Ex-president S R Nathan launches book

SINGAPORE - If you were to look at former president S R Nathan's job history, you might be excused if you thought he was a serial job-hopper.

Here are some of the positions he held:

  • Welfare officer
  • Assistant director
  • Hostage negotiator
  • Media boss
  • Diplomat

But if you think about it, calling him a job-hopper may not be accurate as he had, for the most part, only one employer: Singapore.

The best example of his loyalty to his employer came when he reached the "look-after-the-grandkids age" of 72.

When he was all set to "coast gently into retirement", he was made Singapore's sixth president in 1999.

"Over the years, whenever I have been called on to do anything for the country, I have never turned away from duty," Mr Nathan wrote in his latest book, 50 Stories From My Life.

The 184-page book, which was launched yesterday, is a shorter version of his memoir, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency.

Accompanied by caricatures, it tracks the former president's experiences. Mr Nathan, who turned 89 on July 3, wrote that at various times in his career, he had "been asked to take up posts without clear job description".

The first was a summon from the office of then Chief Minister David Marshall in 1955.

His appointment for the next six years: Seamen's Welfare Officer. One request in 1961 led him into the world of trade unions and a working relationship with the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, one of the founding fathers of modern Singapore.

His brief then was vague and he was made assistant director of the Labour Research Unit.

"We knew of the work you are doing and your sympathies for the workers. We thought it natural to include you in the team," Dr Goh told him.

"Neither I nor my colleagues had much idea of what our role should be... So we made up our job descriptions as we went along," Mr Nathan wrote.

Foreign Ministry stint

After having been with the trade union for about four years, Mr Nathan was transferred to the political division of the newly set-up Foreign Ministry. Once again, he was clueless over his new position.

"I was 41 years old, with no firsthand diplomatic experience, apart from some international trade union activities," he said.

The then-Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam told him: "Don't worry, it will come naturally."

It did and that helped Mr Nathan end the Laju Incident of 1974 without bloodshed.

Terrorists had seized the Laju, a small ferry owned by Shell, and threatened to kill the hostages onboard unless they were allowed to go to an Arab country.

Mr Nathan was instructed by Dr Goh to lead the team of Singapore officials accompanying the hijackers to Kuwait.

"As I said goodbye to my family, I did not mention the risks that lay ahead," he wrote.

Fortunately, it worked out in the end and he returned safely from Kuwait.

After a long career in government, Mr Nathan was again thrown into an arena he was unfamiliar with - this time it was newspapers, and he was the executive chairman of The Straits Times Press from 1982 to 1988.

But it did not end there and he found himself in the diplomatic world again, handling issues such as the Michael Fay caning saga when he was Singapore's ambassador to the US from 1990 to 1996.

"Sometimes life can take you completely by surprise even when you think you may no longer be useful," Mr Nathan wrote.

That surprise came in 1999 when he got a call from Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Lee had asked him to stand for the elected presidency. "How can you say no?" his wife later said.

So it was off to another new job for one of Singapore's most illustrious jobhoppers.

The book, 50 Stories From My Life, is available in leading bookstores and each copy costs $18.60 before GST.

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