S R Nathan: Fighting for the common man

A DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN: Ex-president S R Nathan was cheerful as he answered our questions about his life and his thoughts on young people today. Photo: REP TV

Mr S R Nathan’s wrinkled exterior reveals a man who, at 89, has gone through a long life of heavy responsibility. But despite his age, he still displays the sharp intellect and sense of humour he is known for.

Mr Nathan was in RP to present a cheque of $129,000, a gift from the S R Nathan Education Upliftment Fund, to needy students of the school. It is a subject close to his heart – despite having scaled the apex of government when he was President, Mr Nathan has more in common with the common man and shares a particular soft spot for the underprivileged. And this has a great deal to do with his own life.

Having to endure the death of his father, sleeping on the streets and getting thrown out of school twice before the age of 17, Mr Nathan is no stranger to hardship. Reflecting on his past, he said it was a few simple words of encouragement that turned his life around. “That was the beginning of my road, because my school said I am hopeless, I couldn’t do anything. But somebody told me ‘you got a good head’, and I moved on from there,” he recalled.

His experience in meeting people who needed a hand is what drove him to give generously to RP students to “enable those who are less endowed to further their studies and improve their opportunities in the future”.

When asked about what was his favourite job, Mr Nathan paused and said he couldn’t think of one specific posting. Indeed, most of his jobs were created during the early days of Singapore, which meant he had to do jobs “without a brief”. But in doing so, he was able to learn much more than he thought possible. As a social worker, he saw first-hand how circumstances can devastate a family. “You learnt about life, about the nature of our society, about what different people go through, about how others are worse off than you, yet they are able to survive in life.”

One of Mr Nathan’s jobs was that of an ambassador for Singapore. It took him to many places, and he shared with us one particularly disappointing trip he had to Samarkand, where expecting delicious biryani, he was instead met with what he describes as “the most horrible food that I could think of, absolutely tasteless”.

But he has learnt a lot from his travels. In reference to the many places he has visited, he admits that “when you go there, you realise, there’s a lot you don’t know.”
When asked about the challenges young people face, Mr Nathan said youths today have a very different set of challenges from those he had to overcome. “Young people face a lot of moral difficulties in facing life growing up,’’ he said.

He gave the example of young students who work at five-star hotels and when he asks them why they work, they say it is to buy branded bags. “We are getting into a society where greed has become a very important part of life,” he added.

And so, it is important for parents, educators and young people to think about what is important and build up character that not only displays inner strength but the genuine ability to help others less fortunate than them. Something the former president does with grace and humility even in his twilight years.