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S R Nathan: The negotiator

SINGAPORE — On the basis of a university thesis he wrote while studying for his social studies diploma at the University of Malaya, Mr S R Nathan was picked by then-Chief Minister David Marshall to serve as a seamen’s adviser in the then-Marine Department.

S R Nathan: The negotiator

Mr S R Nathan (left) with former President Gerald Ford in Aspen, Colorado. Photo: Mr Nathan's personal collection

SINGAPORE — On the basis of a university thesis he wrote while studying for his social studies diploma at the University of Malaya, Mr S R Nathan was picked by then-Chief Minister David Marshall to serve as a seamen’s adviser in the then-Marine Department. 

His hiring mystified him at the time — he was until then a hospital social worker — but the seemingly fortuitous act by Mr Marshall proved to be the right one. 

Beginning with the task of ensuring the welfare of a group of workers of disparate origins and needs, Mr Nathan became adept at juggling and negotiating with multiple parties — a quality that served him well in his diplomat years, and when he led the charge to end the Laju ferry hijacking in 1974. 

In his memoir, An Unexpected Journey, Mr Nathan noted that in 1956, welfare protections were basic, and there was no protection for those who worked out of Singapore but on non-British ships. 

He quickly saw the “trickle” of seamen coming to him multiply, as he sought to manage claims that ranged from wrongful discharge to unpaid wages to poor treatment. 

To get what he wanted from companies, Mr Nathan occasionally turned to his contacts in the press to turn up the pressure — a journalist friend, Mr John Darbyshire, would tell a company he had an unflattering story to tell.  

He wrote in An Unexpected Journey: “I learnt to take tough decisions. The experience was valuable later in my career, when I had to deal with tricky security matters, and decide whether to exercise compassion, even though that might or might not have been the right thing to do ... I had to brace myself to act in the general interest of the country and not let emotions affect my judgment.”

In 1962, he was appointed assistant director of the Labour Research Unit, an autonomous unit meant to assist the National Trades Union Congress. Explaining the purpose of his appointment, Dr Goh Keng Swee, then the Finance Minister, told Mr Nathan that workers needed to be wrested away from pro-communist trade union leaders, and Mr Nathan would later describe these years as “a ringside seat during the defeat of left-wing insurgency in the trade union movement”. 

Mr Nathan’s ability keep calm and act under pressure would be tested in the Laju ferry hijacking. Four men had attempted to blow up oil tanks at the Shell oil refinery on Pulau Bukom Besar, and hijacked the ferry and taken hostages when they failed, seeking safe passage out of Singapore. 

Then the director of the Security and Intelligence Division at the Ministry of Defence, Mr Nathan was deeply involved in eight days of negotiations with the hijackers while trying to head off attempts by the Japanese authorities to intervene (two of the hijackers were wanted men in Japan). 

After Singapore’s offer of safe passage to Kuwait accompanied by Singaporean officials was accepted, Mr Nathan was tasked to lead the team.

This was a risky task that soon proved tricky. Landing in Kuwait did not spell the end of the troubles. For hours, the plane sat on the runway while the Kuwati government and Japanese officials discussed 
how to proceed.  

Mr Nathan was determined to press Singapore’s point home: That the Singapore officers had fulfilled their obligations and should be allowed to disembark, and that the hijackers’ backers should not be allowed to board the plane armed. But he had already been rebuffed several times by the Kuwaiti minister, who at one point told him to shut up or be arrested. 

To communicate with the Japanese ambassador without upsetting the Kuwaitis, he resorted to speaking in Bahasa with another Japanese diplomat who had served in Indonesia. 

The diplomat then conveyed this to the ambassador, and an understanding was reached. 

The act of bravery earned Mr Nathan and the 12 Singaporean officials who were on the plane a Meritorious Service medal, but he never spoke of it at length publicly until An Unexpected Journey was published in 2011.  

Interviewed in August that year, Mr Nathan revealed he had been unsure if he would return from the trip alive. He added: “It was a job I did.”

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