IN A candid chat with some 300 grassroots leaders, former president S.R. Nathan shared his thoughts about community work and life's finer points.
Among the audience were several young leaders.
The dialogue with Mr Nathan lasted 21/2 hours and was held recently at the National Community Leadership Institute (NACLI) as part of its Distinguished Speakers Series.
The dialogue was themed "A Sense of Community".
It is also the title of a chapter in Mr Nathan's latest book S.R. Nathan In Conversation.
Mr Nathan's anecdotes at various points of the conversation prompted the audience to ask for his advice and guidance on many issues.
One of the concerns that kept popping up during the dialogue was about encouraging more young people to take up leadership roles at the grassroots level.
"Singaporeans must have faith in the young. The success of the young depends very much on the guidance of the older people through their learning journeys," was the 91-year-old's spontaneous reply.
A qualified social worker, Mr Nathan added that schools and social workers also play a role in helping youths to integrate with society.
The sixth president of Singapore also emphasised the importance of spiritual teaching and reflected that sermons by religious institutions were a good source of guidance.
A man who respects all religions and faiths, Mr Nathan shared that he listens to Islamic sermons in Tamil for their rich content.
Mr Nathan is a former chairman of the Hindu Advisory Board and Hindu Endowments Board.
Throughout the dialogue, he reiterated the importance of religious and racial appreciation and tolerance, both in Singapore and overseas.
Speaking about nurturing good grassroots leaders, Mr Nathan said mistakes are inevitable. He said that one should draw from personal experiences and use them in the learning journey. He cautioned that books on leadership alone cannot be the core to one's learning journey.
On the question whether Singaporeans are happy after 50 years of independence and progress as a nation, Mr Nathan responded that "happiness is within our control".
Mr Nathan, who is fondly remembered as the "people's president", cited examples of poor people being happy with what they have while millionaires constantly crave for more at the expense of their happiness.
Drawing again from religious teachings, he said that as people age, they would reflect on their religious faith and redefine the true meaning of happiness.
Turning to Singapore's SG50 jubilee celebrations, Mr Nathan said these celebrations serve as a reminder of our young nation as it strived from a third world to first world city. He said the older generation is more appreciative of Singapore's success over the years.
As for the younger generation, he said that many were not exposed to the hardships of the early days.
He reminded that the world is constantly changing and that Singapore must take advantage of the change and that Singaporeans have to adjust to the changing world.
While Mr Nathan shared with glowing pride that Singapore has a "brand name" in the world, he was quick to caution that Singapore cannot afford more than one failure, given its small size as a nation.
On his vision for Singapore in the next 10 years, he said that the nation has to depend on future technology and must continue to embrace globalisation.
Making reference to foreign workers cited in his book, Mr Nathan added that Singapore needs these workers for several reasons, top among them, for their working experience which Singaporeans may lack.
He added that a person possessing relevant educational qualifications may not necessarily possess the requisite skills, citing examples of the banking and financial sectors.
Replying to a participant's comment that Singaporeans lack community sensing, Mr Nathan emphasised that the people and Government must work together to build a cohesive community.
On bringing back the kampung spirit, Mr Nathan advised grassroots leaders to continue to listen to public views from different angles, including gathering unfavourable feedback and channelling them to the relevant authorities.
The dialogue ended with a personal question on Mr Nathan's takeaway as the president of Singapore.
And he replied candidly that "the president is a symbol of unity of the people".
Sithara Doriasamy, a member, NACLI Adjunct Faculty, was the moderator of the dialogue.
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