Tribute to SR Nathan – Speech by Pritam Singh

(Delivered in Parliament on 13 September 2016)

Madam Speaker, like many younger Singaporeans, I am of a generation that grew up with President Nathan when he became President and took on a significantly more public persona. His passing however is also an opportunity to remember his immense courage in service of Singapore. Specifically, his role and that of his compatriots in the Laju incident of 1974 bears witness to traits any young Singaporean would look up to proudly.

I only ever met the President twice – the first during the Cabinet Swearing-in ceremony in 2011, and once more two years later at a Lions XII football game at the Jalan Besar stadium, just a few games short of the team’s crowning as Malaysia Super League Champions. I went to the stadium with my wife and as we walked along the grandstand section, I heard some voices calling out – it took me a while to confirm where they were coming from. I was surprised to see President Nathan – who was chatting with then-Minister in charge of Sports Mr Lawrence Wong. As I made my way to where President Nathan was seated, the President joked that having recently gotten married I appeared to be more interested to sit alone with my wife, and had therefore chosen to ignore him when he was calling out to me! I protested of course. President Nathan smiled, took my hand and invited my wife and I to sit next to him.

Throughout the match, President Nathan did not make things intimidating or uncomfortable. He would occasionally lean over to query why the referee made a certain decision or why play was being stopped when a tackle or infringement seemed innocuous. A telling moment however came when Johor, who were already leading from an early goal, nearly extended their lead as the Lions pressed for an equaliser. As the stadium gasped, President Nathan with the critical eye of a coach, pointed out to me the Lions XII player who lost concentration and was dispossessed of the ball close to the middle of the pitch. It was an eye-brow raising observation because 10 or 15 passes has elapsed between the player he was referring to losing possession and the chance that was created by the Johor team. In a very different context and rather unanticipated way, I bore witness to his eye for detail and his ability to focus on the issues that mattered, traits for which he was widely known for in public service.

The most unforgettable incident of the night came shortly before the game ended where President Nathan’s words were marked by a palpable seriousness. He said, “You must always look after the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore.” At no point did he raise any doubts or concerns about serving Singapore in a different color, cause or capacity. It was clear what motivated him all his life. President Nathan’s simple words and the lyrics of his favorite Tamil Song, Taking Sand from Tanjore, which was played at his State Funeral remind us that regardless of our differences, we are one people and must remain so.

Thank you.