’ve done the best I can. If it’s good enough for some people, fine. If it’s not good enough for some people, and there will always be noise in the environment, you can’t stop it. You don’t do it because you want to leave a legacy. You do the best you can.”
Return to civilian life
Now, he is looking forward to the life of an ordinary citizen, when he can go for lunch at Telok Ayer market or nearby hawker stalls without fuss.
He would prefer not to stay at home, though. He says he would be most happy if a think-tank were to invite him to be part of the outfit. He previously headed the Institute of Defence and Security Studies, now known as the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
“I want to just go, sit down, meet friends, engage people, read what I want to read,” he says.
With so much talk about the “new normal” in Singapore politics, one wonders whether Mr Nathan will be remembered as the last “old normal” president: twice elected unopposed in a less competitive political environment, resoundingly endorsed by the establishment before that link became a possible liability, and able to do the job without having to advertise it on social media.
Similarly, he doesn’t feel he needs to defend his high salary, which has been criticised online.
“I didn’t ask for it. That was the rate for the job, that’s what I accepted. You don’t like the rate, I can’t help it.”
He comes from the “BC” era, he notes – “before computers”.
“I can’t stop you. You carry on,” he says, adding: “In every job I’ve done, I’ve accepted the fact that we’ll be liable to criticism.”
Perhaps his zen-like attitude has something to do with his journey to this point. “I had expected to remain a hawker assistant all my life. And then things happened,” he says with characteristic understatement.
Before becoming a social worker and then rising through the civil service ranks, this was a teenage son who ran away from home after a quarrel with his mother and spent some days living on the streets before camping out at a barber’s home in Muar, Johor.
He confesses to acts of domestic defiance even now. Asked if he watches what he eats, he deadpans: “No. My wife watches. But wherever I can I try to disobey.”
“I got a sweet tooth. I have to restrain it. I like my food. I don’t like all this gourmet stuff.”
The lack of pretension extends to his wardrobe. When he first announced his candidacy in 1999, the press caught pictures of him at home, wearing a sarong and talking at his gate to a reporter.
Does he still wear the sarongs?
“Sure, at night. When I go home, back to sarong. Those who’re used to sarong cannot change it. Pyjamas won’t work.”
Comfortable in his own skin, Mr S R Nathan has never pretended to be what he is not. He has accepted responsibilities thrust upon him, without grasping for power. The attitude has served him well in Singapore’s evolving presidency.
“I had an unexpected experience, from where I came and where I’ve ended. I must be thankful to God to have achieved this.”
Brave and personable
“I see him as a man of courage – he gave himself as a hostage for Laju. That takes courage. He could have died. And as President, he doesn’t come across as haughty. He’s a very grandfatherly, personable, decent man, a man you feel you can talk to. He has no airs about him. Some people say he doesn’t stand up to the Government and my answer to that is, maybe there wasn’t anything to stand up to. That’s number one. Number two, if he did, it would be under the radar. There’s no need to make these quarrels public.”
Professor Walter Woon, former Attorney-General
Our No. 1 diplomat
“President Nathan has managed to restore a cordial and collegial relationship between the Presidency and the Government. He has also taken very seriously his role as our No. 1 diplomat. During his term in office, he travelled 150,000 miles, visited 28 countries, to fly our flag and to win friends and business for Singapore. He has also consolidated Wee Kim Wee's legacy of making himself a ‘people’s president’. He has used the prestige and soft power of his office to champion many good causes... One event which the President hosted at the Istana touched my heart. It was a dinner to honour our disabled athletes who had won medals at the Beijing Paralympics. The President and Mrs Nathan really care for our disabled and others in need.”
Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-large