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.

After SID, Mr Nathan returned to MFA as the Permanent Secretary. Then he retired from the civil service. But he has had a very active "retirement". He served as the executive chairman of The Straits Times Press for six years. Naturally, the journalists were at first quite suspicious of him. But he earned their respect and trust because he helped them to appreciate the unique context of our young nation, and gave them the backing and the space to run a high-quality reputable and successful newspaper.

He became our ambassador to the United States and before that, High Commissioner to Malaysia. These are two of our most important foreign missions.

As head of mission, he had to make friends but he also had to manage spiky issues. And especially in the USA, where the Michael Fay incident happened on his watch. (Editor's note: The American teenager was caned for vandalism in 1994, sparking a diplomatic row.) And he had to appear on Larry King Live to defend our point of view and our stand. And he did so firmly and courteously and showed the whole world that, small as Singapore was, neither we nor our representatives were pushovers.

After his stints as ambassadors, he retired again. But in 1999, he came out from retirement and was elected president.

Singapore was very lucky to have had Mr Nathan as president for two terms. He represented the nation with grace, dignity and distinction. He brought an informality and personal warmth to the office, and endeared himself to Singaporeans. Indefatigably, well into his 80s, night after night he would have had functions, fulfil his duties and represent the nation. He started the President's Challenge to help the less fortunate, which raised $135 million over 13 years.

But at the same time, he was more than capable of taking tough decisions when these were called for. Thus, during the global financial crisis in 2008, the Government sought his permission to draw on the reserves in order to fund the $20 billion Resilience Package. I saw him, I explained to him what we wanted to do.

He understood the gravity of the situation, studied the issues carefully, took advice from the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), arranged for the CPA to be briefed by the ministries and to quiz the ministers and, having satisfied himself, approved the request decisively. As a result, we averted what might have been our worst economic downturn ever.

Mr Nathan played a significant part in Singapore's nation building, but he didn't do this alone. Mrs Nathan was always by his side, a support and comfort for more than half a century. She made many sacrifices whenever Mr Nathan stepped forward to serve Singapore. As they say in the army, you do as you are told and you go where you are sent. And a good wife also. So Singapore owes Mrs Nathan a debt of gratitude too!

Mr Nathan took on many roles throughout his distinguished career - as a clerk, a unionist, ambassador, permanent secretary, chairman of a newspaper, president. But to me, Mr Nathan's most important role was as a tree planter because wherever he went, he nurtured young seedlings into mature trees.

He built up young, sometimes nascent organisations into mature institutions - NTUC, SID, MFA, the elected presidency. And he mentored promising young officers and helped them to fulfil their potential. And I count myself a beneficiary. He helped Singapore to build and to grow into a modern and prosperous and stable nation.

Tribute from Gopinath Pillai

Mr Gopinath Pillai, Ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also paid tribute to Mr S R Nathan at the latter's 90th birthday party celebrations. Here are some of his comments:


"Whether he was on a dangerous mission like the Laju journey or trying to win seamen away from the clutches of mafia, or telling Larry King that it was not such a barbarous thing to give a few strokes to a young man... vandalising the neighbourhood, he applied himself with diligence and with a single-mindedness which ensured the success of his mission.

What he achieved was known not only to Singaporeans but even to foreigners. During Mr Nathan's visit to Kuwait when he was President, I found many people there remembered the Laju episode and knew Mr Nathan or knew of the mission that he had undertaken."


"Mr Nathan says in his autobiography that he never coveted any posts. He tried to do the best whatever job he was given. Because he did each job well, he moved up steadily, gradually to the highest office of the land. When we salute Mr Nathan for his steady ascent to presidency, we also salute Singapore because I do not think something like this would have happened in many other countries. There would have been issues like race, religion, caste, etc... Singapore can be rightly proud of our system that allows someone from a very ordinary background to reach the very top."


"In the many years I've known Mr Nathan, the quality that I find most striking is his ability to relate to people. He thrives on meeting people, shaking hands and taking photographs. He will dive into a crowd and Mr Nathan will know the names of the uncles or cousins or brothers of every Ah Tan or Ahmad or Arokiasamy.

I've been amazed at his memory. He puts at ease any one he comes to contact with. The famous lines from (Rudyard) Kipling come to mind when I see Mr Nathan in action: if you can talk to the crowds and not lose your virtue, and walk with the Kings and not lose the common touch. To me this is the essence of Mr Nathan.

Mr Nathan was also a very compassionate person and I could tell you stories of many people who have received his help on compassionate grounds. He has also set up a fund that helps needy children."

This article was first published on July 05, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.