S R Nathan’s life is perfect Hollywood material

A life written for the camera.

Joshua Lee | August 24, 2016 @ 11:00 am

S R Nathan (that’s Sellapan Ramanathan, for those of you who don’t know) passed away peacefully on August 22.

Aside from being the longest serving President (he served 2 terms in the Istana), his life pretty much came straight out of a movie. We’re surprised no one has made a biopic of him yet.

Riches to rags

S R Nathan was born into a relatively well off family. His father worked in a legal firm servicing rubber plantations Muar. However, the rubber industry’s decline forced his father out of a job. The family’s fortunes went south. The pressure of finding a stable job and supporting his family was too much for Nathan’s father, who subsequently killed himself. Nathan was then 8.

Post tragedy, Nathan came to Singapore and studied at Victoria School. When he was 16, he was accused of an alleged theft and expelled. Not wanting to burden his family further, Nathan ran away from home.

Miraculously, a boatman took pity on him and helped him find a job as an office boy. Subsequently, he moved to Muar again – with just $9 to his name. It wasn’t until 4 years later that Nathan would return to Singapore and be reunited with his family.

Chance encounters

In Muar, Nathan survived by working odd jobs. He would provide tuition, deliver letters, and even worked with a hawker. Around this time, the Japanese had already begun their invasion of Malaya.

During a chance encounter, Nathan was approached by a Japanese officer who was seeking directions. Nathan then started running errands for Japanese officers. He started learning Japanese from a Japanese-English dictionary and put it to use as an interpreter for the Japanese civilian police. He worked with them until the end of the war.

Nathan with Lta. Kokubu. From S R Nathan's personal collection.
Nathan with Lta. Kokubu. From S R Nathan’s personal collection.

Guns, bombs, and drama

Post-war, Nathan went to pursue his studies in the University of Malaya. He graduated and joined the public service, where he quickly rose through the ranks. As director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID), Nathan’s most famous encounter was likely the Laju incident.

In 1974, the Laju, a ferry which plied between Singapore and Pulau Bukom was hijacked by terrorists as a getaway after a failed bombing attack on the Shell oil refinery on Pulau Bukom. They demanded for a safe passage out of Singapore to Kuwait. To ensure their safety, the terrorists also demanded that a group of guarantors accompany them on the trip.

Despite the risks involved, Nathan led a 13-man party consisting of government officials and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commandos as guarantors to accede to the requests of the terrorists.


Everyone loves a happy ending

Many would call Nathan our first elected minority President.

During both terms that he ran for Presidency, Nathan was the only candidate who fulfilled all constitutional criteria for the post. As President, his tenure was marked by a string of accomplishments. Aside from improving diplomatic ties with other countries, Nathan was most remembered for the social rapport he built with communities, especially the disadvantaged.

Nathan accepting cheque on behalf of the President's Challenge. Source.
Nathan accepting cheque on behalf of the President’s Challenge. Source.

He set up the President’s Challenge in 2000, which ever since its inception, has raised more than $160 million for various beneficiaries.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he touched many lives via the causes he stood for as well as the little things he did for the common man — like paying for an employee’s child’s school expenses, braving the rain with officer cadets, and even supporting a boy who couldn’t afford shoes.

Goodbye Mr Nathan. Movie or not, you’re already a superstar.


More on S R Nathan:

Former president S R Nathan, 92, has passed away this evening at 9.48pm

Politicians pay tribute to Mr S R Nathan on Facebook

Redditor’s story of S R Nathan during a parade captures exactly what made him so special


Top photo from S R Nathan’s personal collection.

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