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Farewell to a father figure

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It was October 2005, and the talk of the town at the time was the controversial decision by the authorities to cane a mentally-impaired teenager for molest.


IT was October 2005, and the talk of the town at the time was the controversial decision by the authorities to cane a mentally-impaired teenager for molest.

The 18-year-old, with an IQ of 58, was first sentenced to nine months' jail and three strokes. He appealed on his own without a lawyer, but his plea for leniency fell on deaf ears; then-chief justice Yong Pung How increased the punishment further to two years in prison and nine strokes.

Desperation sinking in, the only option left was to send a petition of clemency to then-President S R Nathan, which eventually reached his office.

I was a rookie reporter at that time with one of the daily newspapers in Singapore. My assignment that day was to drop by Katong School, one of the oldest special schools in Singapore, because Mr Nathan was due to make a visit to celebrate Children's Day with the students.

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The editor's brief to me: Ask the President to comment on the clemency petition and to get his final decision on the matter, all on the record.

I turned up at the school and realised I was the only journalist covering the event. That probably made my task of getting to speak to Mr Nathan slightly easier, but no less intimidating.

I'd never interviewed a politician face-to-face before, much less the sixth President of Singapore, who was 81 that year and had just been sworn in for his second term of office a month earlier.

After a brief chat with one of his staffers, I was given a few minutes to interview Mr Nathan. The President already knew I had an agenda, and it definitely wasn't to ask him to talk about his tour of Katong School.

In all honesty, Mr Nathan didn't have to entertain me that day. He didn't know who I was - this was the first time I had met him in person - but he greeted me with a smile and shook my hand firmly, asking for my name and the publication I was from.

That went a long way to calm my jangled nerves. I fished out my voice recorder and began our chat. I recall how he chose not to comment on the clemency petition specifically, but he did use the opportunity to announce that he would ask law administrators to take time to visit special schools in Singapore to familiarise themselves with special needs children.

He called on police officers and members of the judiciary to understand the nature of sub-normal people and factor it into the course of their duties, adding that it would be educational for those holding positions of authority.

The interview probably went on longer than I expected, but that's because Mr Nathan took pains to explain his thinking and ensured I had a full understanding of the issue. I was struck by his patience and kind demeanour, and developed the utmost respect for him.

The final time I met Mr Nathan was at the Istana in January 2011, about seven months before he stepped down as Head of State, and that encounter was equally memorable.

It was for the launch of one of his books, Winning Against The Odds, which details Mr Nathan's role in the Labour Research Unit, a little-known organisation set up to assist the National Trades Union Congress in the years just before Singapore's independence.

He correctly guessed that not a single journalist who was present that day had been born in the early 1960s.

Like a doting father reading to his children, he retold the tales, often animatedly, of his adventures and struggles as a young civil servant and unionist. I listened intently, fascinated by the details in his recollections, amassed from decades of work experience.

Each of the journalists was given a copy of the new book in our media kit, either to review it or to report on the launch through our respective media outlets.

As we were about to take our leave, Mr Nathan surprised us by asking if we wanted him to autograph our copies of the book. Again, he didn't have to go to such lengths but he did. So one by one, we gathered around him. He asked each of us for our names, and he signed the books and even penned a short message inside. I've kept the book in my library at home ever since.

I've had the privilege of travelling with many government leaders in my 12 years as a journalist, but I regret not having the chance to cover one of Mr Nathan's many overseas trips, if only to watch and learn from one of Singapore's finest diplomats up close.

Mr Nathan has left us and he more than deserves his rest, having devoted more than 50 years of his life to serve Singapore in different capacities. Like thousands of Singaporeans, I will be in the queue this Thursday at Parliament House to pay my last respects and say thank you to an outstanding leader and inspirational father figure.

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