CITATION FOR THE CONFERMENT OF
TO MR S R NATHAN
Mr President of the Singapore Association of Social Workers,
The President of the Republic of Singapore, Mr S R Nathan, stands before us as an outstandingly qualified and worthy candidate for the conferment of the honour of appointment, as Fellow of the Singapore Association of Social Workers.
Mr Nathan made his first steps into the category ‘outstanding’, while still a young man, as this narrative will soon illustrate. Following a hard-working and well-spent early youth, in 1952 Mr Nathan became a member of the first cohort to take the Diploma in Social Studies course, at the then University of Malaya. Within the Diploma examination regulations, statutory provision had been made only for Pass or Fail status. In the final year of this first cohort, examiners noted that one student was so far ahead of what was on the whole a good class, that this limited categorisation of results was grossly inequitable. In order to right this injustice, the University did what universities and all statutory bodies are most loath to do, and indeed are only very rarely moved to do – it added a retrospective clause to the regulations, so that in 1954, Mr Nathan’s outstanding final examination performance could be recorded as Pass with Distinction.
Mr Nathan’s work as a student was marked by another, and even more outstanding achievement. He is most certainly unique in local university records, in that his research findings as a student, (and a student below post-graduate level at that), led to the setting up from scratch of a new and pioneering government department. Mr Nathan’s final year dissertation, revealed that lodging housekeepers in the dock area, were running a system which amounted to debt enslavement, of Asian merchant seaman awaiting their next shipboard employment.
Mr Nathan’s research findings were drawn to the attention of the then Chief Minister, whose government forthwith set up the Asian Seaman’s Registry and in 1956 Mr Nathan was appointed as the first Asian Seaman’s Welfare Officer.
Prior to this appointment, and following graduation, Mr Nathan had been working in Tan Tock Seng Hospital. This being the first occasion ever, that a man had filled a Singapore medical social work post, the Hospital took time to make adjustments. For a while Mr Nathan manfully performed his duties with fine professionalism, despite being based in an office bearing the door label “Lady Almoner”.
Following some years in the position of Asian Seaman’s Welfare Officer, and a four year secondment as Director of the Labour Research Unit of NTUC, in1966, Mr Nathan was promoted to the Administrative Service. His postings included the Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. In both the latter two Ministries he held the position of Permanent Secretary.
In 1982 Mr Nathan was appointed Executive Chairman of Straits Times. In this position he exercised leadership with his usual distinction, and enjoyed good relationships with, and the confidence of the varied and sometimes maverick personalities who always go to the making up of a lively journalist team.
In 1988, Mr Nathan began a new career as a diplomat, first as our High Commissioner to Malaysia, and then from 1990 to 1996 he served as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States, possibly the most senior posting in our diplomatic service. Mr Nathan’s time in Washington covered a most difficult period in Singapore-USA relations, namely what has come to be referred to as the Michael Fay affair. Singapore’s firm handling of the vandalism committed by an eighteen year old American citizen, raised such outcry in the United States, that it looked for some time as if our American friends were about to send a gunboat up the Singapore river. Mr Nathan’s diplomatic skills played no small part in his country’s dealing with this difficult interlude in our foreign relations.
On a lighter note, it was during Mr Nathan’s time in Washington, that the embassy residence there was purchased. Our present ambassador has expressed appreciation that this was so, and that subsequent Singapore representatives can thereby benefit from the good sense and impeccable good taste of then Ambassador and Mrs Nathan.
In 1996, when at age 74, most Singaporeans would have been long allowed to retire, Mr Nathan was much too valuable to be spared, and he graciously agreed in the three years prior to his present high office, to head the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, at Nanyang Technological University
Alongside this magnificent life record of service to the public sector, Mr Nathan also gave significantly in voluntary work. For many years he served as Honorary Secretary to the then Singapore Council of Social Service. Those who had the honour to serve on the Council at that time, can vouch for the dedication and energy Mr Nathan brought to that role, despite the pressures of his demanding professional career. Mr Nathan has also served as Chair of the Hindu Endowments Board, and was a founder member of the Singapore Indian Development Association, or SINDA.
Of Mr Nathan’s appointment as our President of the Republic and the high esteem in which he has been held in this office, the facts are too well known to permit recounting on this occasion. His dignity and wisdom have enhanced Singapore’s international standing, his humanity and kindness have touched the hearts of Singaporeans of all races and creeds.
However, Mr President, over and above all Mr Nathan’s other and many outstanding and matchless life achievements, there is one awesome interlude in his career, which even if standing alone qualifies him for the most high honour which it is within the clauses of our constitution to award. Older members of our profession will never forget his role in the tense and terrible days in early 1974, that are remembered as the ‘Laju incident’.
A group of Japanese and Palestinian terrorists had managed to enter Singapore waters, with the specific intention of blowing up the major oil installations on the island, Pulau Bukum. Our intelligence services were able to frustrate any such dreadful event, but not before the group had hijacked the ferry servicing Pulau Bukum, the Laju, and taking the Singaporean crew members as hostages.
Rarely have Singaporeans lived through such days of tension and anxiety, as was the case while delicate negotiations ensued, to ensure the lives and safety of that citizen crew. Eventually a compromise was reached: the terrorists would lay down their arms, in return for safe passage by air, to a destination in Kuwait. But only if accompanied by 13 senior Singapore government officials, as guarantors. Of this virtually hostage contingent, Mr Nathan, who had played a leadership role in the negotiations, agreed to act as chef de mission.
The contingent returned safely to a tumultuous welcome, and were greeted by the press on the tarmac. “Mr Nathan”, asked one reporter, “throughout this dreadful time, you always seemed so calm and confident. How did you manage this?” In what must be one of our professions proudest moments, Mr Nathan replied without hesitation, “because I am a trained social worker”.
Associate Professor Ann Wee
Honorary member SASW