S R NATHAN 1924 — 2016: The social worker

He wrote with a $2 pen, but no two letters were the same

Ms Jennie Chua giving her eulogy on Aug 26, 2016.
Ms Jennie Chua giving her eulogy on Aug 26, 2016. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

There was one instrument that former president SR Nathan regularly wielded with great finesse: a $2.20 Uni-ball Signo broad-tipped black pen. With it, he would write personalised letters - always dated and signed - to his friends in his characteristic cursive hand.

"Like the man himself, his words were warm, encouraging, heartfelt and inspiring," said his long-time friend Jennie Chua in her eulogy at the state funeral yesterday.

She and others who spoke at his funeral service recalled the former president's big heart and unfailing kindness - qualities which he brought to the social services.

In 2000, Mr Nathan started the President's Challenge fund-raising drive, which has since raised more than $100 million to help needy children, families, the elderly, those with disabilities, and others.

He worked hard to make it a success, recalled Ms Chua. "He called upon all his contacts. If he knew you could contribute in one way or another, he would call you."

What started out as a week-long drive became a year-long campaign, and smaller charities and those who had difficulty raising funds on their own benefited from the Challenge, added Ms Chua, who was chairman of the Community Chest for 14 years until she stepped down in 2013.


To her, and many others in the social service sector, Mr Nathan was a mentor with a strong passion for serving the community.

Over the years, Mr Nathan became convinced of the critical role Singapore corporations could play in fostering a spirit of giving. After he retired as President, he could and did devote more time to getting corporations involved in social work, said Ms Chua, who is Singapore's Ambassador to Mexico and chairman of Alexandra Health System.

Mr Nathan never overlooked the individual, she added. She recounted how at a charity gala dinner organised by the Community Chest, Mr Nathan noticed how the organising committee had to deal with a couple of difficult donors. The next morning, she received a note from him with a line that read: "Some of us have greater burdens to bear, I know it was not easy for you."

Said Ms Chua: "I am certain I was not the only one who received such a letter. And mind you, it was never a standard template - no two letters from him were the same."

At these charity events, Mr Nathan was so obliging in agreeing to pose for photos with people that a short walk to the exit could take up to 45 minutes. "He would make every effort to speak to as many people as possible," said Ms Chua.

It was a habit that Mr Nathan kept, whether at glitzy charity events or on his daily morning walks at East Coast Park. It was 16 years ago that he met business leader Ramaswamy Athappan on such a walk, and the two became friends.

Mr Athappan yesterday delivered a eulogy in Tamil and said: "I personally witnessed how he paid close attention to the everyday concerns of ordinary Singaporeans.

"He conversed and listened kindly, courteously and attentively to the concerns of people he met during his morning walks."

Mr Athappan, too, received a note from Mr Nathan showing his care and concern. He told of how Mr Nathan personally delivered the letter in mid-April, three months before he suffered his second stroke in two years, along with a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh.


In the note, Mr Nathan wrote: "My days are somewhat numbered. I will be 92 in July. My heart is getting weaker by the day. My only wish is to see you well and successful in your life."

Turning to Mr Nathan's family, seated in the front row of the University Cultural Centre auditorium where the funeral service was held, Mr Athappan thanked them for the love and affection "they have bestowed not only upon me, but on millions of Singaporeans".

"Mr Nathan will always remain a priceless treasure in the memories of all of us. We are all so blessed to have been acquainted, in one way or another, with the life of this excellent, great man."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'He wrote with a $2 pen, but no two letters were the same'. Subscribe