S R NATHAN 1924 — 2016: The racial harmony champion

Even when he was ill, Nathan had minority issues on his mind

Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed giving his eulogy on Aug 26, 2016.
Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed giving his eulogy on Aug 26, 2016. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Just a month before he died, even though he was ill and in hospital, Mr S R Nathan took the time to chat about Malay affairs with former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed for nearly an hour.

Their final conversation at Singapore General Hospital took place before Mr Nathan suffered his second stroke in two years on July 31, which left him warded there until his death on Monday at the age of 92.

The chat from his hospital bed showed how the issues of the minority communities, no matter their race or religion, remained close to Mr Nathan's heart until the very end.

Yesterday, in eulogies at the state funeral, Mr Zainul and Ambassador-at-Large Gopinath Pillai spoke of how Mr Nathan's concerns transcended race and religion.

Speaking in Malay, Mr Zainul recounted how, as an editor at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and later as senior minister of state for foreign affairs, he had worked with Mr Nathan.

Mr Nathan, despite his ill health in May last year after suffering his first stroke the month before, still made it a point to attend the launch of a book chronicling the local Malay-Muslim community titled Majulah! 50 Years Of Malay-Muslim Community In Singapore.

"He was very happy that the book had recorded the challenges and contributions of the Malay-Muslim community since Singapore's independence," said Mr Zainul, who was editor of Malay daily Berita Harian when he first met Mr Nathan in the 1980s. Mr Nathan was the executive chairman of SPH and of its predecessor, The Straits Times Press, in those years.

Said Mr Zainul: "He had always wanted Malays to see themselves as modern and fully integrated Singaporeans, instead of just as a minority community."

Mr Nathan also took a personal interest in the Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre, located in Telok Ayer Street at the site of a shrine built by Muslim immigrants from South India in 1830.

"Truly, his concerns transcended race and religion," said Mr Zainul.

Mr Nathan also cared deeply about Hindu issues, Mr Pillai said of the man who was his close friend and mentor for nearly four decades.

They first got to know each other in 1983, when Mr Nathan was appointed chairman of the Hindu Endowments Board.

What first struck Mr Pillai about him was that he did not think doing one's best was good enough. Doing what was required was more important.

This work ethos came out strongly in his priorities for the board.

Mr Nathan brought in a qualified professional to get the Indian organisation's accounts up to date because it handled money from a large number of devotees.

He was also mindful of religious sensitivities.

Mr Pillai once suggested discontinuing the practice of spending large amounts of money to refresh Hindu temples once every 12 years.

Devotees believe that this is necessary to maintain the temple's divine powers. But Mr Nathan advised him not to change established traditions, and reminded him that their task "was to run an efficient system, not to tinker with people's beliefs".

This sense of giving back to society was always paramount with Mr Nathan, who was one of the founders of Indian self-help group Sinda.

Mr Nathan believed firmly that every child, irrespective of race or religion, should have the opportunity to develop to his full potential. In Sinda, he started many initiatives which improved many lives.

This belief in giving back was what made him agree to chair the Hindu Endowments Board, said Mr Pillai.

Mr Nathan explained to him that in the political arena, there were credible Indian ministers who had won the respect of all racesand that the various Indian institutions should also be credible.

Said Mr Pillai: "He felt strongly that those who have done well should not cut themselves off from their respective communities."

And Mr Nathan himself stayed humble all his life, said Mr Zainul: "He walked with kings, sultans, emirs, presidents and prime ministers, but... he retained the simple and ordinary in him." Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'Even when he was ill, Nathan had minority issues on his mind'. Subscribe