S. R. Nathan


Sellapan Ramanathan (b. 3 July 1924, Singapore - ), popularly known as S. R. Nathan, became the sixth President of Singapore on 1 September 1999. With two terms (12 years) in office, he is Singapore’s longest-serving President. Nathan previously held key positions in security, intelligence and foreign affairs, and chaired various companies and academic institutions.

Early life
When he was a child, Nathan’s family moved to Muar, Johor, where his father held a clerical job in a legal firm servicing rubber plantations. However his father lost his job when the rubber industry declined in the 1930s, and the family moved back to Singapore. His father worked a number of odd jobs but found difficulty providing for the family, and killed himself when Nathan was eight.

After the family tragedy, Nathan’s family resided with his uncle, and he studied at Anglo-Chinese Primary School, Anglo-Chinese Middle School, Rangoon Road Afternoon School and later Victoria School. At the age of 16, Nathan fell out with his mother and left home to work at an architectural firm, Arbenz & Co. He later moved to Muar to work as a clerk and to keep his family from finding him. Four years later, he returned to Singapore and reconciled with his mother and family.

During the Japanese Occupation, Nathan received an English-Japanese dictionary as a gift and learned the Japanese language. He excelled as a translator and interpreter, and eventually worked for the top official in the Japanese civilian police. Nathan has said that his experiences during the Occupation turned his outlook from pro-British to anti-colonialist, and awoke an incipient sense of nation.

After the end of World War II, Nathan took a hiatus from his job as a clerk at the Public Works Department to pursue his studies. With the assistance of a S$2,000-a-year bursary from Shell, he became one of the eight undergraduates in the pioneer group of Social Work students at the University of Malaya. He graduated with a distinction in his Diploma in Social Studies in 1954, upon which he worked as a medical social worker and Seamen’s Welfare Officer with the Ministry of Labour.

In 1962, Nathan was seconded to the Labour Research Unit (LRU), an autonomous body created by the government to assist the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) with research and industrial negotiations. He started as Assistant Director of the unit before becoming Director, at a time of industrial unrest and frequent strikes. The LRU played a key role as the NTUC successfully competed with opposition-backed unions for the support of workers, and was later absorbed into the NTUC and renamed the Administration and Research Unit.

Nathan was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1966, and later moved to the Ministry of Defence where he served as Director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID) between 1971 and 1979. During his tenure as SID Director, Nathan dealt with a number of terrorist acts in Singapore, including the hijackings of the Laju ferry in 1974, an Air Vietnam flight in 1977 and a Vietnamese freighter in 1978.

In the Laju incident, Nathan negotiated over eight days with four hijackers from the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for the safe release of the ferry’s crew. He then led a 13-official delegation which accompanied the hijackers on a flight to Kuwait as guarantors of their safe passage, after they had released the hostages.

Upon his retirement from the civil service in 1982, Nathan became Executive Chairman of the Straits Times Press and later Singapore Press Holdings in 1984.

In 1988, Nathan was appointed High Commissioner to Malaysia before becoming Ambassador to the United States two years later. Both appointments took place against a backdrop of strained bilateral ties. In the case of the former, he took on the appointment soon after Israel President Chaim Herzog visited Singapore, which led to tensions with Malaysia. While serving as Ambassador to the United States, Nathan dealt with American diplomatic pressure to prevent the caning of American citizen and convicted vandal Michael Fay.

After the two stints, Nathan was Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large and became Director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. He was later Pro-Chancellor of the National University of Singapore.

In July 1999, President Ong Teng Cheong declared his decision not to seek re-election. After being asked to consider running by several public figures including Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and former President Wee Kim Wee, Nathan announced his candidacy for the presidential post on 6 August. On 18 August, Nathan was elected President as the sole eligible candidate after two other potential candidates failed to meet constitutional criteria for the post. On 17 August 2005, he was re-elected for a second term without a contest as there were no eligible challengers.

Soon after taking office, Nathan founded the President’s Challenge in 2000, a series of community-based fundraising events for charity. Between 2000 and 2011, the Challenge raised more than S$100 million for more than 500 beneficiary organisations. Nathan also created the President’s Social Service Awards to recognise achievers in fields such as nursing, social work and environmental activism.

In 2009, Nathan approved the government’s use of S$4.9 billion from the reserves to fund anti-recessionary measures. This marked the first time the government had applied to use part of the reserves, which requires the approval of the President and the Council of Presidential Advisers.

Between 2001 and 2011, Nathan made state visits to 29 countries, including eight ASEAN capitals. Many of these state visits were firsts for Singapore, including those to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana in 2007. Political observers have noted that Nathan’s foreign affairs background helped strengthen diplomatic ties and facilitate trade links.

In July 2011, Nathan announced that he would not seek a third term as president. Media reports placed a large part of Nathan’s legacy within the context of his work with the disadvantaged, rapport with citizens and various communities, and support of a diverse range of social causes. In August, the Institute of South East Asian Affairs announced that Nathan would be joining it as Distinguished Senior Fellow after leaving office.

Career timeline
1940 - 1941
: Office boy and various odd jobs.
1955 - 1956 : Medical social worker, Singapore Civil Service, with stints in Woodbridge Hospital and the Leprosy Centre.
1956 - 1962 : Seamen's Welfare Officer, Ministry of Labour.
1962 - 1964 : Assistant Director, Labour Research Unit.
1964 - 1966 : Director, Labour Research Unit.
1966 - 1970 : Assistant Secretary, later Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
1971 : Acting Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs.
1971- 1979 : Director, Security and Intelligence Division (rank of Permanent Secretary), Ministry of Defence.
1973 - 1986 : Chairman, Mitsubishi Singapore Heavy Industries (Pte) Ltd.
1979 - 1982 : First Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
1980 - 1988 : Director, Singapore National Oil Company.
Feb 1982 - 1988 : Executive Chairman, Straits Times Press (1975) Ltd.
Apr 1988 - 1990 : High Commissioner to Malaysia.
Jul 1990 - Jun 1996 : Ambassador to the United States.
1996 - 1999 : Ambassador-at-large.
15 Jul 1996 - 17 Aug 1999 : Director, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University. The Institute is now the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
18 Jul 1996 : Pro-Chancellor, National University of Singapore.
1 Sep 1999 - 31 Aug 2011 : President of Singapore, second elected president.

: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
1967 : Pingat Pentadbiram Awam (Perak) (Public Administration Medal) (Silver).
1974 : Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Award).
2007 : Eminent Alumni, National University of Singapore.
2010 : Al Khalifa Order (First Degree) from Bahrain.
2010 : Distinguished Service Award Gold, Singapore Scout Association.
2011 : NTUC 50 Special Recognition Awards.
2011 : Degree of Doctor of Civil Law, honoris causa, University of Mauritius.

Wife: Urmila Nandey.
Children: Daughter Juthika and son Osith.
Grandchildren: Kiron and Monisha, both children of Juthika.

Alvin Chua

Chang, R. (2011, July 2). The quiet president. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from Factiva.

Chang, R., & Kor, K, B. (2011, January 26). Nathan recalls fight for workers’ rights. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from Factiva.

Chua, M. H. (1999, August 8).
Nathan set to be elected president. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Feng, Z. K. (2011, July 3). Politicians pay tribute to President Nathan. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from Factiva.

Toh, E. (2011, July 2). Presidential election; ‘I won’t seek 3rd term’. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from Factiva.

Turnbull, C. M. (1995).
Dateline Singapore: 150 years of the Straits Times (pp. 334, 337-339, 341). Singapore: Times Editions for Singapore Press Holdings.
(Call no.: RSING 079.5957 TUR)

Zakir Hussain (2011, July 2). Singapore’s No.1 diplomat. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from Factiva.

Zakir Hussain. (2011, August 20). President Nathan taking position at think-tank. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from Factiva.

Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, August 7).
Nathan to run for president. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, August 19).
Nathan elected president. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Zuraidah Ibrahim. (2011, August 7). Interview with President Nathan; Son of Singapore. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from Factiva.

Zuraidah Ibrahim, & Lim, L. (1999, August 22).
He ran away from home when he was 16. The Straits Times, Home, pp. 24-25. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Further readings
Nathan, S. R. (2008).
Singapore’s foreign policy: Beginnings and future. Singapore: MFA Diplomatic Academy.
(Call no.: RSING 327.5957 NAT)

Nathan, S. R. (2010).
Why am I here?: Overcoming hardships of local seafarers. Singapore: Centre for Maritime Studies, National University of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING 331.7613875095957 NAT)

Nathan, S. R. (2011).
Winning against the odds: The Labour Research Unit in NTUC’s founding. Singapore: Straits Times Press.
(Call no.: RSING 331.88095957 NAT)

The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders
Nathan, S. R., 1924-
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership

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