Nathan a tree planter who helped grow S'pore into a modern nation: PM Lee

Choo Eng Chuan (left) and former president SR Nathan at the EY's Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 Awards held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on 14 November 2013. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong celebrated former president SR Nathan's 90th birthday on Thu
Mr Choo Eng Chuan and former president S R Nathan at the EY's Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 Awards held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Nov 14, 2013. -- PHOTO: EY2013

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong celebrated former president SR Nathan's 90th birthday on Thursday night, recounting the many contributions Mr Nathan had made in his "long and full life".

From a tumultuous childhood fraught with difficulties, PM Lee said, Mr Nathan became the country's sixth and longest-serving president.

He wore many hats, from clerk to unionist, ambassador to President, but his most important role, said Mr Lee, was that of tree planter.

"Wherever he went, he nurtured young seedlings into mature trees," said Mr Lee in a speech at the Shangri-La Hotel, where he was among the more than 700 guests at the birthday celebration.

Mr Nathan, he explained, had grown young organisations like the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs into mature institutions.

He had also mentored promising officers, helping them reach their potential.

Singapore under his care grew into a modern, prosperous, stable nation, said Mr Lee.

Mr Nathan also literally planted trees, added PM Lee.

While he was Ambassador to the US, Mr Nathan planted a Japanese Maple in the embassy garden in Washington, DC.

The tree, said Mr Lee, who was in Washington, DC last week, was still lush and thriving.

"As are the many other trees that Mr Nathan planted in the organisations he led and the people he touched," he said.

Mr Nathan ran away from home in his younger years and lived through World War II and the Japanese Occupation, experiences that "steeled his character and shaped him for life", said Mr Lee.

He came from humble beginnings, juggling his job as a clerk in the Johor civil service with evening classes in typewriting and book-keeping. He later graduated from the University of Malaya with a social studies diploma, then entered the Singapore public service.

There he started off as a medical social worker, before heading to the unions to help seafarers - reflecting his "natural desire to help others".

Later he was seconded to the Labour Research Unit in the union movement, working alongside its then secretary-general, the late Devan Nair, to establish NTUC and keep Communists from taking over the movement.

"Without them on the ground countering the left-wing activists, showing how they could improve workers' lives, and winning over the workers, Singapore's history would have taken a very different turn," said Mr Lee.

After Singapore gained independence, Mr Nathan was posted to the newly-formed Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where "his combination of charm and toughness proved invaluable" in building up diplomatic networks.

And while in the Security and Intelligence Division, his "savviness, judgement and moral courage" were key. Mr Nathan, he recalled, had risked his life to accompany the hijackers to Kuwait in exchange for the safe release of the Singaporean hostages.

Later he embarked on his diplomatic career, first as High Commissioner to Malaysia, then Ambassador to the US, Singapore's "two most important foreign missions".

He retired from the civil service, but was in 1999, elected President.

"Singapore was lucky to have him as President for two terms. He represented the nation with grace, with dignity and with distinction," said Mr Lee.

Mr Nathan, he added, brought informality and warmth into the office, endearing himself to Singaporeans. But even as he showed heart, Mr Nathan was "more than capable" of difficult choices.

As the world was battered by a financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, he approved the Government's request to draw on the country's reserves for the $20 billion Resilience Package. This, said Mr Lee, averted what might have been the country's worst economic recession ever "so well that many Singaporeans did not even realise that they had gone through a grave crisis, and emerged unscathed".

And although Mr Nathan has carried the nation forward, he did not do it alone, noted Mr Lee. His wife has always been at his side, "a support and comfort for more than half a century".

She too made sacrifices whenever Mr Nathan stepped forward to serve the nation. "Singapore owes Mrs Nathan a debt of gratitude too," said Mr Lee to a loud round of applause.

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