S R Nathan's state funeral: His letters were encouraging, inspiring, says Jennie Chua

Mr S R Nathan being presented a gift by Ms Jennie Chua at the official opening of Jollibee's first Singapore outlet in 2013. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES FILE

SINGAPORE - Mr S R Nathan loved to handwrite letters, said Ms Jennie Chua in a eulogy to the late former president on Friday (Aug 26) at the University Cultural Centre.

It was not a template, no two letters were the same, she said, as she shared lines from letters he wrote to various people during her speech at the state funeral service.

"Many of his friends would have received these very personalised notes from him; written with the instrument of his choice - a $2.20 Uniball signo black, broad-tipped pen, in his characteristic cursive handwriting, always dated and signed," said business leader and ambassador to Mexico, Ms Chua.

"Like the man himself, his words were warm, encouraging, heartfelt and inspiring."

Those were the "defining qualities" of Mr Nathan which he brought to social service, she said.

He did not just lend the office of President to the cause, he was intimately involved, attending charity functions, engaging donors and beneficiaries.

It was a challenge for organisers to time his programme as he would take photos with every one who asked.

"A short walk to the door as he departed an event could take up to 45 minutes," she said.

Then she quipped that organising the menu was easier, "as long as the main course is mee goreng".

Once, when she had to deal with some difficult donors, she received a handwritten note from him the next morning.

A line read: "Some of us have greater burdens to bear, I know it was not easy for you," she recalled.

The President's Challenge, which Mr Nathan started in 2000, has raised over $100 million in more than 12 years to help needy children, families, the elderly, the disabled and others.

The former president personally roped in his contacts and tapped on his network to be part of the movement, she said.

She also told personal stories of Mr Nathan, who "has been a mentor to her for 47 years".

In 1969, he took a Greyhound bus from New York City to Ithaca, a journey of six to seven hours, so he could check on her and the other students then studying at Cornell University, she said.

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The State Funeral for former president S R Nathan was held at the NUS University Cultural Centre where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Prof Tommy Koh and others gave eulogies.

At a fundraising event a decade ago, she expressed admiration for a beautiful sari Mrs Nathan was wearing, and noted that sari material can be made into nice jackets and dresses. A few weeks later, a parcel arrived from the Istana containing an exquisite deep brown sari with silver white flowers, along with a handwritten note.

"The jacket I'm wearing today is made from that sari," said Ms Chua.

"Thank you once again Mr Nathan, for your kindness and generosity, and for giving all of us in the social service space - donors, caregivers, volunteer organisations and beneficiaries - courage and hope," she concluded.

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