Cow Beh Cow Bu

S R Nathan: A Remarkable Public Servant who Survived Kuan Yew and Keng Swee

RONALD LEE: Some factions have been comparing the late former president S R Nathan with the man he replaced in 1999, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, and arguing why the latter was better presidential material. My question is, why is there a need to split hairs over this? Both men were remarkable in their own ways.

Mr Ong was the epitome a model public servant – someone who gets the job done without much fuss, follows the lead set by those above him, and yet unafraid to speak up when the need arises.

As for Mr Nathan, how many men can survive the rigour of working under big boss Lee Kuan Yew and his tenacious right-hand man, Goh Keng Swee?

It wasn’t that Mr Nathan was a lackey – his actions show that this wasn’t the case. Under Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee in 1959, he was willing to put his neck on the line as a seaman’s welfare officer to make sure that those under his charge had a fair hearing. That, to the point where he nearly got the sack, but fortunately his supervisor spoke up to clear the misunderstanding and put him back in good stead.

Mr Nathan’s performance thereafter was stellar enough for him to be recognised by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who sent him to the newly set up Labour Research Unit at the NTUC in 1962. And it appears that Lee had nothing but praise for his work, saying later that:

“Every time there was a tricky task which required a steady hand, someone dependable and who could get things done, his name would pop up. Many people believe that, as a government, we select people by their academic credentials. Yes we do, but only in part. We place much greater weight on character.”

How many can rise from a street kid like Mr Nathan to make it to his position and receive high praise from possibly the biggest “slave-driver” has possibly ever seen (and I mean this in a good way because such a slave-driver is exactly what we need today)?

We’ve head of many other instances of Mr Nathan putting his neck on the line  and take risks for the sake of duty, such as the Laju Incident of 1974 where he offered to be a hostage escort. So much trust was placed in him that he even rose to become the Permanent Secretary for the Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs ministries.

Lee would later make that personal call in 1999 to invite Mr Nathan to be president.

And as head of state, Mr Nathan had the “second key” to our Reserves and wasn’t afraid to wield it for the benefit of Singaporeans. He approved the use of Past Reserves to back a S$150 billion guarantee on all bank desposits in Singapore during the 2008 financial crisis, and in 2009 another S$4.9 billion to tide employers and employees through the crisis.

The best part about Mr Nathan is no matter how high he rose, he never lost touch with the common folk. Not many stuffy politicians, let alone a president, would go for frequent jogs at East Coast park without huge entourages and fanfare. And fewer would be game to pose for some strange wedding shot for a pair of strangers, like this one:

Mr Ong’s tenure as president was a memorable one given his clashes with the government over the Reserves which became public and much talked-about until today. Mr Nathan though, in his 50 years of public service, was known to do things in a more understated fashion.

But if a man can brave the scrutiny of very meticulous and capable superiors, slug it out with the best and brightest in the country, and in spite of all that not lose touch with the ground, surely he should command our respect.



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