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I wasn't sure if I'd return alive: Nathan

He said he's looking forward to his retirement but will likely miss spending time in his favourite place in the Istana - his office. -TNP
Lediati Tan Bryna Sim and Eugene Wee

Mon, Aug 29, 2011
The New Paper

HE said he's looking forward to his retirement but will likely miss spending time in his favourite place in the Istana - his office.

"It's really spacious," said President S R Nathan, 87.

"You're on your own, you're not disturbed. You can walk up and down thinking of things." Come Thursday, Mr Nathan will step down to make way for Dr Tony Tan, who will be sworn in as Singapore's next president.

It will mark the end of the 12 years the outgoing President has spent at his Office.

In an interview with The New Paper at the Istana lastThursday, Mr Nathan shared some of his memories from these years.

Like the time he met former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who visited Singapore in November 1999, just two months after Mr Nathan first took office.

While walking around his office thinking about how to impress upon Mr Zhu what small countries like Singapore feel in the presence of a superpower like China, Mr Nathan came up with what he thought was the best metaphor for it.

"Walking around, I got the idea of telling him that 'you're a big power, your shadow falls on us, and sometimes the shadow is more frightening than reality'," he said.

"But he was very quick. And he told me, 'Oh, in the tropics, your shadow must be very small'." Laughing, Mr Nathan added: "I never anticipated that."

But the light-hearted moment soon gave way to a more serious tone as he spoke about one of the defining moments of his career.

Having served with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a civil servant, President Nathan has been on countless plane trips.

But in 1974, he had to go on what could have been a one-way flight.

Mr Nathan, who was then the director of the Defence Ministry's Security and Intelligence Department, was part of a team of 13 civil servants who accompanied four international terrorists aboard a Japan Airlines plane bound for Kuwait.

The terrorists, who had hijacked the Laju - a ferry operating between Bukom and mainland Singapore - after trying to blow up Pulau Bukom, had demanded their presence to guarantee safe passage.

The terrorists said their operation was a retaliation against imperialism.

In Kuwait, another group of terrorists, who had seized the Japanese Embassy there to get Japan to send a plane to Singapore to pick up the Laju bombers, were waiting for them.

Did he ever think he would be allowed to return alive?

"I was not sure," said Mr Nathan. "Because what awaited us at the other end was something uncertain.

"Whether we'd be allowed to land, whether we'd be refuelled and sent off somewhere, whether we'd be roaming around the world looking for a haven to land, there was uncertainty."

First time

This is the first time that Mr Nathan has spoken at length to the media about that fateful day.

Sitting in the lunch room outside his office at the Istana, he recounted what went through his mind when he stepped onto that plane.

"There were people in Kuwait who would hijack the Japanese Embassy, who were coming on board with their weapons...How would the people react to it when they saw weapons?" he said solemnly.

"These are all uncertain questions. You have to take it as it happened."

Despite the possibility that the terrorists may have killed them in Kuwait, Mr Nathan said he had to remain stoic when saying goodbye to his family, especially his wife, Umi, before boarding the plane.

"I just looked at her and told her, 'I'm going'," he said.

"I knew it'd be very emotional for her and for my children. My niece was there. I didn't want to upset them or make them worried."

He added with a chuckle: "I had to display some confidence."

The Singapore officials got off at Kuwait and the crisis concluded without any loss of life.

Since the incident, Mr Nathan has said very little about his act of bravery, which earned him and the 12 civil servants and SAF commandos who were on the plane a Meritorious Service medal.

"It was a job I did," he said.

"It was an episode we all wanted to forget.

"We don't want to aggravate it by publicising it, how we handled it...It would be like a showoff, you know."

He said details of his experiences during the Laju hijacking will be revealed in his personal memoirs, which will be released next month. (See report below.)

During the hour-long interview, MrNathan also spoke about some of his most challenging moments during his 12-year presidency.

The most challenging one, he said, was in 2009, when he had to decide whether toapprove the Government's request to dipinto past reserves to help tide over the financial crisis. As President, it was his constitutional duty to decide if the Government should be given the go-ahead to draw down on the reserves.

"You were caught in the situation where if you did, you were questioned. If you didn't, the consequences could be very serious and you would be questioned even harder. And you had to make the judgment," he said.

"Of course there was the Council of Presidential Advisers who gave you advice. But even to evaluate that advice, you need to develop your own background and you need to develop your own sense of the lie of the land, and what is happening and what it can lead to."

He said: "It's not just on a sheet of paper coming in (and) saying yes or no." --


This article was first published in The New Paper.

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