The longest-serving president talks about his rise to the top and his pride in having been a part of Singapore's evolution
Sellapan Ramanathan, popularly known as S.R. Nathan, is a man of many parts. In his public career, he had stints as a trade unionist, civil servant, diplomat, newspaper publisher, academician and ambassador before going to become Singapore’s longest-serving president, occupying the post from September 1999 to August 2011.
Now 89, Nathan credits his rise from a clerk to the top post to putting duty, honour and country first. He takes pride in having been a part of Singapore’s own evolution—from a British colony to Japanese occupation to being, briefly, a part of Malaysia to, finally, establishing itself as a successful and independent city-state.
“As a new country, we had to do a lot of things, do them differently and whoever could do things was asked to do them. I’ve had an interesting career," he said in a recent interview.
Nathan was born in Singapore, but he spent his childhood in Muar, Johor (Malaysia) as his father had been posted to the town as a lawyer’s clerk with a company that serviced rubber plantations. His family came back to Singapore during the great depression in the 1930s when rubber prices crashed. After completing his education up to class seven, he went back to Johor, did different jobs for a living, and during World War II, he worked as a translator for the Japanese in Singapore.
During the war, Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of the Indo-China peninsula were occupied by Japanese forces from 1942 to 1945.
Nathan said he had been inspired by Indian nationalist and freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, who arrived in Japanese occupied-Sumatra in 1943.
Bose had led the radical wing of the Indian National Congress in the 1920s and 1930s and rose through the ranks to become the party president in 1938. But differences with Congress leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi, led to his ejection, and he was placed under house arrest by the British administration.
He escaped from Kolkata in 1940, arrived in Germany a year later and established a 3,000 strong Free India Legion to support a German invasion of India. But German reverses in the war in Europe forced him to move to South East Asia and link up with the Japanese in the Indo-China peninsula.
In Singapore, Bose reorganized and revived the fledgling Indian National Army (INA) that had first been formed in 1941. With support from both the expat Indian population in South-East Asia and the Japanese, Bose organized the INA to fight with Japanese forces against British India.
Nathan recalls attending most of Bose’s public speeches in Singapore.
“I went to City Hall to hear Bose’s first speech. He had come to ask for our blood in his struggle against the British. All the elite Indians took the front row seats. As it began to drizzle, they began to leave. He gave them a tongue-lashing. It was something I could not forget," he said.
Nathan said he interacted with Bose once when the Japanese officials had asked him to accompany the head of the INA on a ferry.
“While we were on the boat, Bose asked me why I did not join the INA. I told him I was a Malaysian citizen and it was not my war to fight India. He was disappointed," Nathan recalled. (His family had already been in Singapore for three generations by then).
The defeat of Japanese forces in the battles of Kohima and Imphal forced the INA to withdraw and finally surrender to the British in 1945. Bose is believed to have died in a plane crash on 18 August 1945 in Japanese-occupied Formosa and was cremated in Taihoku in Japan.
After the war, on the advice of a British corporal, Nathan went to a military administration workshop and was taken in as a clerk. “I had no choice. Whatever came my way, I took it," he said. When the British left in 1946, he was absorbed in the public works department, despite lacking educational qualifications. Nathan was a trade union activist and said this gave him the confidence to do things, to fight for rights and to agitate, paving the way for his future in civil service and public life. At the same time, he went for night classes to complete his secondary education. “I also learnt book keeping and typewriting in night classes and realized that I could learn."
The vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya, whom he had interacted with as a trade union leader, persuaded him to study more and helped him in getting funding for it, enabling him to graduate in Social Studies in 1954. After graduating, he became a medical social worker.
Nathan again grabbed the opportunity when Singapore’s then chief minister David Saul Marshall summoned him and offered the post of a Seamen’s Welfare Officer. “My thesis in university was on seafarers and the problems they faced. Marshall had apparently seen the thesis or was told about it by someone. He told me that the Englishman who was the Seamen’s Welfare Officer was going back, and asked me if I could fill the post. I agreed," Nathan said.
The job also took him to India, where he spent three months in 1958 studying the ports in Mumbai, Kolkata, Cochin and Chennai. Nathan recalled another incident at the end of his India stint when he had gone to Delhi to meet the then transport and communications minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. He was kept waiting three days to meet Shastri. “Finally, I was sent to his house to meet him. The waiting had left me angry, but when I saw him, all my anger vanished. He was so humble. After a long conversation, he invited me for dinner and when I told him that I wanted to experience Delhi food, Shastri was amused. He summoned an auto rickshaw, which took me to Mughal Mahal. It was the first time I tasted Tandoori food," he said.
Back in Singapore, in 1962, Nathan was seconded to the Labour Research Unit of the Labour Movement, first as assistant director and later as director of the labour research unit until 1996. He was also responsible for setting up the National Trade Union Congress. He believes Singapore’s move to set up an industrial arbitration tribunal whose orders were binding on employees and employers helped turn the tide from violent trade union movements that were set to cripple its fledgling economy.
“You could not go on strike until the court heard the case and gave its judgement. At the same time, the national wages council also came in to regulate annual increases in such a way that it would not adversely impact the investment climate," he said. With labour issues settling, foreign investors began to look at Singapore as it had an English-speaking workforce as well as a young and educated population that could be trained.
“We had very little red tape. We had laws that protected investments. The first company to come in was Texas Instruments and others followed. Soon the issue of unemployment was addressed," he said.
His stint with the labour research unit also led him to do a lot of international work, resulting in his induction into the foreign ministry after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia (August 1965).
“I served there till 1971 and accompanied the prime minister in his visits," he said. “I had a ringside view of Singapore emerging since its independence—all the difficulties and hardships that we faced. I saw it first hand as our leaders explained our situation to visiting dignitaries. I was there as a note taker. It was tremendous education. It brought to my attention the nature of the problem we were facing—no hinterland, serious unemployment, trade union agitation, no jobs, no capital—the predicament we were in also inspired me that there was a cause and that cause was worth doing together," he added.
Nathan then did a stint with the ministry of home affairs, moved to the ministry of defence for nine years, before coming back to the foreign ministry as permanent secretary for two years just prior to his retirement from civil service in 1982.
He was then sent to run the Straits Times Press for six years, appointed as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia in 1998 and in 1990 as the country’s Ambassador to the US, where he served for six years. After returning from the US, he set up the institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Nanyang Technological University and served as its director. “I was then called to stand for elections for President," he said. Nathan was elected unopposed as President of the Republic of Singapore on 18 August 1999 and re-elected for a second term in August 2005.
In 2012, the Indian government awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman to Nathan recognizing his efforts at building closer links between Singapore and India.
You have also been involved with the media—you ran the Straits Times for six years. What is your view on the evolution on the media and the phenomenon of social media today?
Social media gives you the opportunity to say what you want. But you cannot be irresponsible. You have to be legitimate, be able to defend what you say and be prepared to give the other man his point of view. I don’t think social media does that. In social media, you say what you like, I say what I like, and you leave it to the person to determine which view he wants. It is a kind of entertainment. There will be some good things, some irresponsible things and some entertaining things —that is the situation in which we are. Social media is a phenomenon worldwide and not just Singapore. But question is how do you control it.
You have seen Singapore from the days it was a British colony to Japanese occupation to being part of Malaysia and then 50 years of it being an independent country. Where do you see it in the next 50 years? What are the challenges?
I am going to be 90 and so I don’t have much more to think about 50 years from now. The challenge is to get a cohesive population—with social media, with discontent being fanned, with all kinds of expectations coming in with better life—managing these and being realistic is something that we have to bear in mind. Up to now we have been successful in maintaining racial harmony. But tomorrow you do not know. All it requires in the case of racial tension is some trigger.
We are totally dependent on the world, we don’t grow anything and have to pay for everything, making us very dependent on the global economy. We have to be ahead of time on the opportunities. It is not given that today’s prosperity will last. It depends on how we engage the opportunities and how we can be useful to other people. Singapore is still vulnerable. What do we do if the global economy slumps? We have to be very careful with our reserves as everything has to be imported—even electricity and water. So without money we are nothing and money depends on economic opportunities.
Can the Singapore model of development be applied to countries like India?
We are a small island and were able to do it. Circumstances allowed it. But large countries like India and Malaysia have so many divisions and you have to reconcile them and bring all people together. Can you do it with the same ease as we have? I am not sure. You have so many interlocking problems. Maybe some experience of infrastructure management can be transferred from here. Even then, if you try to do that and the labour movement agitates, you have to stop—you cannot talk to the labour movement in your country like we did here. We explained to our labour movement that a newly independent country had no choice but make sacrifices and this kind of national consciousness is easy in a small place. Not in a country like India with so many states, languages and written scripts. It will be presumptuous on my part to say that we can be a model.
Can China rise peacefully?
In case of China, we should look at the past and see all the hardships and pain the country has gone through. It is only in the last 20 years, through careful government, they have done tremendously well. There will be problems as they emerge, there will be tensions, both internal and external. Territorial problems will always be there.
We have to give them credit for what they have done in the last 20 years. China is a big country and you cannot expect it to change because of you. These two civilizations—India and China—have contributed to what we are today.
Singapore still has corporal punishment in the form of caning.
We have to do what is best for us. During the communist agitation, vandalism was very rampant. There was lot of unruly behaviour. Caning has always been there, it has evolved as a punishment. I’ve seen that in the US—a criminal breaks into a house to steal, slips and falls, sues the house owner for not keeping it clean, and gets a judgement in his favour. We cannot afford that. We have to have a deterrence —whether it deters or not, I do not know. We are developed in the sense that we have achieved certain level of economic prosperity, but we have many more things to do. We have three major races—we have to make sure they live in harmony. We cannot have a free-for-all.