S R Nathan, the 'indispensable man for all seasons'

S R Nathan, the 'indispensable man for all seasons'

"His secret for success is that he took life in his stride, stuck to his principles and carried out his duties to the utmost of his ability," said the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of S R Nathan, who rose from top civil servant, to Singapore's longest-serving President.

SINGAPORE: Mr S R Nathan was Singapore’s sixth and longest-serving President.

Born Sellapan Ramanathan on Jul 3, 1924, Mr Nathan’s education was interrupted by World War II. When Japanese troops occupied Singapore, he was given a Japanese dictionary and soon picked up enough of the language to become a translator. But the war taught him a bigger lesson: It sealed in him a growing political consciousness.

In 1962, the former medical social worker and seamen's welfare officer was sent by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to the newly set up Labour Research Unit at the National Trades Union Congress. Said the late Mr Lee of Mr Nathan: "Every time there was a tricky task which required a steady hand, someone dependable and who could get things done, his name would pop up. Many people believe that, as a government, we select people by their academic credentials. Yes we do, but only in part. We place much greater weight on character."

A tricky and personally dangerous task came in 1974 when Mr Nathan was back in the civil service. Terrorists from the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine attacked oil storage tank facilities on Pulau Bukom - and took as hostages, five crew members of the Laju, a ferry.

By then, Mr Nathan had become Director of the Security Intelligence Department. He and 12 other civil servants offered to accompany the hijackers to Kuwait as a guarantee of safe passage in exchange for the freedom of the hostages.

The hostage drama lasted 7 and a half days and made world headlines. Former head of the civil service, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow recounted:"When I saw (Mr Nathan) taking the lead in this operation, my thought was that there can be no better man for this assignment. He is very calm, he is not impulsive. In a crisis I would say I would trust S R Nathan to get us out of the crisis."

Mr Nathan returned home to a hero's welcome and a National Day honour.

The man who was to later serve six years as executive chairman of The Straits Times Press, spent a good part of his working life in the foreign service. He was made Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later appointed High Commissioner to Malaysia, and then Ambassador to the United States. In all, he spent 50 years in civil service.

On Sep 1, 1999, he officially took on his biggest job ever. At the age of 75, the former top civil servant, diplomat and think-tank chief was sworn in as President. He vowed to be a President for all Singaporeans, declaring that “every community of Singapore will be my parish”.

Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong explained why Mr Nathan was the right man for the job. "As a public officer, you have never hesitated to offer considered judgement and advice to Ministers, even when you differed from them. You are eminently qualified to serve as the symbol for the nation, and to exercise the powers which the Constitution has vested in you."

Mr Nathan said when he took on the highest office of the land: "I promise to give of my best, the very best I can, and without fear or favour." This he did, not just for one term, but two, when at the age of 81, he agreed to stand for another term.

The late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called him an "indispensable man for all seasons," one who never said no when called to serve, no matter how small or how big the task. "His secret for success is that he took life in his stride, stuck to his principles and carried out his duties to the utmost of his ability, driven by a deep sense of loyalty and responsibility,” Mr Lee had said.

In 2000, Mr Nathan started the President's Challenge to raise funds for the less fortunate.

He stepped down as President in August 2011 after 12 years in office, citing old age. In 2013, he was awarded The Order of Temasek (First Class) - the highest honour in Singapore for his outstanding contributions to public service.

Mr Nathan remained active after retirement, hosting regular fireside chats to engage young officers and publishing several books - the latest being 50 Stories from My Life in 2013.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said of Mr Nathan: "To me, Mr Nathan’s most important role was as a tree planter. Wherever he went, he nurtured young seedlings into mature trees. 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 count myself a beneficiary. He helped Singapore to build and to grow into a modern, prosperous and stable nation."

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to the late President Nathan as Singapore’s first elected President. He was not. This has been rectified, and we apologise for the error.

Source: CNA/ly