You are here

Obituary: SR Nathan, Singapore's longest-serving head of state

SRNathan960.jpg

IT IS said that every boy in America wants to grow up to be the president.

But, as suggested by the title of SR Nathan's memoirs, "An Unexpected Journey: Path To The Presidency", it had never crossed his mind that one day he would come to occupy the highest office in the land.

Not only did Mr Nathan go on to become Singapore's sixth president, he also surpassed Benjamin Sheares as the longest-serving head of state.

After suffering a stroke on July 31, the former president died on Monday night at the Singapore General Hospital, aged 92.

A Straits Times' report on the launch of Mr Nathan's book launch had this introduction: "As a school dropout at the age of 16, a young SR Nathan never thought he would be anything other than a hawker's assistant, let alone Singapore's future president."

Even as a boy, Sellapan Ramanathan - the name Mr Nathan was given at birth - was too caught up with the here and now to think about tomorrow. The pre-war Singapore and Malaya he grew up in was a totally different world from today; it was harsh and tough.

A victim of of the Great Depression, his father lost his job in the 1930s. He soon ran up debts and killed himself when his youngest son - he had two older ones - was just eight years old. When young Nathan was 16, he fell out with his mother and left home. Then came the war, but he survived it and the Japanese Occupation.

As president, Mr Nathan was seen as a nice guy with no airs. He mixed comfortably with everyone, rich or poor, ordinary or special. Long before "selfie" was the in-thing, Mr Nathan had loved taking photos with people he met. This not only helped put them at ease with the president, but also endeared him to the people.

The official photos that hung on the walls of government buildings are long gone, but still on display at hawker stalls are snapshots of the ex-president - Mr Nathan was a self-confessed foodie - proof of the man's popularity.

Yet Mr Nathan didn't get to where he did by being Mr Nice.

After the War, he got a job as a clerk in the civil service. While working, he took up evening classes in typewriting and book-keeping and sat for the London Chamber of Commerce exams, which he passed with distinction. Mr Nathan woke up at 4am daily to study for his Cambridge School Certificate before heading for work. When he was 28, he enrolled at the then University of Malaya in Singapore to pursue a diploma in social studies.

Following graduation in 1955, Mr Nathan joined the Singapore Civil Service as a medical social worker, kicking off a long and distinguished career in public service that saw him take on many roles as clerk, unionist, ambassador, permanent secretary and president.

Outside the public sector, he had been executive chairman of The Straits Times Press and chairman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Singapore. Mr Nathan also sat on the board of directors in companies that included the Singapore Mint and Singapore Press Holdings.

Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once described him as an "indispensable man for all seasons". At the Labour Research Unit he was seconded to, Mr Nathan worked closely with the late union chief Devan Nair to prevent the communists from taking over the labour movement. Together, they had started the NTUC.

"Without people like Mr Nathan and Mr Devan Nair and their comrades 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," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at Mr Nathan's 90th birthday celebration two years ago.

When Mr Nathan was posted to the Ministry of Home Affairs after Singapore's independence, Mr Lee said his combination of charm and toughness proved invaluable in building up the country's diplomatic networks.

Mr Nathan's "savviness, judgement and moral courage" were also put to good use in building the Security and Intelligence Division (SID) in the Ministry of Defence. And while serving as SID director, he risked his life in the Laju hijacking to accompany the hijackers to fly to Kuwait in exchange for the safe release of the Singaporean hostages. "It was quintessential Mr Nathan: always placing country before self," Prime Minister Lee said in relating the incident.

Mr Nathan officially retired from the Civil Service in 1979, when he reached the retirement age of 55. But he continued working for the next 32 years - almost equivalent to another working lifespan. "Frankly, I have not retired," he told the free Tamil weekly newspaper tabla! in 2011 after he stepped down as president.

As events subsequently proved, Mr Nathan's finest hour was yet to come. Following a six-year stint in The Straits Times, he returned to public service in 1988, serving first as High Commissioner to Malaysia and then as Ambassador to the United States. Mr Nathan told tabla! that the two appointments were the high points of his career. "These are the two very critical countries to Singapore," he said. "And they (the government) had the confidence to ask me to represent Singapore."

Both appointments also took place against a backdrop of strained bilateral ties. Mr Nathan was made Singapore's representative in Malaysia soon after then-Israeli president Chaim Herzog's visit here, which led to tensions with Singapore's neighbour across the Causeway. In Washington DC, he had to deal with US diplomatic pressures to stop the caning of Michael Fay, an American convicted for vandalism in Singapore.

Recalling that "spiky" issue in the US, Prime Minister Lee said: "He had to appear on 'Larry King Live' to defend our point of view and our stand. And he did so firmly and courteously, and showed the whole world that small as Singapore was, neither we, nor our representatives, were pushovers."

Mr Nathan retired again after his duty as ambassador, but in 1999 was persuaded by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and other public figures to stand for the presidential election. He came in unopposed. Mr Nathan was returned unopposed again in the 2005 election.

Prime Minister Lee said President Nathan had represented Singapore "with grace, dignity and distinction".

"He brought an informality and personal warmth to the office, and endeared himself to Singaporeans."

Mr Nathan started the President's Challenge to help the less-fortunate and it raised S$135 million over 13 years. At the same time, he proved to be more than capable of making tough decisions when these were called for. This was seen during the global financial crisis in 2008, when the government wanted to draw on the reserves to fund a S$20-billion rescue package.

Prime Minister Lee remembered it clearly: "I saw him. I explained to him what we wanted to do. He understood the gravity of the situation, studied the issue carefully, took advice from the Council of Presidential Advisors, arranged for the CPA to be briefed by the ministries and to quiz the ministers, and having satisfied himself, approved the request decisively. As a result we averted what might have been our worst economic downturn ever."

Mr Nathan played many key roles in nation-building but, to PM Lee, his most important was as "a tree planter". "Wherever he went, he nurtured young seedling into mature trees," Mr Lee noted. "He built up young sometimes nascent organisations into mature institutions - in the NTUC, in SID, in MFA, in the elected presidency. He mentored young promising officers and helped them to fulfil their potential - and I counted myself a beneficiary."