(Delivered in Parliament on 13 September 2016)
On Monday 22 August, I was at a Seventh Month dinner at Serangoon Gardens. At just after 10 pm, someone at a neighbouring table showed me her phone carrying the news that President SR Nathan had passed away. My immediate thoughts were: how typical of him. August had been an extremely busy month for national events, what with the National Day Parade and celebrating our athletes’ achievements at the Rio Olympics. It may have been a sheer coincidence, but he passed away just after the National Day Rally, as if to ensure that his death would not disrupt the national calendar nor pose an inconvenience to the country’s leaders.
Much has already been said about President Nathan’s career in public service. When Singapore was forced out of Malaysia in 1965, the survival and future of Singapore was by no means assured. During Mr Nathan’s time in the Ministry of the Interior and Defence (MID), he and my father got to know each other, as my father was in the first batch of officers in a very young army. They and their colleagues worked voraciously alongside the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, to build our defences and lay the foundations for Singapore to stand tall in the world. I was a young child then, and would occasionally go with my father to army camps and wait for him while he worked on such matters. Although my personal recollection of Mr Nathan from those days is very hazy, I distinctly recall my father describing him as a person with “absolute loyalty” to our then Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Working together in those testing times must have built lasting bonds among the Pioneer Generation. I understood recently from a mutual friend of theirs, that while Mr Nathan and my father were quite different in temperament, they nevertheless enjoyed very cordial relations founded on mutual respect. Unfortunately, my father is today unable to help me prepare more adequately for this Tribute, as he is advanced in years and weakened by illness, as are many in that generation.
When I became a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament in 2006, Mr Nathan was in office as President. Although he never explicitly said so, I believe he took a special interest in me because of his friendship with my father. When I would encounter President Nathan at various events, he consistently made the effort to seek me out to have a word with him, sending his aides scurrying to locate me in the crowd.
I remember one occasion when he was Guest of Honour at Temasek Polytechnic, where I used to work. That day, I was not involved in the programme the President was officiating at, as it was, as one would say, “above my pay grade”. Out of nowhere, one of our senior management called me on the phone and asked: “Where are you now? The President has requested to talk to you”. I went over and met President Nathan, much to the relief of the event organisers who generally do not like surprises. And what did the President want? Nothing more than to say Hello, and to spend a few moments together “shooting the breeze”.
Despite his tight schedule entertaining monarchs, Presidents and Prime Ministers, President Nathan made much effort to reach out to the rest of us. Once in a while, he would invite me to the Istana for small-group lunches. At such times, the depth of his diplomatic experience, and his understanding of the world, shone through. On one such occasion, one of the lunch group was sharing some observations he had made about political leaders in another country he had just visited. This person had concluded that one of the Ministers there was not up to mark, as the Minister had remained silent throughout an official meeting with Singapore’s high-level delegation. This drew a swift rebuttal from President Nathan, who proceeded to give all of us a primer into the way governmental power was organised in that particular country, and why a Minister there would deliberately remain silent in certain contexts. By the time lunch was over, President Nathan had not only shown his depth of world view, but had simultaneously put some of us in our places, diplomatically of course.
President Nathan’s knack for remembering the personal details of others shone even in death. When his body was Lying-In-State at Parliament House on 25 August, the Workers’ Party Members of Parliament queued to pay our respects. We were then kindly marshalled to meet Mrs Nathan who was sitting behind a screen. When Mrs Nathan saw Mr Low Thia Khiang, she queried: “Can I ask you a question? Were you a teacher?” Apparently she had been having arguments with her husband over this, and wanted to clarify the matter once and for all. When she saw Associate Professor Daniel Goh, Mrs Nathan remarked: “You are the newest one”.
When I first learned of Mr Nathan’s death, I uploaded on Facebook a photograph taken at the Istana of President Nathan looking me in the eye and shaking my hand. A member of the public later posted a caption for that photograph which read: “All citizens are equal; respect each other”. While few of us would consider ourselves equal to a President, Mr Nathan made us feel that way.
President Nathan was an integral part of the Pioneer Generation. I shall miss his grace.