S R Nathan: 1924 - 2016

A president with the personal touch

Many who turn up to pay respects recall encounters with him

Outside City Hall MRT station, an elderly man played Auld Lang Syne on a harmonica. Members of the public paying their respects to Mr Nathan at Parliament House yesterday. People from all walks of life joined the queues at the Padang to wait for thei
Members of the public paying their respects to Mr Nathan at Parliament House yesterday. People from all walks of life joined the queues at the Padang to wait for their turn to say goodbye to the former president. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

It was 12.30pm. The temperature outside, according to Siri on my iPhone, was 32 deg C.

An elderly Chinese busker stood outside exit B of City Hall MRT station, a black tote slung around his neck. He held a grey umbrella and a FairPrice Finest carrier bag in his right hand, and a harmonica in his left.

He was playing Auld Lang Syne, perhaps to bid farewell to former president SR Nathan, whose body was lying in state in Parliament House several hundred metres away.

Outside City Hall MRT station, an elderly man played Auld Lang Syne on a harmonica. ST PHOTO: WONG KIM HOH

I approached one of several men wearing white shirts, dark slacks and black bands around their left arm. If I wanted to pay my respects, the young man said helpfully, I should make my way to the Padang and join the queue.

Under the searing mid-day sun, I joined a steady stream of people as they headed for the open field in front of The National Gallery.

Some were striding purposefully, others strolling languidly. Men in starched shirts and cuff-links, women in smart suits and high heels, uncles in polos and bermudas, students in their uniforms, Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, young, old and middle-aged - they were all there, alone or with friends and colleagues. By then, more than 3,000 people, I was told, had already paid their respects.

Near the entrance of a makeshift passageway covered with white tent fabric and lined with pots of white orchids, several volunteers were distributing bottled water. A man with a crew cut kept hollering: "Please make sure you drink some water. The weather's very hot."

Many people stopped at four tables set up for them to pen their condolences on white cards with white orchid motifs. Next to the tables were stands displaying messages to one of the pioneer nation-builders who died on Monday, aged 92.

Some were short: "I feel very sad, Mr Nathan. Thank you," wrote LKH.

Others were intimate: "Dearest President, My heart broke when I heard of your passing. It seemed like you spoke to us about the philosophy of life and social work so recently. Your life story is a lesson that I will keep in my heart. Your legacy in social work will be continued by this generation you have inspired," wrote Vijayalakshmi.

The handwritten notes were a fitting tribute to a man who, I have learnt, had a penchant for picking up pen and paper to express thanks, delight and encouragement.

He certainly made my day when I came into the office this January to find a letter from him. In beautiful cursive handwriting, he told me how much he enjoyed my book, It Changed My Life, which contains interviews with Singaporeans who overcame the odds to turn their lives around. He cited several stories and said they reminded him of his own life. It was such a touching gesture from a man who once held the highest office in the land, one who, unfortunately, I never had the privilege to meet.

He ended the letter with this line: "Thank you for your short stories. I know it will inspire others."

He certainly inspired Singaporeans, judging from the crowd which swelled considerably as the afternoon wore on.

Member of Parliament and lawyer Christopher de Souza, who was behind me in the queue, remembered being on a state visit to Turkey with him in 2009.

"We were 30,000 feet up in the air. SQ dimmed the cabin lights, everyone was asleep and I was just going through the briefs given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Suddenly President Nathan came, sat on my armrest and started talking about Singapore and perseverance with such interest and insight.

"His work ethic and his dedication to Singapore were inspiring," Mr de Souza said.

Like him, many yesterday had personal encounters with the late former president. Among them was Mrs Maz Mindi, 68, who came with three Girl Guides. The former deputy chief of Girl Guides Singapore recalled how Mr Nathan - who was Chief Scout during his presidency - would go out of his way to talk to Girl Guides and their parents during prize presentation ceremonies.

Most yesterday also went to pay their respects because they recognised that he served Singapore and Singaporeans well.

Housewife Jayasree Nair, 44, was there with her daughters Jaishwini, 12, and Yashiniya, nine, to bid farewell to a great man who did much for the country.

Her father Jayaraman Krishnan Nair, 64, who is with the Infantry Training Institute, agreed, and said that was why he volunteered to help out at the funeral.

The wait to get into Parliament House took over an hour but it was pleasant, orderly and angst-free.

My turn came. I could discern his nose as he lay in his casket, draped with the state flag.

"Thank you Mr President. Rest in peace," I said silently. And as I walked out into the mid-day sun, I wondered if that old busker was still playing Auld Lang Syne.

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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 A president with the personal touch. Subscribe