Mr S R Nathan (1924 - 2016)
In Memoriam

Mr S R Nathan
ISEAS mourns the passing of our 6th President, Mr S R Nathan. We extend our deepest condolences to his family.

When he stepped down as President in 2011, we were honoured to have him as ISEAS Distinguished Senior Fellow. He made an impact on the Institute far beyond his five years with us. It was through his efforts and contacts that funding was secured to establish the Buddhist Studies Centre, the predecessor of the Nalanda – Sriwijaya Centre in December 2008. He also personally secured funding for some researchers.

Mr Nathan’s long association with Southeast Asian research began in 1968 when ISEAS was first established. As Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was a Trustee on the ISEAS Board from 1981 to 1990. He played a key role in reinvigorating ISEAS in 2002 through the appointment of a new Chairman and Director. This provided the impetus for enhanced research efforts at the Institute.

As Distinguished Senior Fellow, he would be at the Institute regularly. He met with friends, community leaders, retired and serving officials. He spent countless hours with the Institute’s many research fellows, many of whom are from the region. He generously shared his observations and ideas on research issues with them, especially the younger ones, in the process enriching their perspective with his vast experience and his deep insight of on-going socio-political events. On rare occasions, he would stay back to enjoy his favorite meal of Indian rojak and mee goreng.

He generously accepted requests to host ISEAS events for visiting dignitaries, including the conferment of the Distinguished Honorary Fellow on Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on 25 July 2012 and the launch of a book on Brunei by then Brunei Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, Prince Mohamad Bolkiah on 28 October 2013.

Mr Nathan took his role as Distinguished Senior Fellow to heart. In April last year, he suffered a stroke. Two months after his recovery, he resumed his visits to ISEAS, though less frequently. Each visit, though shorter, began with discussions with researchers. He was more frail, his movements more laboured but his mind remained sharp and intense. His last visit to ISEAS was on 28 June 2016, a month before his second stroke.

His passing is a great loss for ISEAS and all of us who have had the privilege of his guidance and mentorship. His thoughtfulness, his warmth, his humility and his common touch will always be remembered by all who had the privilege of knowing him.

Tan Chin Tiong
ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute
23 August 2016

Reflections from ISEAS Staff

"My office was next to Mr Nathan’s at ISEAS, and he would knock on my door on occasion, pop his head in to say Hello and see how I was. He would sometimes come to sit for a chat. He always wanted to talk about Malaysian politics, and I often found his ability to cut to the chase when analysing an event quite astounding. This skill, I suspect, came from a lifetime of practice in the world of diplomacy and statecraft."

Ooi Kee Beng
Deputy Director

"Immediately after my arrival in 1997 as Ambassador of Denmark to Singapore I went to see President Nathan who was head of RSIS. During visits to Washington I had asked American friends to name contacts in Singapore about foreign- and security policy. President Nathan was high up on that list. The first visit was soon followed by many others and I came to appreciate his frankness, analytical instinct, and search for the essential point – in fact what an Ambassador look for as inputs for his reporting. These competences went along with a friendly and open person who took an interest far beyond the region where he lived. He questioned me often about Europe, the EU, and the Euro. I was glad to be able to show him the Euro banknotes and coins almost on the date when they were issued and started as a single currency for a number of European countries.

When I retired from the Danish diplomatic service his kindness led to an invitation to come and see him for a farewell talk at the Istana where he served as a distinguished President of the Republic of Singapore. He served his country well over many years in various – and difficult positions – being a loyal servant to his country. "

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Visiting Senior Fellow
(former Ambassador of Denmark to Singapore and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps)

"Mr Nathan was an invaluable asset for the Institute. His deep knowledge of Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as his personal involvement in many key positions in Singapore meant that he was able to provide keen insight into complex problems and current issues. Mr Nathan was always very generous with his time and willing to listen to our proposals and provide advice. His input and generosity will be sorely missed."

Francis Hutchinson
Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Regional Economic Programme

"All my past dealings with Mr Nathan were during his Presidency, when I was working at the National Archives. He called me up a few times to the Istana to ask for an update on one aspect of my work, on the Government’s preparatory work for the ICJ submission on Pedra Branca. Although, as President, he was not involved in the issue, he showed great interest in the details of my work and shared information with me on his dealing with the Malaysian officials, which indirectly helped me in planning my research strategy, as well as in resource deployment. I was very impressed with his eye for details and his deep analysis of issues. He enjoyed reading, particularly history books and I am grateful that he penned a foreword for my exhibition catalogue on “Reflections and Memories of War” before he ended his term as Singapore’s 6th President."

Pitt Kuan Wah
Head, Library

"I was fortunate to have some personal interaction with Mr Nathan when he was in ISEAS a couple of years ago. I was discussing about ASEAN identity with him. I was pleasantly surprised to see how approachable and affable he was, which made it very easy to work with him even though he was the former President of Singapore. The other remarkable thing I noticed was his sharp memory - He remembered in lucid detail events that took place at the dawn of the ASEAN era."

Sanchita Basu Das
Lead Researcher (Economic Affairs), ASEAN Studies Centre and Fellow

"When I received a request in late 2013 to meet Mr Nathan, it was some trepidation that I knocked on the door of his office. After all, it is not an everyday occurrence that a person of Mr Nathan’s stature would ask to see me. My only other interaction with Mr Nathan prior to that request in 2013 was a fleeting conversation at a staff gathering at ISEAS which Mr Nathan had also graced with his presence. It turned out that Mr Nathan recalled that I was from Myanmar and had kept track of my concurrent duties at ISEAS working on both ASEAN and Myanmar studies. Mr Nathan’s links with Myanmar go more than four decades back, and he had kept abreast of developments in Myanmar. He was keen to assist Myanmar’s nascent opening up, particularly the economy. He wished to provide a neutral and open space for Myanmar experts to brainstorm policy options for economic reforms. With Mr Nathan’s advice and guidance, I was entrusted with coordinating discussions among renowned Myanmar economists and experts. The policy recommendations for Myanmar’s economic trajectory that resulted from these discussions were shared with the key principals of Myanmar’s leadership, including then opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I wish to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to Mr Nathan for his unwavering belief in Myanmar’s potential and the keen interest he took in providing a space for discussions that would help inform and guide Myanmar’s new directions, and, in his own words, “help to put money In peoples’ pockets, especially the poor”."

Moe Thuzar
Lead Researcher (Socio-Cultural Affairs), ASEAN Studies Centre and Fellow

"I was appointed Executive Secretary of ISEAS in July 1983 and I recall with fond memories of meeting Mr Nathan the very first time at the meeting of ISEAS EXCO, his first warm greeting to me with his signature beaming eyes.

Mr Nathan has always been supportive of ISEAS progress since the early years of ISEAS foundation and he took great interest in the development of ISEAS in its collaboration with the prominent Foundations in the US, during the time Prof KS Sandhu (1972-1992) was ISEAS Director, especially when Mr Nathan was Singapore's Ambassador to the US.

He helped us unconditionally in our transition towards research with a different profile on the sudden demise of Prof Sandhu, remarkably bearing in mind the differences of the mission of ISEAS with the mission of the new institute IDSS which he set up in July 1996 as its first Director.

Mr Nathan remained interested in ISEAS activities during the two terms when he was Sixth President of Singapore (1999 to 2011). With the new interest of ISEAS in the rebuilding of the Nalanda University in India, President Nathan never missed a beat in boosting ISEAS profile to connect us with SBL and temples in Singapore for funding support to launch the now revered Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre established by and based at ISEAS since 2008.

With his personal interest and support from the Ministry concerned, ISEAS endeavoured to commence research on connectivity issues and extended its publication programme on the findings including on the Chitty Peranakans in Singapore and Malaysia. Many Forewords on ISEAS publications were penned personally by him.

During and after his Presidency Mr Nathan and Mrs Nathan graced our numerous book launches to reinforce his interest in dissemination of relevant research findings.

In the last few years as ISEAS Distinguished Senior Fellow since 2011, Mr Nathan came to his office at ISEAS often enough, for private meet-ups with ISEAS Director, with ISEAS staff researchers and for discussions with eminent visiting professors on their research interests and opinions /updates on the current affairs as they stood then.

We will miss his caring presence and scholarly involvement, we will miss his “concern" for ISEAS as I know it since 1983 as I was around then till May this year when I retired.

I was aware of his failing health in the last year and in the New Year I had a private meeting with him in his office to wish him well and to tell him I am retiring. To my imploring him to rest more and retire (like me) he told me "I cannot as it will mean my brain will slow down". I recall this as vividly to this day. I can never imagine Mr Nathan's brain will ever "slow down".

His fatherly figure at ISEAS will be missed, his shadow has always been at ISEAS before, during and after being our Sixth President.

RIP dear Mr Nathan"

Y L Lee
Former Head, Administration and Executive Secretary to ISEAS Board of Trustees

"I first met Mr S R Nathan when I was working on my book Yusof Ishak: Singapore’s First President. He read the draft chapters of the book meticulously, and penned the book’s Foreword. Mr Nathan was passionate about Singapore’s history, and he encouraged me to continue writing about our nation’s pioneers. So supportive was Mr Nathan on works dealing with Singapore’s history that he made time to attend the launch of Majulah! 50 years of Malay/Muslim Community in Singapore, a book I co-edited. On the 28 June 2016, Mr S R Nathan called me to his office for a conversation. He briefly shared about Malayan politics in the 1940s and 1950s, highlighting the significance of that era in defining Malay nationalism. “You must know the developments during this period at the back of your head when you write about Singapore’s history,” he reminded me. During the meeting, he also encouraged young scholars like me to continue writing on Singapore’s history. I will miss having such conversations with Mr Nathan, particularly his vision for historical accuracy. Thank you for your services to the nation, and you will always be a source of inspiration for Singaporeans!"

Norshahril Saat

"Mr S R Nathan helped to secure research funding for a project on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Aceh that Dr Aris Ananta and myself were working on in 2006. We were looking at outcome of the efforts by the Singapore Government, Singaporeans, and Singapore NGOs in Aceh, two years after the tsunami struck in December 2004. ISEAS and Mercy Relief subsequently launched the book, Aceh: A New Dawn, at a fund-raising event with the help of Mr Nathan in 2007. Thank you Mr Nathan for helping people affected by the tsunami and also the work of researchers at ISEAS."

Lee Poh Onn
Senior Fellow

I have been privileged to have interacted with Mr S R Nathan several times during his time as President and thereafter. Mr Nathan represented all that was good and great about Singapore and Singaporeans. He was a humble and sincere President who cared deeply about the needs, concerns and aspirations of the downtrodden. Mr Nathan's concerted efforts to build bridges of understanding and appreciation among the different faiths and ethnicities in Singapore is a key cornerstone of his legacy. As a young academician at ISEAS, Mr Nathan's wisdom and experience taught me much about the modern history of the Southeast Asian region, and in particular, the evolution of Singapore’s relations with Malaysia and Indonesia. Mr Nathan’s legacy in the annals of Singapore’s young history is assured. His manifold contributions to Singapore will be remembered for generations to come. The test for all of us as Singaporeans is to continue his rich legacy and his abiding dream for Singapore to be a home for everyone, regardless of race, language or religion. Mr Singapore extraordinaire will be sorely missed.

Mustafa Izzuddin

I did not have the opportunity to work with Mr Nathan, yet he had touched my life on two memorable occasions.

The first occasion was in the early 1970’s, when I was a very junior military research analyst and he was Director Security & Intelligence, and both of us were working in the same fenced MINDEF compound in Tanglin. We had to enter and exit our offices through a very small guarded gate. One evening, as I was leaving office I met Mr Nathan, who was also leaving for home, at the gate. Knowing who he was and out of courtesy, I greeted him softly. In return, though he did not know me, he looked me in the eye, smiled and asked me where I lived. He then said in a soft voice that he would give me a lift home. I was surprised, but from his tone, his politeness and his eyes looking at you, he did not give you the opportunity to say no. If my memory served me right, he was then driving a small car, probably a Morris Minor or a Volkswagen beetle. He drove me to Old Kallang Airport Road where I stayed and during the trip I found out that he was staying in Ceylon Road, not very far from Old Kallang Airport Road.

The second occasion was many years later, when President Nathan was in Maldives in October 2007 to open a new school with President Gayoom of Maldives. Singapore paid for and built the school for Maldives as our contribution to Maldives’ rehabilitation after the Asian Sunami in December 2004. I co-led a MFA-Singapore Red Cross team, together with architects and building construction industry personnel, to oversee the project to its completion. After the formal ceremonies of the school opening, Mr Nathan hosted the whole project team (more than 20 of us) to lunch in Maldives and got his official photographer to take a group photo with him. We were certainly appreciative and thought that that was it. To our surprise, sometime after our return to Singapore, each of us received an autographed photograph which was taken with President Nathan in Maldives, together with a small gift box from the Istana. This was President Nathan’s very personal way to thank each of us for our small part in helping Singapore built a school for Maldives.

I remember Mr Nathan for his warmth and appreciation of ordinary people like us, which was a distinct trademark of the man who rose to be our 6th President.

Koh Tin Fook

My heartfelt condolences to former President Nathan’s family. His sad passing away is a tremendous loss as I have known him for decades and decades since the post-WW2 period when he was working in the PWD Johor Baru and his lady wife taught my stepdaughter at the JB Convent School. I was then in the Special Branch JB. We resumed our acquaintance when he was Singapore’s President and he came to hear I was at ISEAS and we met frequently at the Istana. He was a great man in every sense of the word, and he can never be replaced in my mind.”

Leon Comber
Visiting Senior Fellow

I knew Mr Nathan for nearly 50 years, almost all my adult life. From 1971 to 1979 he was my immediate boss as SID Director and I was his Head of Research. I remember the respect and kindness with which he treated me in our working relationship and also subsequently. Mr Nathan was unassuming, lived simply and dressed simply. Throughout his long career he had the quality of being able to relate easily to people in all walks of life, from government ministers to drivers and clerks.

He was blessed with an innately good mind, shaped less by any high level formal education and more by his rich and extraordinary experiences in real life from his teens, including the Japanese occupation. He looked at politics and international relations of the region from a down-to-earth practical angle. The school of life had given him a very good understanding of people and relationships between people—which in a sense is what politics is also about. No doubt it also helped him in his extraordinary success in a variety of high offices working for the likes of Goh Keng Swee and Lee Kuan Yew.

Daljit Singh
Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator, Regional Strategic and Political Studies

I did not have much dealings with Mr Nathan except that we got to meet him when he attended ISEAS events. I saw him as a humble and approachable President who took an interest in the lives of many Singaporeans regardless of race and religion. We are proud to say that his affiliation to ISEAS was a bonus. The fact that he chose to be affiliated with ISEAS after his retirement as President showed the closeness and love he had for ISEAS and its activities. Thank you Mr Nathan for your service to Singapore and ISEAS! We will miss you!

Karthi Nair
Executive (Admin)
Reflections from ISEAS Director
Mr S R Nathan – As I Remember Him
Mr S R Nathan

President Nathan with then Permanent Secretary Tan Chin Tiong and 2nd Permanent Secretary Bilahari Kausikan during his visit to the newly completed Foreign Affairs Ministry Headquarters building in Tanglin on 21 November 2001.

Today, Mr S R Nathan, 6th President of Singapore begins his final journey from Parliament House. I was privileged to know him in different capacities over 49 years.

I first met Mr S R Nathan in April 1967. Then newly recruited into the Administrative Service, I was posted to the Economic Development Division of the Ministry of Finance. On my second day at work, I received a call from Mr Nathan’s office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), asking if I could see him. At lunch, I walked across from my office at Fullerton Building to the Foreign Ministry at City Hall. When I entered his office, he asked me to sit down, and then asked “You did history. Why not join the Foreign Service. We need people like you”. Although I did not cross over to MFA, I was impressed that as Deputy Secretary at MFA, he had taken the trouble to personally identify and persuade me, a rookie, to join a new and fledging branch of government.

In 1976, as Head of Training on the SAF General Staff, I had the opportunity to work with Mr Nathan who was Director of the Security and Intelligence Division in MINDEF since August 1971. Together with the Permanent Secretary, Directors of Divisions, including Mr Nathan, we attended the weekly MINDEF HQ meeting, chaired by Dr Goh Keng Swee every Monday morning at 11 a.m. The meetings were always business–like, tense because of Dr Goh’s probing questions. The meetings were unique learning experiences. Mr Nathan had an easy rapport with him, answering succinctly Dr Goh’s queries on both security policy and operational issues. It relieved the tension. In MINDEF, I personally worked with Mr Nathan on several projects. He showed his appreciation in very simple but thoughtful ways. On his first trip to China with then PM Lee Kuan Yew, he gave me a simple silk scroll of the Great Wall of China. On another trip to a Southeast Asian country, he gave me a packet of fragrant black rice. It was a humble gift, but an exquisite present because it was not available locally. On two occasions, he included me on field trips with him. One of these was a flight at short notice to the Natuna Islands on an Indonesia air force aircraft hosted by Benny Moerdani, who was then Chief of Intelligence in Indonesia. It was a privileged occasion and we had the opportunity to land on the main island to have a feel of the place. This was Mr Nathan’s way of exposing a young officer to a new and unique experience. The other occasion was a field visit to a neighbouring country where sitting in at discussions was an invaluable lesson in operations.

Sometime in 1979, Mr Nathan left SID for MFA. His absence was missed by all at MINDEF. His new mission was to rebuild the Foreign Ministry from scratch. A few months later, learning that I would soon leave the SAF to return to the civil service, he sought the support of the then Defence Minister, Mr Howe Yoon Chong to have me to join him in MFA as Second Permanent Secretary. This was so Mr Nathan. He wanted to help me settle back into civilian life with an appropriate assignment. However, this was not to be and I went on to be Second Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

In April 1997, Mr Nathan was Ambassador-At-Large at MFA when I became Permanent Secretary at the Ministry. He had returned from US after a very successful and challenging stint as Ambassador. He was then working on the establishment of the Institute of Defence and Security Studies (IDSS) at NTU*. Sometime in 1999, he saw me at my MFA office which was then at the 37th floor of Raffles City Tower. He shared with me that he would need to resign soon from his Ambassador-At-Large position as he had been asked by the government to stand for the elected Presidency. He said he was reluctant but found it difficult to reject a call to duty.

When he became President, his interest and concerns about foreign policy issues was uppermost. He held regular dinners at the Istana to meet the diplomatic corps at which as Permanent Secretary, I would attend. The dinners were always simple and business like, starting at 7.30pm and ending around 9.30pm. His mind was always working ceaselessly. At the end of each dinner, he would ask me to stay back to discuss some observations or ideas he had, to improve our work. Diplomacy and foreign policy were always on his mind. Mrs Nathan who was the hostess for these events would patiently wait while the after dinner discussions, which normally lasted 10-15 minutes, went on. In November 2001, after we moved to newly completed Ministry Headquarters Building in Tanglin, we had the pleasure of inviting him, this time as President to tour the building and its facilities, a far cry from our humble beginnings in City Hall.

Even after he became President, he continued to host private Deepavali gatherings at his humble home in Ceylon Road. The invitation list would include his former civil service friends, his former and current MFA colleagues, senior and junior. The occasions were lively events lasting from afternoon to evenings for different groups. One could see Mr Nathan was very relaxed on such occasions.

It was my privilege as Singapore Ambassador to Japan to receive President and Mrs Nathan in Japan in early May 2009 on their State Visit to Japan, a first for a Singapore President. Mr Nathan was keen to pay a state visit to Japan. It was a country with close links to Singapore. Working with MFA colleagues and Japan counterparts, we secured this state visit. During this historic visit, I remember vividly how in spite of a very packed official programme, he went out of his way to meet and host the family of the late Lieutenant Kokubu, who had taken care of him during the Japanese occupation, to tea at Akasaka Palace where the Presidential delegation was staying as state guests of the Emperor of Japan. It was a touching moment to see the Kokubu family members led by elder son Tsutomo, reuniting again with Mr Nathan.

In March 2012, on my return from Japan, I became the Director of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute where Mr Nathan, by then retired from the Presidency was a Distinguished Senior Fellow since 2011. A week after I started work, he was in ISEAS and met me at my office. Although I wanted to see him in his office, a short distance away, he insisted, against my protests, to see me at my office. He wanted to help me ease into my new job comfortably. He very considerately did not want me to go to his office as I was wheelchair bound. In the four years I have been Director at ISEAS, I would meet him every few weeks during which he would review the Institute’s research agenda and offer his observations and comments. He shared anecdotes and episodes which gave me a better understanding of my new job. They were most useful as he had, as Permanent Secretary of MFA, close dealings with the Institute from its inception and had always read the Institute’s research work with a keen and critical eye. He regularly met with researchers from the Malaysia and Indonesia Country Studies Programmes, either singly or in groups. Those who met him were impressed with his insights, his recollections as well as his insightful suggestions. His legendary memory of events, personalities and dates left researchers at each discussion session over-awed. Often, he stayed beyond lunch, enjoying a meal of Indian rojak and mee goreng from his favorite hawker stalls, either by himself or with some of us.

He took a particular interest in young research scholars. For each visit to ISEAS, he would see a few of them, individually, discussed with them their research and suggest ideas for improvement. He even personally secured funding from his many friends for researchers to take up visiting fellowships at the Institute.

He had a deep sense of history. He saw a parallel between how the Berkeley economists in Indonesia who helped Suharto in his economic plans after he came to power, with a similar need for a group of committed economists to help Myanmar chart its next stage of development post military regime. Sensing impending political change in Myanmar, in 2014, he suggested a project to assemble some of the most prominent economists on Myanmar from within the country and overseas to discuss how the country could prepare itself for economic development when the military regime transited to civilian rule. ISEAS facilitated the meetings in Singapore as well as funded the project. It was Mr Nathan’s way of being helpful at a critical time in Myanmar’s history.

He loved the company of old friends and colleagues and in his last few years, in spite of declining health, he enjoyed informal lunches with small groups of friends from the MFA. Each one of us, including Mr Nathan took turns to host.

His thoughtfulness had no bounds. Every Chinese New Year, he would either send or bring personally to me a bottle of Indian savory Murukku (spicy flour bits, cashew and peanuts). The gift was a humble one but priceless because it came from his heart.

After his health deteriorated last year, we saw less of him but he continued to come to the Institute, each time to meet up with researchers individually to discuss research projects and offer his suggestions. In the last 6 months, his visits became less frequent. But even with waning health, he continued to be at ISEAS. After his first stroke in 2015 and recovery, he was back in ISEAS after a month, staying on for several hours.

I last saw him in ISEAS on 28 Jun 2016 when he told me he was not eating well and getting tired easily. He told me he was on dialysis three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday but would be available on Tuesday and Thursday to come to the Institute if we needed to discuss any matter with him. In fact, he wanted, in his own words, “to soldier on” in spite of ill health. His private secretary of many years, Desmond Yong, shared with me a note that Mr Nathan wrote to the Defence Minister on 25 July, requesting the continued secondment of Desmond for another year. In his letter, he wrote “I have soldiered on, and hope to stay active for another year before I call it a day.”

It was not to be. On 31 July 2016, he had a second stroke and was in intensive care at SGH where I visited him on 2 August. He passed away on 22 August 2016. I visited his family at the private wake at his home in Ceylon Road on 24 August. When I conveyed my condolences to Mrs Nathan, I held her hand and she said, “Your friend is gone. He always talked about you”. It was so Mr Nathan. He was always thinking of others.

Tan Chin Tiong
Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Director, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute
* IDSS is today part of The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)