Today, Singaporeans paid their final respects to the nation’s sixth and longest-serving president, Mr S R Nathan. Through his journey as a teenage runaway to becoming the country’s Head of State, we remember the life lessons that this extraordinary man has left us with.
1. It’s never too late
Mr Nathan didn’t have it easy growing up, but it didn’t stop him from trying to turn his life around. Having lost his dad at the age of 8, he was eventually expelled from school twice and ran away from home when he was 16 after quarrelling with his mother. Without formally completing his education and without a job to support himself, the teenager ended up living on the streets.
During the Japanese occupation of then-Malaya, a young Nathan picked up the Japanese language and that subsequently landed him a job as an assistant and interpreter to the head of the Japanese civilian police.
When the war was over, Mr Nathan self-studied his way through to complete his secondary education. And he did this while working. Entering university at the age of 28, Mr Nathan graduated with a distinction for his university diploma in Social Studies, and went on to make his mark in various positions within the government sector.
2. Look into your neighbour’s bowl to make sure he has enough
Known for his personal touch and down-to-earth personality, Mr Nathan always had a heart for those who were less well-off. In an anecdote that came from The Singapore Scout Association, Mr Nathan’s involvement with the local scouts would go beyond his tenure as honorary Chief Scout during his time in the presidential office. Unknown to most people, Mr Nathan would ask for a list of needy scouts keen to go on international scouting events and support them out of his own pocket.
His acts of kindness were often carried out quietly without any pomp, as he also sponsored needy students to get them through school, all in his personal capacity.
3. Sense of duty
In 1974, Singapore became the unlikely centre of a hostage drama when armed terrorists hijacked the ferryboat Laju, demanding for safe passage to the Middle East. Then the director of Singapore’s external intelligence division, Mr Nathan led the negotiations with the terrorists, which dragged out for six days and culminated in a group of civil servants replacing the hostages to serve as guarantors as the hijackers were flown to Kuwait.
In subsequent interviews, Mr Nathan recounted the uncertainty of their fate as no one knew if they would be able to make it back home alive. Even so, he was resolute in seeing through the mission and put on a brave front to assuage the fears of his young family.
4. Keep on going
Mr Nathan courted the love of his life for 16 years before marrying her in 1958. Madam Urmila Nandey, whom Mr Nathan affectionately refers to as Umi, came from a higher-born family. Despite her family’s objections and two years spent apart due to her pursuit of a teacher-training course in the UK, he managed to conquer it all and made her his wife.
This sense of perseverance also saw him continue to contribute to Singapore even after stepping down from his duties as Head of State in 2011. As a retiree, he proactively hosted fireside chats with young officers and wrote books. After spending a total of 50 years as a civil servant, Mr Nathan was given the highest honour in Singapore for contributing to the public service – The Order of Temasek (First Class).
5. It takes a village
Mention the President’s Challenge, and the annual TV show where celebrities put up special performances to raise funds for local charities comes to mind. Initiated by Mr Nathan in 2000, did you know that the initiative also encompasses various fund-raising activities and volunteer work initiatives within the community?
Today, the President’s Challenge aids more than 800 organisations and has raised some $160 million to improve the lives of the vulnerable, from people with disabilities, to children with special needs and elderly without support.
Charity is sometimes seen as a rich man’s responsibility simply because we presume they have more resources to do so, but Mr Nathan always believed that everyone has the capacity to do good. As his former principal private secretary Lim Boon Wee told Channel NewsAsia, “He felt that it was something that should be part and parcel of everybody – whatever little bit, all walks of life you can do your part. And it’s not also about money, it’s about time, and ultimately far more important is the sense of care you have.”
In the wake of his passing, the sheer number of people who have spoken up to recount how he touched their lives speaks volumes about Mr Nathan’s legacy. Taking on the President’s Office at 72, Mr Nathan had said then, “I promise to give of my best, the very best I can, and without fear or favour.”
And how well he has done, setting a sterling example of service and good values for the generations to come.