S R NATHAN 1924 — 2016: The diplomat

'Super ambassador' with a warm heart

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh giving his eulogy on Aug 26, 2016.
Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh giving his eulogy on Aug 26, 2016. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

A man with the memory of an elephant and a warm heart behind his tough exterior, Mr S R Nathan was a "super ambassador" of Singapore both as a diplomat and as President, said Ambassador-at- Large Tommy Koh.

Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Singapore Foreign Service, Professor Koh noted that Mr Nathan had played a key role in founding both institutions.

He joined the MFA in 1966 and helped the first Foreign Minister, Mr S. Rajaratnam, to set it up. He then left for assignment in the Home Affairs and Defence ministries in 1971 but returned to MFA as its First Permanent Secretary in 1979.

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set him a seemingly impossible task: Turn the MFA into a first-class outfit within two years, or it would be closed down.

Mr Nathan did just that, transforming the MFA "from no class to first class", said Prof Koh. He called Mr Nathan his mentor and comrade, noting that "behind that tough exterior was a warm, kind and loyal heart".

Because of the strong foundation Mr Nathan laid, the MFA and Singapore Foreign Service are considered among the best in the world, he said.

Another of Mr Nathan's contributions was teaching courage in defending Singapore's interests.


When Singapore sentenced United States citizen Michael Fay to caning for vandalism in 1994, Mr Nathan was Ambassador to the US.

"My American friends have told me that they admired the calm and rational way in which he defended Singapore against vicious attacks," said Prof Koh.

Mr Nathan "held high the flag of Singapore", and showed how even as a small country, Singapore "cannot be bullied" by others.

As High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to the US, Mr Nathan represented the country with great distinction. But his contributions did not end after he left the foreign service. Said Prof Koh: "His most important diplomatic role was as our sixth President."

In his 12 years as President, he visited more countries than all his predecessors combined, strengthening diplomatic links and opening the door for economic opportunities.

"He had a flair for dealing with foreign leaders and foreign friends," recalled Prof Koh.


He could establish a rapport with others and put them at ease, and had "the memory of an elephant" in recalling people he had befriended during previous assignments, no matter how long ago.

Mr Nathan's legacy for the MFA and foreign service lies in the strong foundation he helped build, his courage in defending Singa- pore's interests, and turning a "huge global network of friends into a global network of friends of Singapore".

Concluded Prof Koh: "Mr S R Nathan was truly our super ambassador to the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline ''Super ambassador' with a warm heart'. Subscribe