December 09, 2019
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Yesterday's Man, President Today

Veteran civil servant S.R. Nathan takes on the mantle of the republic's presidency, unopposed

Yesterday's Man, President Today
For the dynamic 75-year-old diplomat and veteran civil servant S.R. Nathan, who began as an office-boy at 16, it has been a long and chequered journey to the top.

Bedecked in a colourful garland and grinning broadly, the popular Singaporean-Indian trade unionist, who has been heading the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies after his return from a challenging stint as ambassador to the US from 1990-96, made history on August 19. He was elected Singapore's newest President. Unopposed.

In a short address to the 500 people who waited outside the Peoples' Association nomination centre, a beaming Nathan said he felt 'humbled' by his new title. The fact that he won uncontested, he said, 'places on me an even heavier responsibility to discharge my duties'.

Holding his wife Umi's hand tightly, a Singaporean-Indian to whom he's been happily married for 40-odd years, Nathan spoke in English, Malay and Tamil to the crowd. To his Chinese supporters, he said, 'Xie Xie Ni (thank you),' before driving on to his home in the upper middle class suburb of Katong. The Nathans have a son, a daughter who's a lawyer and is married to another Singaporean-Chinese lawyer and three grandchildren.

Nathan chose to have a heart bypass in '91 and has stuck on to a strict exercise regime since. The result has been positive; he is in good health and though he loves food, his wife keeps a hawkeye on his diet.

'I am 75. I am at the winter of my life, so naturally I look upon me as a yesterday's man. But now that I've been given this position, I think there's new hope... The man up there will decide,' he said, pointing skywards, at a press conference after the election.

Born in Singapore, Nathan represents the essence of all that's good about the island republic,meritocracy, racial harmony, strong family values, equal opportunity for all. Under Singapore's constitution, potential candidates for president must satisfy certain criteria, such as having headed ministries or at least a $100 mn company. He was the only eligible candidate. The other two applicants,Ooi Boon Ewe, 58, and opposition campaigner Tan Soo Phuan, 63,did not come even close to qualifying.

The fact that Nathan's presidential application was supported enthusiastically by senior minister, Singapore's founder and ex-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, undoubtedly gave Nathan the final stamp of approval. The two men were among the early planners and troubleshooters during the tumultuous '60s, when Singapore reeled under bloody race riots and was riddled by communist insurgency. Said Lee, in a recent interview to The Straits Times, Singapore, on Nathan's filing of his application: 'I think it'd be a very sad day if a populist Chinese candidate were to turn up and Nathan were defeated. I'd have gone all out for Nathan.'

At 16, Nathan served as an office-boy in an architectural firm in Singapore. During the Japanese occupation, he learnt Japanese and became an interpreter. Soon after he got a diploma in social studies and became a social worker in the government service. At 28, he entered the University of Malaya in Singapore. He then went on to become a civil servant and from '71-79 headed the critical security and intelligence department in the defence ministry.

He gained corporate experience as executive chairman of The Straits Times Press Group during '82-88. Then he was high commissioner to Malaysia and later ambassador to the US, where he was rated highly for his diplomatic skills, knowledge of Southeast Asian affairs and for his sensitive and firm handling of the American media on the issue of the caning of American student Michael Fay for vandalism in Singapore.

National Trades Union Congress president John de Payva paid Nathan a huge compliment when he said last week: 'Mr Nathan was a pioneer in the labour movement...he's not an ordinary man. He's someone who's been around, contributed greatly to the development of the nation.'

Does he see his role as purely ceremonial? No, says Nathan. 'The function of the president being ceremonial is historical. But in recent times the government, out of its own volition, has given certain custodial powers to the president to audit. So we have a combination of the two.' The elected presidency of Singapore was created with the idea of the president being a check and balance over the government to safeguard the billions of dollars of Singaporeans' savings under the Central Provident Fund.

The island republic of 3.2 mn people will witness a historic moment when Nathan is sworn in on September 1 at a glittering ceremony. He might also be the only president who may not agree to live at the Istana Presidential Palace, preferring to retain the common touch: brushing boundaries with his middle class Katong neighbours.

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