S R Nathan: 1924-2016

S R Nathan: 'Few answered nation's call so often, and served so well', says PM Lee

PM Lee pays tribute to ex-president's 'abiding sense of duty' at state funeral to honour his life of service

Final salute for Mr Nathan from the coffin bearer party from the armed forces and police during the state funeral service at the University Cultural Centre yesterday.
Final salute for Mr Nathan from the coffin bearer party from the armed forces and police during the state funeral service at the University Cultural Centre yesterday. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Singaporeans bade a final farewell to the nation's sixth and longest- serving president yesterday.

Thousands braved the haze to line the streets from Parliament House to Kent Ridge, as Mr S R Nathan's cortege passed by landmarks that were milestones in his illustrious career of five decades in public service.

Others stopped work to tune in to the broadcast of a state funeral service for the man many had, since his death on Monday at age 92, hailed as a people's president.

At the University Cultural Centre, seven eulogists paid tribute to the man whose life's work made a difference to their lives and many others.

They shared memories of how as a social worker, workers' advocate, intelligence chief, newspaper company executive chairman, diplomat and from 1999 to 2011, Singapore's President, he shaped the history of this young nation and its institutions.

Even after he stepped down, he stayed active in engaging young Singaporeans, encouraging them to build on the pioneer generation's work and take Singapore forward.

"He always did his best for Singapore, even at personal risk and sacrifice," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who delivered the opening eulogy during the two- hour funeral service.

"Few have answered the nation's calls so faithfully and so often, and served Singapore so well."

Mr Lee noted Mr Nathan served two terms as head of state with dignity and distinction, winning the respect and affection of Singaporeans of all races and from all walks of life.

"He firmly believed in and was the epitome of multiracialism, attending events of all communities, making time for everyone, no matter who they were," he said.

Mr Nathan's family members, President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Mrs Tan, MPs, diplomats and invited Singaporeans from all walks of life were among the 1,900 at the service. There were civil servants, social workers, religious leaders and students, many of whom he generously shared his life experiences and wisdom with.

Mr Nathan's hope was that they would learn "not to give up", Mr Lee said, noting that the ex-president "overcame extremely trying circumstances in his childhood and rose in the public service through grit, determination and ability, guided by a deep and abiding sense of duty".

Mr Lee added: "Time and again, he placed nation before self. Quietly and without fuss, he gave his best years and more, to Singapore."

Many among the more than 20,000 people who paid their respects at Mr Nathan's lying in state in Parliament House on Thursday had met him - or been moved by his life story and lifetime of duty.

Yesterday, six former colleagues and friends who knew him well, some for a half-century, joined Mr Lee in paying tribute to his steely resolve, strength of character, and generosity of spirit.

Foreign service veteran Tommy Koh called Mr Nathan "our super ambassador to the world" - a demanding boss who taught officers to be courageous, and put his own life on the line in the 1974 Laju hijack crisis.

As President, Mr Nathan's social work training and prodigious memory for names and faces endeared him to many. And he converted a huge global network of friends into friends of Singapore.

Former senior minister of state and community leader Zainul Abidin Rasheed, a former journalist, spoke of how Mr Nathan's network helped The Straits Times make inroads in its reporting on the region when he was executive chairman of The Straits Times Press.

His concerns transcended race and religion, Mr Zainul said, citing his abiding interest in Malay affairs as well as projects like the Indian Muslim Heritage Centre.

Community Chest adviser Jennie Chua shared stories of his deep commitment to charity and the social service sector, and heartfelt letters he wrote by hand to thank friends, volunteers and social workers.

Mr Nathan's willingness to help others never ceased even when he was in hospital, said his friend Ramaswamy Athappan.

For labour chief Chan Chun Sing, helping Mr Nathan start the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies - today's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies - imparted an important lesson: "Only the lack of imagination can set us back."

Mr Nathan's life encapsulates the Singapore Story many in his generation never imagined was possible.

It was thus apt that the service opened with the music of Thanja- vooru Manneduthu, a Tamil song that diplomat Gopinath Pillai said resonated with Mr Nathan as "he heard in it a tale of Singapore - how from many, we became one".

"We bid farewell to a remarkable man whose life was an unusual journey," said Mr Pillai, who spoke last.

"We were all fortunate to have been in some measure a part of this unexpected odyssey."

Remembering S R Nathan

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline S R Nathan: 'Few answered nation's call so often, and served so well', says PM Lee. Subscribe