Trying to explain why the establishment adores S R Nathan and why some Singaporeans don’t
Let's celebrate his lifework that is Singapore, rather than just comparing apples and oranges.
In the 48 hours after the passing of former President S R Nathan, tributes from Ministers and high ranking public servants began pouring in.
At the same time, some Singaporeans have once again invoked the late former President Ong Teng Cheong’s name, making comparisons between both men and how Mr Ong was Singapore’s true “People’s President”.
We know that the late Mr Ong was instrumental in the construction of our MRT lines, and had a political career spanning 21 years before he stood as a candidate in the Presidential elections. As the President, he was well-known for wanting to have a clearer picture of our reserves, which resulted in a run-in with the Government.
On the other hand, the circumstances surrounding Mr Nathan’s appointment as the second elected president did him no favour with skeptics. Both times when he stood for elections, he was the only person running deemed to have passed the criteria to be a presidential candidate.
His relatively smooth tenures as President, compared to Mr Ong’s, also gave some the impression that he was merely a rubber stamp.
As President, Mr Nathan took 11 days to deliberate, before giving permission to the government to draw $4.9 billion to fund schemes for jobs during the 2009 financial crisis.
However, such a smooth relationship between the Presidency and the government continues to be the sore point for some Singaporeans.
But surely there is more to this man, no?
The model public servant
Why do establishment figures respect and love Mr Nathan so much? The common theme when reading their tributes to him is that Mr Nathan was a man with a strong sense of duty and love for Singapore.
Countless articles in the last two days described how this one-time runaway child rose through the ranks of public service, even giving himself up as a hostage during the Laju incident, and how he defended Singapore’s position on CNN during the Michael Fay incident.
But perhaps in the recounting of all his achievements and fawning tributes, people did not realise that until the day he was made President at 75 years-old, he was just a public servant doing what public servants do — serving the country. If he had political ambitions, he could have joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) and ran for politics much earlier. But he didn’t.
Here was a man who has, for the bulk of his life, devoted himself to being part of the public service machinery making sure Singapore is run smoothly. And at an age where most people are already enjoying retirement, he was called to serve the country at an even higher level. President at 75-years-old. Think about that.
The argument for/against Mr Nathan
The crux of the argument against Mr Nathan is that he is not perceived as being independent from the government.
But what is not appreciated is that Mr Nathan prefers to exercise his independent views behind closed doors. With tact (as a former diplomat). And action (as a highly competent former civil servant).
In fact, he told The Straits Times in 2011 that “I have my independent opinions, but I don’t have to beat the drums every day to say that I’m independent”.
And a rubber stamp would not have survived under the meticulous Goh Keng Swee at the Ministry of Defence, implemented the plans from the dreamy and articulate S Rajaratnam at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and reformed the MFA as a Permanent Secretary.
The public service, being the backbone of Singapore, could do with more S R Nathans. The establishment knows this, but the rest of Singapore does not appreciate this.
Celebrating Mr Nathan’s life and his contributions to Singapore does not subtract from Mr Ong’s accomplishments. Both men gave their lives to Singapore in their own ways.
Perhaps it is our collective fault for not making the effort to know Mr Nathan better — the way in which we lionise Mr Ong.
But we owe it to ourselves to do so — he has written a few books in the final decade of his life including his memoirs.
The least we can do for the moment is to acknowledge that this man gave his whole life in the service of Singapore and Singaporeans.
Top image from Remembering S R Nathan Facebook page