A tree planter who helped S'pore grow

A tree planter who helped S'pore grow
A police patrol craft (foreground) shadowing the hijacked Laju ferry in Pulau Bukom waters in January 1974. Volunteering himself as a hostage was “quintessential Mr Nathan: always placing country before self”, says PM Lee.

Mr S R Nathan has lived a long and full life. He grew up in pre-war Singapore and Malaya. He suffered personal tragedy as a child and ran away from home. He survived the war and the Japanese Occupation.

These formative experiences steeled his character and shaped him for life, like the pioneer generation of Singaporeans.

After the war, Mr Nathan resolved to make something of his life. He got a job as a clerk in the Johor Civil Service. While working, he took evening classes and typewriting and book keeping and sat for the the London Chamber of Commerce exams, which he passed with distinction. He woke up at 4am daily to study for the Cambridge School Certificate before heading to work. And he started his social studies diploma at the University of Malaya in Singapore - at the ripe old age of 20.

After graduating, he entered the Singapore Public Service. He started as a medical social worker before heading to the unions to help seafarers. He was seconded then to the Labour Research Unit which he later headed in the union movement. He worked closely with Mr Devan Nair, who was secretary- general, to prevent the communists from taking over the union movement. And together, they established the NTUC. After Singapore gained independence, Mr Nathan was posted to the newly formed Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Mr S. Rajaratnam, then the minister.

His combination of charm and toughness proved invaluable in building up our diplomatic networks.

Later, we needed to build up the Security Intelligence Division (SID), which is in Mindef, and Mr Nathan was at the top of the shortlist because his savviness, his judgment and his moral courage were essential to the role.

Naturally, I cannot tell you very much about his time in SID but one episode is public knowledge. And that was the Laju hijacking. (Editor's note: In 1974, a terrorist group hijacked the Laju ferry with passengers on board in Pulau Bukom waters. Mr Nathan volunteered himself as a hostage to secure their release.)

During the Laju hijacking, Mr Nathan risked his life 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.

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