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As President, S R Nathan moved to bond the nation

Mr Nathan’s appointment as President was an unexpected calling, yet one well fulfilled.

SINGAPORE — It was 1996. Mr S R Nathan and his wife had just got home from a holiday in France and Switzerland. Having completed a stint as ambassador to the United States and finished the task of setting up the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, the then-72-year-old was all set to coast to retirement. 

As he and wife were retiring to bed after their relaxing trip to Europe, the phone rang and Mr Nathan went to pick it up. “It was 11pm… Gesticulating with her hands, my wife wanted to know who was on the line. It was Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew,” Mr Nathan recalled in his memoirs. 

The odd conversation, as Mr Nathan described it — Mr Lee asked him how his children were and where the couple had been — ended with Mr Lee asking Mr Nathan to see him the next day.  

At their meeting at the Istana the following day came the bombshell: “If you were nominated (as candidate for the Elected Presidency), would you agree to stand?” Despite his initial reservations, Mr Nathan agreed after discussing the proposal with his family. His sense of duty as well as his “huge obligation” to Mr Lee for what he did for his career prevailed. 

Mr Nathan’s wife, Umi, recalled: “When the possibility was put to him, he consulted the family and we all supported him in accepting. My only condition was that the family should be kept out of the public eye. After all, status is only temporary, and we must all keep our feet on the ground.” 

Describing the day Mr Nathan was appointed as president as “the proudest day of my life”, she added: “On more than one occasion I thought he had reached the end of a successful career and could look forward to retirement. Each time a new call has come, and he has responded. We both feel that in answering the summons we are repaying a debt to Singapore, and also more personally to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who has always been willing to put trust in my husband.” 

Mr Nathan went on to serve two terms as President, elected unopposed on both occasions. He would have preferred a contest, despite his lack of electioneering experience. In the book, S R Nathan: In Conversation, which was published last year, Mr Nathan said that an election would have tested Singapore’s multiracial credentials. “As it was, I wondered how the majority of the population — Chinese and Malays — were going to regard me,” he said. “My fears turned out to be groundless.”

Looking back on the 12 years (between 1999 and 2011) when he occupied the highest office in the land, Mr Nathan said he was “always conscious that the president is the head of state, not head of government, and works within constitutional constraints”.

During Mr Nathan’s tenure, the Government, in 2009, sought the President’s approval for the first time to draw on the country’s fiscal reserves. Singapore, like many other countries, was then mired in the global financial crisis. Following the unanimous recommendation by the Council of Presidential Advisers, Mr Nathan gave the approval for S$4.9 billion to be released from the reserves to fund schemes to save jobs and help businesses get continued access to bank financing. 

Determined to put his own stamp on the presidency, Mr Nathan said he realised that one of his main but unstated functions as President was to bond the community, “with the presidency as a symbol”. 

“Up to that time the presidency had been quite formal, I decided to interact with people on their level, rather than expect them to rise to mine,” said Mr Nathan, who continued to take daily walks at East Coast Park during his presidency, striking up conversations with fellow citizens he encountered. “I wanted to show that the presidency was approachable. And I received a lot of warmth in return.”

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