Then came the rubber slump in the 1930s which saw Nathan senior Sellapan’s income fall drastically. He became an alcoholic, left the law firm, and moved the family to Singapore.
One night, as Mr Nathan recalled in his memoirs, his father bought crabs home for the family’s lunch, went out and killed himself by drinking household disinfectant.
Mr Nathan was only 8 years old at the time.
By the time he was 16, he was expelled from school for the second time, and because he was too ashamed to face his mother, ran away from home and led the life of a street urchin. He subsequently ran off to Muar, and worked odd jobs delivering letters, giving tuition, and even doubling up as a hawker’s assistant. Eventually, he found a more stable job as a clerk.
Then came World War Two and Mr Nathan’s fortunes were about to change.
He met a Japanese officer who was seeking directions and since he spoke English, was asked to accompany the officer to the market. Soon, Mr Nathan began running errands for Japanese officers.
He started to learn Japanese after an officer gave him an English-Japanese dictionary and encouraged him to pick up the language. When the company Mr Nathan was working for was going to pull out of Muar, he was secured employment at a Japanese firm. By then, he was good enough to be a translator.
While working at the Japanese company, his command of the Japanese language caught the eye of a Japanese officer who was working for the inspector-general of police for Johor. Mr Nathan was then hired to join the Japanese civilian police.
As Mr Nathan recalled:
“For many people, World War II was an appalling time. For me, in my teens and with little knowledge of the world or the impact of the war on others, it brought opportunity, after I learnt to speak some simple Japanese. It was the first time anyone had told (me) I had a good mind … With just a little encouragement from an unexpected quarter, my confidence began to rebuild itself.”
Mr Nathan would remain with the Japanese civilian police until the Japanese surrendered. He would continue to pursue his education after the war, and attain a diploma in social studies with distinction from the University of Malaya before heading to Singapore to join the civil service as a medical social worker.
Mr Nathan subsequently rose through the ranks of the civil service, moving from a trade unionist position to assistant secretary of the foreign affairs ministry, to security and intelligence chief at the defence ministry. He would later return to the foreign affairs ministry as its first permanent secretary before his retirement from the civil service in 1982.