S.R. Nathan (1924-2016) – President, Diplomat, Crisis Leader

At his lowest point in life, he almost could not survive out there in the streets. Yet in the later part of his life, he would go on to become Singapore’s sixth and longest-serving President (2011). It was a colourful and amazing life story of ups and downs, and the story belonged to a man called Sellapan Ramanathan (S.R.) Nathan, who was born in Singapore in 1924 to a Tamil Indian family.

sr nathan family late 1920s

During his childhood, Nathan’s family was relocated to Muar, Johor, where his father worked as a clerk in a rubber plantation. The world economy and rubber prices, however, collapsed in the early 1930s, and with his father out of job, Nathan’s family was thrown into a crisis. The family tragedy struck when Nathan was only eight; his father had committed suicide after a series of difficulties in finding new jobs.

By then, Nathan and his family had moved back to Singapore. Under his uncle’s care, Nathan had his studies at Anglo-Chinese School and Victoria School. But in an incident where he was accused of stealing his classmate’s books, a 16-year-old Nathan was forced to leave school. Unable to face his family, he decided to run away from home. To survive, Nathan took up several odd jobs and also worked as an office boy.

sr nathan and lieutenant kokubu japanese occupationIt was the early 1940s, and the impacts and horrors of the Second World War had reached Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), Nathan, in a twist of fate, managed to master the Japanese language with the help of an English-Japanese dictionary. At age 18, he started working as an interpreter and translator to a high-ranking officer in the Japanese civilian police.

After the war, Nathan went to work as a clerk at the Public Works Department (PWD). In the early fifties, he pursued his studies and was enrolled at the University of Malaya, graduating with a diploma in 1954.

sr nathan received public service star 1964After graduation, S.R. Nathan began his 40-plus-year career at the civil service, until the late nineties, taking on numerous roles at the Marine Department, Labour Research Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence.

In the eighties, Nathan also chaired the Hindu Advisory Board, Hindu Endowments Board and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), and was the director of the Singapore National Oil Company, Singapore Mint and Times Press Foundation.

S.R. Nathan’s arguably highest-profile accomplishment was the handling of the Laju hijacking incident. On 31 January 1974, four terrorists from the Japanese Red Army and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, after failing to blow up the oil refinery on Pulau Bukom, hijacked a ferry named Laju. Five crew members on the ferry were held hostages.

Serving as the director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID), Nathan led a team, made up of Internal Security Department (ISD) director Yoong Siew Wah, Marine Police Deputy Superintendent Tee Tua Bah, several government officials and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commandos, to negotiate with the armed hijackers. After more than a week of intense negotiations, the hijackers accepted the offer of a safe passage to Kuwait.

sr nathan laju hijacking incident 1974

In exchange for the release of the hostages, a team of guarantors, including Nathan himself, would be required to accompany the hijackers and hostages throughout the flight. The incident was successfully resolved on 08 February 1974 when the team of guarantors returned to Singapore unharmed.

S.R. Nathan demonstrated his firm diplomatic skills when he was appointed as the High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to the United States in 1988 and 1990 respectively. During his times as the high commissioner, Nathan had to tackle escalating bilateral issues such as the Malayan railway land in Singapore, Pedra Branca dispute and the visit of Singapore by Israeli president Chaim Herzog.

The Michael Fay case in 1994 was another test for Nathan. Singapore’s decision to convict and cane the teenager for vandalism caused an uproar among the American public. As the ambassador, Nathan had to deal with the immense pressure from the United States government and backlash from the Americans.

sr nathan high commissioner to malaysia 1988

In 1999, S.R. Nathan ran for the candidacy of the presidential post. Being the only eligible candidate, he successfully became Singapore’s sixth President and was sworn into office on the first of September. Nathan would be again re-elected without contest in 2005, bringing his total tenure as the President of Singapore to 12 years.

In 2000, with a vision to build a more caring and cohesive society, Nathan initiated the consolidation of several charity projects into one annual event called the President’s Challenge. Since then, the Challenge has raised, through various fundraising and charity drives, more than $100 million for over 500 beneficiaries. S.R. Nathan stepped down as Singapore’s President in 2011, and was conferred Darjah Utama Temasek (Order of Temasek) First Class, the nation’s highest award, in 2013.

sr nathan sworn into office singapore president 1999

In recent years, some had expressed doubts in Nathan’s contributions to the nation, given that the President of Singapore, at more than $3 million a year, is one of the highest-paid leaders in the world. Other less favourable critics included Nathan’s passive custodial role, regarding the nation’s reserves and assets, when compared to his predecessor Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002). Nathan, however, did his part as the key guardian of the national reserves in 2009, approving a $4.9-billion withdrawal from the past reserves to deal with Singapore’s worst recession since independence.

Despite the controversial opinions, S.R. Nathan’s contributions to Singapore and the public service should not be denied. In July 2016, S.R. Nathan was taken to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) after suffering a stroke. He passed away on 22 August 2016, at an age of 92, leaving behind his wife, a daughter and son, and three grandchildren.

sr nathan 1924-2016

Published: 25 August 2016

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