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SR Nathan put nation before self – Prof Simon Tay

23 Aug SR Nathan put nation before self – Prof Simon Tay

SIIA Chairman Simon Tay appeared on Channel NewsAsia’s Singapore Tonight on Tuesday, 23 August 2016, sharing his recollections about the late Mr SR Nathan, former President of Singapore. The episode was previously online at

Dawn Tan:
 Prof, former President SR Nathan, he spent such a great deal of his life in the diplomatic service. Give us your thoughts on the contributions he actually made towards that.

Prof Tay: Well, Mr Nathan actually started in the defence and intelligence unit of Singapore. So that actually grew first before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So after serving in the security and intelligence division with my father and others, he was actually asked to come over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and head it up. I think he played a huge role in professionalising it, upgrading it, and of course serving twice as a much-noted Ambassador, and was Ambassador to the US when we had the Michael Fay Incident.

John Leong: Prof Tay, he was also SIIA’s first Honorary Member. Could you share with us his most significant contributions?

Prof Tay: I think as others have said, who know him better – 40 years of public service, having risen from a non-graduate, a late degree, serving in so many capacities. Even when he was retired out, serving as chairman of SPH, trusted by the government in so many different roles. And for a time, head of a think tank – he and I used to be counterparts, what is now the Rajaratnam School, he was the founder of that. As well as encouraging people, in different ways, to serve the country. So we were the ones that were honoured he would accept our membership, as the first (Honorary) Member.

Tan: He spent such a long time in public service, 65 long years. What are your thoughts on the legacy he left behind for his successors?

Prof Tay: I think one of the things that really is an attribute is that idea of service for the nation. And I think we have to ask ourselves now whether it is generational thing. First, Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away, and then Mr Nathan. Is that only for that generation, or is that spirit really going to live on, so a new generation of people can really say we put country before self.

Leong: You mentioned earlier that you had the opportunity to work alongside him in several capacities. What was working with him like?

Prof Tay:
Well, first I must say that I’ve been very lucky. My father was a colleague of his. So my late father and him worked very closely together in the early years of Singapore under Mr Goh and Mr Lee Kuan Yew. And I really benefited from his kindness in many ways. When I first was causing trouble with commentaries in public, he called me in for very ‘uncle-ly’, very avuncular, talks about how to make your point without ruffling too many feathers. And even when he was President – I think one of the things I remember most is (his) kindness, and his openness. It was actually people like me who encouraged him to write his memoirs, and it became a really thick book, but it was not his character at first, with so much secrets, to try and write. And frankly when he first wrote, he actually sent me a draft, and I had to tell him, it’s a good memo, but it’s not a good book. He listened, and it became a very readable tome of a very strong, good, life story.

Tan: Kindness and openness, two traits, qualities there that you’ve spoken about in terms of your memories of Mr Nathan. Others have described him as tenacious, resilient, and so on. What were his best qualities, do you think, as he served this nation?

Prof Tay: I think that’s the ideal mix. When we say kindness and selflessness, you think ‘soft’. He wasn’t that. But he was very kind to people. And when I was coming on this programme, I asked various friends, and so many people had their SR Nathan stories – remembering him both as President and before. And yet beneath that kindness there was that determination, that steely side of him, which made him such a good operator for the intelligence unit, a civil servant, a man who would put himself in the line of danger for his country.

Photo Credit: Channel NewsAsia