As lofty tributes pour for S R Nathan pour in from ministers and and other more glaringly prominent public figures, a simple journalist perhaps best summed up the humble nature of our late former president.
Suresh Nair, an award-winning journalist with over 25 years of reporting experience, says Mr Nathan was truly the “people’s president” who retained his humility despite his position as head of state.
Said Suresh in a tribute to Mr Nathan:
“Deep down, President Sellapan Ramanathan was the humblest gentleman, who was never embarrassed about his simple early rural Batu Pahat days and even bursts into light laughter as he recollected how he took one of his first co-operative loans to get married in 1958.
It was perhaps one of the most momentous interviews I did with him in September 2012 after he retired following two presidential terms over 12 years.
I spoke to him at his Singapore Management University (SMU) office and probably caught him on one of his most awkward days, as he greeted me with slippers as he was nursing a very swollen foot, which stopped his routine daily walks.
I was accorded an exclusive interview as I interviewed him on the 87th anniversary of Singapore’s No 1 credit co-operative. And unabashedly, he looked backed nostalgically to his early civil service-career when he was a member of the Singapore Government Staff Credit Co-operative Society Limited.
I stared at him in disbelief as he spoke unpretentiously of how he borrowed money from the co-operative to get married!
‘I married in 1958 in Johor Baru since my wife (Urmila Umi Nandey) was a Malaysian,” said Mr Nathan. “I did not have much money then to get married and I applied for the loan. I could pay back monthly. I remember taking two or three loans from the SGS Co-op since those who ran the co-operative movement were known to me and I had no problem getting the loans.’
Yes, reverentially, he didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. The Great Depression in the 1930s affected his family fortunes terribly, causing massive debts to build up and eventually sending his father to commit suicide.
Going back to the co-operative grassroots, he revealed how he began his career in the Singapore Civil Service as a medical social worker in 1955. He was appointed Seamen’s Welfare Officer the following year. In 1962, he was seconded to the Labour Research Unit of the Labour Movement, first as Assistant Director and later as Director of the Labour Research Unit until January 1966.
EXTRAORDINARY PUBLIC CAREER
The rest is history with an extraordinary public-service career, notably facing guns and bullets in the dramatic Laju hijack of 1974, to highest international diplomacy as Ambassador to the USA, during the Michael Fay caning controversy, and returning home to be the longest-serving President.
Forget the high-flying corporate world. He was a humblest co-operative layman who unfailingly talked of his first links with the co-op movement in Johor, where he helped to establish a co-operative consumer society during the Korean War.
‘There was a scarcity of goods after the war and we helped the lower-income civil servants to tide things over instead of going to the moneylenders,’ he recalled. The co-ops have a long history in Singapore. The origins date back to the 1920s, their fundamental role in society remains integral to Singapore’s multi-layered social safety net.
He reminded me in the interview of the need to attract the school-leavers to the co-operative movement in order to make it relevant to the younger generation.
‘Every co-operative should try and grab the attention of the younger generation. One way is to work closely with schools to raise awareness of the co-operative movement. Schools and tertiary institutions should be encouraged to open their own co-operative societies, which are dedicated to building character and instilling integrity and resilience amongst its members,’ he said.
LIFE AFTER ISTANA
As we ended the interview, he admitted that the biggest change in his life after leaving the Istana, was that he did not have the pressures of engagement. That didn’t mean he quietly faded away from public gaze.
Far from it, he led a very active life, sharing his life’s experiences with students and scholars five days a week. And during weekends, he often graced public functions as a guest of honour. Until, his very weak feet made him home-bound and out of public sight.
Perhaps the most endearing quote from President Nathan summed up his captivating co-operative, rather than corporate, image: “When I meet people, I don’t pretend to be somebody. I talk to them like a brother talking to a sister or a son talking to a mother. I make them feel that I am part of them. It gives me great comfort.”
Rest In Peace (RIP), President S R Nathan.
The co-operative Singaporean gentleman.
The People’s President.”