“The People’s President” – S R Nathan

“The People’s President” – S R Nathan

Singapore is a small nation. But a nation’s size has no relationship to its greatness. What makes a country great? From a human perspective, isn’t a great country one that produces great people? If that is true, Singapore is a great nation indeed.

How unassuming he is! The moment I met President S R Nathan of Singapore, I sensed an air of inherent decency in him, the complete opposite of the air of arrogance that so many political leaders exude. He was both dignified and approachable. It was immediately clear to me why he was so well loved and had come to be known as “the people’s president”. When I mentioned this popular accolade, he humbly demurred, saying that whether he was deserving of such a title was to be decided by the people, and it would only be true if they said it after he had completed his term of office.
Mr Chia Cheong Fook, chairman of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and a friend of President Nathan for half a century, says that, by nature and by training, Mr Nathan does not seek the limelight. He recalls, “President Nathan was the best student in class. He got an A for his thesis, but he never told us his marks. He is the very humble type, and I knew about it only some years later, and not through him. . . . I cannot remember a single incident where he has consciously or unconsciously sought public attention for himself.” This is a stark contrast to those who care only for appearances and popularity.
Once, when asked to cite one of the lessons he had learned in life, President Nathan, an experienced diplomat said, “Do not become overly arrogant. For example, diplomats can easily tend to develop bursting egos and think very highly of themselves. It tends to slip your mind that the reason why you are able to hold that position actually comes about from the government’s delegation of responsibilities and that you are actually representing the government in doing so. Your honour only lasts as long as your tour of duty. When you are eventually recalled back to your home country, you won’t be able to cling on to that pretentious honour. Isn’t this what the Chinese and Indians would say, ‘Life is but a dream’?”

Keeping Less Fortunate Friends in His Heart
President Nathan is of Indian ethnic background, a minority in Singapore. He has had a hard life. His father died when he was eight years old. He says that having experienced suffering himself, he wants those who are presently struggling in difficult circumstances to succeed.
During our discussion, I realised that many less fortunate friends, humble ordinary people, are a continual presence in President Nathan’s heart. Every day as he carries out his state duties, he consults with them in silent dialogue, asking how they are doing and if this or that action he takes will help them. In contrast, the only thing that occupies the hearts of some leaders is themselves or the narrow interests of their families and friends.
Every year, President Nathan throws a party at his home to celebrate Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, which marks the Indian New Year. He does not invite only people who are famous and important, but friends from decades ago, friends who in those days were labourers, errand boys and office clerks.
One of his acquaintances attests that the president went out of his way to ask about a junior staff he used to work with 50 years ago. Another friend, who used to work with Mr Nathan at the Seaman Welfare Office in the 1960s, invited every year to his Deepavali party, offers a similar example of the president’s concern for others. To ensure that the retired seamen would not be cheated by their employers when it came for them to receive their payments, he said, Mr Nathan would send him along as “security guard” because the seamen were illiterate and he was to help them count their money.
President Nathan has always been a friend of the underprivileged. He was also a trade union activist, and he spent many long hours listening to the complaints and pleas of countless different groups. A close friend looking back on those days remarked that he often wondered how Mr Nathan could be so patient. Even today President Nathan is widely known for always being ready and willing to find time for the people and their welfare.

Building a Society with a Strong Philanthropic Tradition
Arrogance is wrong because it makes us insensitive to the feelings of others. For leaders, this is a fatal flaw.
Immediately after taking office in 1999, President Nathan launched the President’s Challenge 2000 — a call to the citizens of Singapore to strengthen their philanthropic tradition and spirit of community caring and volunteerism. In his speech on that occasion, Mr Nathan said, “One measure of how far we have progressed and matured as a nation will be the level of our sense of social responsibility. How sensitive are we to the needs of the less fortunate? How prepared are we to reach out to those in need?” 1
What a noble call! A nation that is sensitive to those who are suffering is truly an advanced nation. A nation whose leaders tirelessly devote their lives in service to the people is a civilised nation in the truest sense. By the same token, a nation whose political leaders, officials, and the others in the so-called elite are arrogant and conceited can only be called a backward, uncivilised nation.

Where Is My Father? Is My Father Coming Home?
President Nathan was born in 1924. His father was a clerk in a lawyer’s firm that serviced rubber plantations. In the 1930s, the rubber market collapsed, and his father lost his job. With a wife and seven children to feed and also heavily in debt, Mr Nathan’s father looked hard for work. Several months later, he finally found a job at a granite quarry.
Then, one day, perhaps exhausted or driven to despair by his many burdens, his father killed himself. “Young as I was,” recalls President Nathan, “all I remember was that I was always asking everyone, ‘Where is my father? Is my father coming home?’”
Mr Nathan left home at 16. He found work as an office boy for an architecture firm and later an assistant to Petition Writer.. He even experienced the hardship of having to sleep on the street.

The Massacre of Chinese Residents
When Mr Nathan was 18, Japan invaded Singapore and occupied it for three years and eight months. The massacre of ethnic Chinese in Singapore, which took place under the occupation, is a page in its history that Japan must never forget. The Japanese military assembled all adult Chinese males, interrogated them, questioning their allegiance, accusing them of being anti-Japanese and enemy agents. Arbitrarily labelled as traitors, many of them were marched away by death squads and shot. The Singaporeans say that 50,000 were killed in this way.
There is a movement in Japan to ignore such historical facts, but though history books can be falsified, history cannot. We must realise that trying to cover up such acts of atrocity is a second insult to the victims of the Japanese military.

Transformed Personal Hardship into Compassion and Affection
President Nathan says that war was a defining moment in his life, “You saw the best and the worst in people and you matured ahead of your years.”
After the war, he completed his education through self-study while holding down a full-time job. He was 28 when he decided to enter the University of Malaya. The other students teased him because he was so much older, but he always took it cheerfully. My friend, economist Lim Chong Yah, former chairman of Singapore’s National Wages Council and professor of economics at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, remembers that as a student President Nathan was always thinking about what he could do for those less fortunate than he was. Though Mr Nathan was then living on a scholarship, he tutored the children of poor families free of charge.
Placing my hand on my heart as an expression of my esteem, I said to President Nathan, “You have transformed all of your personal hardship into compassion and affection for your fellow citizens. We have the highest praise for the noble path you have taken through life. I admire you!”

A Close and Loving Couple
I met with President Nathan in November 2000. The tropical sky was blue and the breeze warm. The gleaming white building that is the Istana, the president’s official residence, stood on top of a hill. On our visit, my wife and I were greeted by President Nathan and his wife Urmila, who are well known in Singapore as a close and loving couple.
“As a husband, he is one in a million,” Mrs Nathan once said. “He is very considerate, thoughtful, gentle, and understanding.” Her happiness is evident for all to see.
Yes, the humble are generous and warmhearted. They are open and unpretentious. That is what makes them strong. The tighter the spot they are in, the more strength they can summon. Arrogant people, in contrast, think so exclusively of themselves that they become insecure and cowardly.

A Volunteer Hostage
In 1974, a terrorist attack took place in Singapore. Members of the Japanese Red Army together with Palestinians Terrorists hijacked the ferry Laju and took the crew hostage. In their negotiations with the Singapore government, the terrorists demanded a plane to fly them to Kuwait. The government’s primary concern was to bloodlessly defuse the situation. Consequently, a group of 13 government officials, led by Mr Nathan, who at that time was a senior Ministry of Defence official, volunteered to give themselves as hostages in exchange for the ferry crew’s release and fly with the hijackers safely as guarantors for their safe passage out of the country. “When you’re in a crisis,” Mr Nathan recalls, “it clears your mind. You don’t think about your own life or personal safety, you just think of how to deal with the crisis.” The hostages were all freed, and the incident was brought to a close without anyone coming to harm. When Mr Nathan and his colleagues returned home, they were hailed as national heroes.
When I mentioned this incident at our meeting, Mrs Nathan shared a little behind-the-scenes story with me. She was a teacher at the time, and she had been teaching as usual when the principal called her and asked her what she was doing at school. He told her to hurry home, and it was only then that she learned her husband was flying to Kuwait with the terrorists.
A humble person is strong. Humility is not simply superficial politeness. It is not playing a part to make people think you are a good person. True humility is a selfless spirit, an awareness that one’s own concerns are small and insignificant. It is a burning flame of devotion to others and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a larger mission. And it is also a wisdom that knows how meaningless it is to take pride in power or intelligence or wealth.

The Spirit of Prayer
At the root of the arrogance of our contemporary world is a scorn for religious faith and lack of understanding on the role of religion. President Nathan once made this observation, “Sometimes you would see the Chinese praying to the moon and the young would jeer at them, saying, ‘Humankind has already made it to the moon, what are you doing?’ Of course, those who criticised would feel good, but their criticism arose from their lack of understanding of the true purpose of this act. The significance of praying to the moon for those who do so is that they feel there is an external force of supernatural strength that surpasses the ordinary. Thus, by offering their respects to the moon, they are beseeching the supernatural forces to watch over them.” He also said, “It is my hope that you young people will try to understand that religion plays a vital role during the direst of circumstances.”
A nation with leaders of such depth is fortunate indeed.

Democracy and Religious Faith
It is arrogant for other political leaders to look down on the religious faith of the people, and hypocritical for them to claim that they value religious people when all they really care about are their votes. It is a sign of an impoverished spirit to regard earnest religious faith as an object of scorn or something to be exploited. If this climate prevails, whatever one seems to achieve through good governance, will collapse from within, like a tree that has been hollowed out by insects. The tree of democracy grows healthy and strong when we all have our own inner beliefs and convictions that make us stand up straight and tall.
When Japan adopted democracy after the war, the philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) remarked that democracy is premised on a religious foundation that recognises the infinite worth of each individual. 2 Does that exist in Japan, he asked? If not, he stated, Japanese democracy would be no more than an imitation of democracy’s outward forms.

The Essence of Buddhism Is Not in Ceremonies
The negative aspect of trying to control others is a tendency inherent in politics. In contrast, religious faith deals with the challenge of self-discipline and self-control. Politics bundles individuals into faceless numbers, while religious faith embraces each individual collectively as irreplaceable and unique. It is extremely important that political leaders possess within them an ever-flowing spring of humanity, to avoid being overpowered by the inhumanity that is inevitable in politics.
President Nathan remarked to me, “The Singapore Soka Association and other Buddhist organisations are doing wonderful things for the less fortunate, in both education and health care. In my opinion, the essence of Buddhism lies not in its ceremonies or its customs, but within the individual. The inner quality of human beings is going to be increasingly important in society in the future, and in that context, the Soka Buddhist organisation is making a huge contribution.”
He has also made the observation that cyber-communication cannot teach people to be kind, trusting, and accommodating, and thus this role should fall upon the family and religious organisations.

Fostering Great People
There are times when the mighty river of history flows slowly and majestically and times when it rushes rapidly along. We are in an age of rapid flow. Just in the realm of economics, the speed of change is so fast that it outpaces our imagination and all established theories. And it is only going to get faster. That is why it is so important for us to foster great people who can ride those rapids — a multitude of talented people who will be keenly sensitive to the sufferings and hopes of the people and actively work for their happiness.
“Our challenge and concern now,” said President Nathan, “is whether the people who inherit this beautiful land can understand the difficulties and sufferings that were experienced prior to our attaining the success we have today.” When Singapore suddenly seceded from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, it had neither natural resources nor economic reserves. It was a land embracing a vast diversity of ethnic groups with different languages and religions. It lacked unity; it lacked security. It even lacked sufficient water. It seemed without hope. But in those trying circumstances, the people of the new nation pulled together with a determination to survive. They would either live or die — there was no other option. They worked together, exercising all the ingenuity and creativity at their command, and attained the miraculous prosperity that they enjoy today.
Singapore rates as the world’s most global country, based on a recent survey of cross-border flows of goods and services, capital, people, and communication. 3 Japan, in contrast, doesn’t even make the top 20. It is off the list. Won’t a nation that is behind from the point of view of humanism fall behind in every respect?
Last year [in December 2000], I met with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, who is acutely aware that talented people are the key to a nation’s success. 4 “To build a country you need passion”, he declares. “If you just do your sums — plus, minus, debit, credit — you are a wash-out.” 5

(This essay was published on April 15, 2001.)

Feature article on President-elect S R Nathan, Sunday Times (Singapore), August 22, 1999.
Sun Chuan Wei, “The Warm Family That Nathan Has” (English translation of Chinese article), Lian He Zao Bao (Singapore), August 22, 1999.
“The Padang (Field) Evokes Many Good Memories” (English translation of Chinese article), Lian He Zao Bao (Singapore), October 8, 2000.

1 Speech delivered by President S R Nathan at the launch of the President’s Challenge 2000 and the opening of the social service exhibition “Helping Hands: Singapore’s Past, Present and Future,” on September 2, 2000.
2 Tillich, Paul, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1963).
3 According to a survey released by the journal Foreign Policy, based on its new Globalisation Index, in January 2001.
4 Both Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and SGI President Ikeda were among distinguished individuals conferred honorary doctorates by the Chinese University of Hong Kong on December 7, 2000.
5 Sheridan, Greg, Tigers– Leaders of the New Asia-Pacific (Australia: Allen & Unwin, Pty. Ltd. 1997). (Lee Kuan Yew’s speech at a National Day rally, August 20, 1989.)