'Thank you' shouts ring out as cortege drives by

PHOTO: The Straits Times

As he stood before the flag-draped casket of his friend and comrade- in-arms, former unionist and PAP assemblyman Mahmud Awang remembered a man who spoke softly, thought widely, and did much for his fellow Singaporeans.

"Mr S R Nathan represented the best in people: He was patient, polite and did things quietly and properly, in a way that was accepted by all," said Mr Mahmud who, as NTUC's first chairman, had fought for workers' rights alongside Mr Nathan.

He was among 159 VIPs - comprising 78 Singaporeans and 81 members of the diplomatic and consular corps - who yesterday morning paid their last respects to the former president at Parliament House before his journey to the University Cultural Centre (UCC) at the National University of Singapore.

A humble man who put his nation first: PM Lee, friends pay tribute to S R Nathan

Among the foreign leaders at the UCC was Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, who said Malaysia had lost a good friend who contributed much to bilateral ties between Singapore and Malaysia.

"We were good friends and he used to go up to Malaysia to visit some of his old friends," Mr Liow added. "We will remember him for a long, long time."

With Mr Liow were Malaysian ministers Joseph Kurup and Khairy Jamaluddin. Also at UCC were Brunei's Minister for Development Bahrin Abdullah and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, as well as 43 heads of foreign missions in Singapore.

After the last visitors at Parliament House left, Mrs Nathan, 87, daughter Juthika, 56, and son Osith, 53, and family members had a private moment with Mr Nathan, before the casket was moved from the bier to the ceremonial gun carriage for the procession to the state funeral service.

En route to UCC, thousands of Singaporeans of all backgrounds and ages lined the 15.5km funeral procession route to bid a final farewell to a man often described as a people's president.

Madam Ng Siang Hian, 92, wore her finest cheongsam, gold-embroidered and in lilac, and took a taxi to High Street Centre from her Toa Payoh flat to witness Mr Nathan's final journey.

Over at Queenstown MRT station, Primary 2 pupil Ethan Seow, eight, came in his uniform straight from River Valley Primary School. He was with his mother and sister.

Security officer Kumaraguru Govindaraju, 49, took a day off to wave a last goodbye to Mr Nathan, who died on Monday at age 92.

Like him, many had stories of Mr Nathan's humility and grace: the day he shook their hand, stopped to chat and took a picture with them.

"He always remembered the ordinary people," said Mr Kumaraguru, who met Mr Nathan several years ago during Thaipusam at Sri Thendayuthapani temple.

"There are no words to describe how I'm feeling now," he added, looking solemn as the haze that enveloped Singapore yesterday afternoon turned the skies a sombre grey.

The three-hour PSI reading was 215 when the ceremonial gun carriage came out of the gates of Parliament House at 2pm.

As the procession rolled past, applause filled the air, hand-held Singapore flags fluttered and people shouted: "Thank you, Mr Nathan".

The funeral procession wound its way past landmarks closely identified with Mr Nathan's long and distinguished career in public service.

Singapore says goodbye to former President S R Nathan

It went by City Hall, where Mr Nathan, as President, stood on its steps to review the National Day Parade at the Padang in 2000, 2005 and 2010.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry, that marked Mr Nathan's career in diplomacy, also used to be located at City Hall.

Minutes later, Fullerton Hotel came into view. Previously known as Fullerton Building, it housed the Singapore Marine Department where Mr Nathan, as a seamen's welfare officer, began his career in labour relations.

The next milestone building was NTUC Centre, which recalls Mr Nathan's role at the Labour Research Unit in the 1960s, negotiating for improved conditions for workers and helping to win over workers and unions' trust, including pro-communist unions.

At Collyer Quay, about 300 NTUC employees stood in silent homage, some with their phones raised to record his final journey for posterity.

This article was first published on August 27, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.