Mr SR Nathan: From kampung boy to president

TL;DR – The people’s president and his storied life. #RESPECT

Imagine you are seventeen. Your father died when you were eight, leaving your family facing a mountain of debts. At 16, you’d been accused of stealing your schoolmate’s book and got expelled from school. You felt that you had brought enough shame to your family. So you ran away from home.

Living by yourself, you tried to make ends meet by doing whatever work you could get. While you’re still trying to find your feet, the unimaginable happens. War. Your country’s taken over by a cruel occupying force. You’re still a teenager. What would you be willing to do to survive?

I bet if you were in that position, you would do anything to survive.

And that was what Sellapan Ramanathan did. To survive the second world war, a teenage Sellapan Ramanathan worked as a translator and interpreter for the Japanese civilian police.

So, who’s Sellapan Ramanathan?

Mr S.R. Nathan at 18 years old (via TODAYonline)

Mr S.R. Nathan at 18 years old (via TODAYonline)

He’s more known to us as S. R. Nathan. He was the sixth president of Singapore.

Fortunately for Singapore, Mr SR Nathan survived the war. After the war, Mr Nathan got a job as a clerk in the Johor civil service. While working, he pursued his studies. He took evening classes in typewriting and book-keeping and sat for the London Chamber of Commerce exams, which he passed with distinction. He woke up at 4am daily to study for his Cambridge School Certificate before heading to work.

At the ripe ‘old’ age of 28, Mr Nathan started his social studies diploma at the University of Malaya which was in Singapore. After graduating, he entered the Singapore public service as possibly Singapore’s first medical social worker. That started Mr Nathan’s storied life as a civil servant.

Mr Nathan worked closely with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a civil servant and as President from 1999 to 2011. The above photo was taken in 1971. (via Straits Times)

Mr Nathan worked closely with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a civil servant and as President from 1999 to 2011. The above photo was taken in 1971. (via Straits Times)

 

Mr Nathan’s Work in NTUC

One of Mr Nathan’s first posts in the civil service was in the newly formed Labour Research Unit (LRU) of NTUC. But the posting was anything but academic. The LRU was tasked in assisting workers settle labour disputes with their employers without having to resort to violent means. Mr Nathan joined LRU in 1962 and was its Director until Jan 1966.

Given the political and social climate then, it was a herculean feat. But Mr Nathan did a sterling job. He rose through the ranks of the LRU from assistant director to director. Along the way, he assisted various unions negotiate better working terms to improve the lives of countless workers.

One of the most notable things about Mr Nathan’s work in LRU was his involvement in the four-day seminar, Modernisation of the Labour Movement, in Nov 1969. The seminar was to reinvigorate the labour movement which was regarded as having entered a state of decay due to falling membership and disenchantment among the rank-and-file.

via NTUC archives

via NTUC

The central principle of tripartism in Singapore’s industrial relations was also discussed at the seminar. The Modernisation Seminar turned out to be the turning point for NTUC when it made a critical decision to move away from a confrontational to a cooperative approach with employers.

Mr Nathan was critical in moving labour discourse from an antagonistic, table-thumping style, to one based on a rational discussion of mutual interests. He was also actively involved in collective bargaining, industrial arbitration, training and establishing links with international trade union organisations.

Even after he had left NTUC, his ‘union roots’ remained deeply entrenched as he continued to concern himself with the lives of the working people. In fact, he was just back at NTUC for a sharing session in May this year.

Once a unionst, forever a unionist.

Mr Nathan, the Brave Hostage

Mr Nathan was often a pioneer in the civil service. In fact, he’s even been described as Mr Fix It by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Many of his posts in his career in the civil service were in newly formed ministries or departments. When Singapore set up the Security and Intelligence Division (SID) in MINDEF, Mr Nathan was chosen to be its first director.

For obvious reasons, not much of what Mr Nathan did as Director of SID are known. But one incident that he was involved in is of public knowledge. That was the famous Laju incident.

In January 1974, four terrorists attacked the Shell oil refinery at Pulau Bukom.

SR Nathan Laju hostage incident

via TheNewPaper

via TheNewPaper

In their attempt to escape, the terrorists hijacked the ferryboat Laju at the jetty and took its five crew members hostage.

In order to secure the safe release of crew members of the Laju, Mr Nathan led a team of “guarantors”. Mr Nathan and the team of guarantors took the place of the Laju’s crew members as the terrorists’ hostages, accompanying them to Kuwait.

Put in a Tough Spot by a Vandalising Teenager

Mr Nathan was also a diplomat at one point in his illustrious life. He headed two of Singapore’s most important foreign missions. He was High Commissioner to Malaysia and then Ambassador to USA.  As Ambassador, as Head of Mission, he had to make friends, but he also had to manage thorny issues.

One of the thornier issues Mr Nathan had to handle as Ambassador to USA was when an American teenager, Michael Fay, was convicted of vandalizing cars in Singapore. Michael Fay was sentenced to six strokes of the cane. The USA was extremely displeased with the sentence to cane Michael Fay.

Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton called Fay’s punishment extreme and mistaken, and pressured the Singapore government to grant Fay clemency from caning. Two dozen U.S. senators signed a letter to the Singapore government also appealing for clemency.

As Singapore’s ambassador to USA, Mr Nathan had to defend our point of view and our stand. And he did so firmly and courteously, and showed the whole world small as Singapore was, neither we, nor our representatives, were pushovers.

Our Longest-serving President, He Cares

As president, Mr Nathan took interest in building a caring society in Singapore. He started the President’s Challenge to help the less fortunate, which raised $135 million(!) over 13 years. The money benefited more than 400 charitable organisations.

via pa.gov.sg

via pa.gov.sg

Mr Nathan’s journey from a school dropout to president is an amazing one. From a humble background, through sheer grit and determination, Mr Nathan overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges. In the process, Mr Nathan created a future for himself that was a drastic improvement from what the trajectory of destiny would have dealt him. And when he had done well, Mr Nathan did not forget to do everything in his power to improve the lives of his fellow countrymen.

Mr Nathan may have passed on, but his spirit and values will continue to live on. In many ways, Mr Nathan’s story is symbolic of people from his generation. Hopefully, Singaporeans today can continue to write such stories too.

We leave you with this sweet little prank that social start-up, The Hidden Good, pulled off to surprise Mr Nathan. We think this truly showed him as the People’s President.

Thank you for you, Mr Nathan!


(Featured image via TODAYonline)



Author: Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I’m a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.


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