His journey from runaway to President is well documented. Many parts of S.R. Nathan’s journey are echoed in the lives of Singapore’s pioneering generation. But some five decades on, the challenges are still there, only in different forms.
If there’s a Singapore dream to be held close to heart, then his must rank among the more significant ones. S.R. Nathan’s life story has spanned the dire scarcity of war to the heights of the highest office of President of the Republic of Singapore. It’s a story that has been documented in his memoirs, An Unexpected Journey, one of a few such books detailing the travails of the generation of pioneers and relentless champions who pushed hard to provide Singapore with a significant foundation upon which to build what is today globally considered a modern miracle.
Prior to becoming Singapore’s sixth President, Mr Nathan, 88, had worked his way up through the ranks of the civil service, from a medical social worker, through various labour organisations and senior positions in the Foreign, Home Affairs and Defence ministries. He served for a spell as Executive Chairman of The Straits Times Press from the early 1980s before his appointment as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia, in 1988, and the Ambassador to the USA, in 1990. Upon his return, in 1996, he was made Ambassador-at-Large before being elected unopposed as President, which he served for two terms, from 1999 to 2011. Since retiring from the highest office, he may have stepped away from the limelight but his popularity with the public still remains strong.
A man of quiet ways but a firm resolve, Mr Nathan spends his time between three offices these days. STORM catches up with him at his city office at the Singapore Management University where he speaks about his observations of Singapore society. Having been part of the country’s rollercoaster ride, his concerns are hinged on the Republic’s vulnerable situation born out of its circumstances. With neither hinterland nor natural resources, the Singapore journey is one of carefully measured steps where each testing toe in the water could result in treading on firm ground or plunging into the unknown.
You have been part of the Singapore story and seen firsthand significant events that shaped this island. What factors do you feel will influence Singapore’s onward journey?
S.R. NATHAN: Over these last 40-50 years Singapore has achieved a brand name beyond what it used to be. Singapore has always had some magic in its name. The Indians used to write letters, addressing it to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore. That was its image. It had its own charm. People couldn’t explain why, but it had that attractive name. Since independence, and with our progress, we have achieved a brand name. Throughout China and India there’s considerable talk about Singapore. And during my Presidency many of the leaders who came from developing countries, particularly from Africa, wanted to know the magic of Singapore. I told them there’s no magic. It’s just political will. When they said they wanted to be like Singapore, I asked them ‘Do you have the political will to do it?’ The subject of the conversation changed.
This brand name is a precious thing, achieved without resources, without markets to begin with, and without skills when we started in areas of manufacturing, finance and technology. This is the new image of Singapore. How to safeguard it, and preserve it and let it grow are among the concerns of the future, because many people tend to think we have arrived. I think there is more that needs to be done, and as the world is changing we have to adapt to it, seek opportunities and niches which we can exploit for our betterment. What most people don’t appreciate is that without being useful to the world we could never have become what we are.
How is this process being carried out?
NATHAN: I’m out of government now, but I know at different levels this is being spoken about. We have our share of critics but whether they will appreciate this unique nature of ours and the vulnerability we face is something we do not know. The key concern at the time of its founding was how to feed the people with an economy that had no market of its own and suddenly found itself without the capital, without the know how and without the markets to grow. The primary purpose of seeking to grow economically was to have the means to feed the people. And this vulnerability stands even today. If there’s a slump, if our markets abroad are lost to others, if our competitiveness is no longer significant, then our economic growth must be affected.
And today we have a larger and better-educated population. We have a population whose needs are much more sophisticated than it was in 1965. This is an issue that thinking people should consider. Singapore’s vulnerability remains today. We still have no hinterland, we still have none of the attributes of a successful economy, we are seizing opportunities in the fast-changing world. And what we know to do today may become obsolete in a few years. Like some of our companies have learnt, not only must they produce a successful product, they have to think of the next stage. This successful product may not last beyond a certain period.
How do you feel technology will help shape Singapore’s voice?
NATHAN: The social network mechanism allows you to give the impression of universality. You can say something about me and you can distribute it to 1,000 people by the minute and give the impression that 1,000 people are saying that about me. So it calls for responsibility. One of the reasons for the social media coming out and being engaged by people is there was a sense that what they say was never published in full, that it was never carried for people to understand. That is where social media has come in; for you to say what you want, uncensored, and with the advantage of technology where you are anonymous. But it carries with it a responsibility. You can’t wildly accuse people. You can’t wildly label people. For it to be credible you have to be responsible. You have to self-edit. If you’re libelous you’ll be sued.
People are learning that the use of technology carries responsibility. It (social media) is a useful tool, as it gives people an opportunity to express what they want. In doing so, it must not be used to score points over others, but to convey a reasoned opinion; to participate in the debate.
Do you use the online medium much?
NATHAN: No I don’t because there is too much venom there. At my age, why do I want to lose sleep on it?
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Are there lessons you learnt while penning your memoirs, as you thought back on your life and Singapore’s history that could shed some light on where Singapore could go?
NATHAN: We have limits to what we can grow to become. We are a small island and people call us a small red dot.
There’s a lot of envy about us. While there may be expressions of friendship there is also quiet envy and hopes that we will fail. It may not be expressed but I must assume so. That’s the nature of human beings.
So it’s for us in Singapore to understand that we were a sudden creation. We have no history and yet we have succeeded up to a point. We have to work and nurture it. We have to contribute towards it. We have to make a success of it. And this race that we have is an unending race. As technology changes we too have to change. As markets change we too have to change. As people change, we too have to change in providing them and meeting their expectations. So change is inevitable for us in Singapore.
We have no farmland to turn to. We need money to buy everything — from rice to water. So, the unique circumstances in which we are and how our future will be shaped will be developed by our own efforts, by our own contributions. This is what people have to understand.
What should the ongoing mission for Singapore be?
NATHAN: I don’t know. I have a few more years. I’ve told you where we started. What we’ve achieved. And today you hear the gripes about what we have achieved. If the same people were in India or China, would they be griping? They would be glad to have reached this stage.
There’s a silent majority that doesn’t speak up — in the heartland. They live for the day. They look after their family, they earn a living, they struggle. They are the people who’ll ultimately decide where we’ll go, with the proper leadership.
Do you see a lot of knee-jerk reactions taking place to satisfy the pockets of unhappiness?
NATHAN: If you have time you will ponder over something and address the problem. But if a problem emerges and everybody is putting in his or her two cents’ worth, you’ll hardly have time. You’re thinking of how to reply to all these people. In a large country the pressure of time is not the same as in an urban setting, where it is magnified and publicised.
What is needed to keep a country going? To keep a government and its people moving in one direction?
NATHAN: There will be differences of opinion between community and government. But this has to be managed. Our problem is we cannot afford one failure. Large countries can afford a failure. They can move with it because there are other areas to venture into. But in our case, let us say there’s a serious communal riot here, our investment climate will go right down. Nobody will want to come here. And these days it’s not just us. It’s the whole region. Anything happens within the region and the entire region is cut off from investment. Without investment we cannot survive. People think because we have some savings, it will last us. But how long will it last?
So, recognising all this is very important. I don’t know how you can have a discussion and a debate where people will come with an open mind. Today, many people only want to criticise, but are not prepared to change their mind. The debate we must have is when people listen to you and admit they are willing to change their mind and offer suggestions and solutions to be considered.
All these conversations that are going on are intended for that. They are structured meetings. To get an opinion, you must think of the heartland, and they are a different set of people. So I do not know how in this age we can get a grasp of the totality of what our people say. We can get bits and pieces here and there.
As you know in most large countries like India and China it is the peasant who stands up for you. He’s the one who cries for the flag. These are the folks prepared to make the supreme sacrifice. Our “peasants” are the heartlanders.
How can we unify Singaporeans?
NATHAN: They are trying to do that through the community centres and residents’ committees.
My own impression is that because of our prosperity we have become a divided society. How to bridge it is the question.
You go to the heartlanders, they must be thinking of “them”. They’ve got cars. They’ve got houses. They go to good restaurants. They’ve got good money. If I was a young boy in the heartlands, won’t I think that way?
During my time it already existed. Now it’s much sharper. And there’s no way of expressing it. You do not want to be a dissenting group. But deep down they must have their share of troubles and problems.
In the old days in the kampung, if there was a problem in your household, the whole neighbourhood would somehow come to know about it. And do something about it. Today you go into your HDB flat, you close the door and you don’t even know your neighbours. That relationship has gone. How do you recreate that bond?
We are trying in various ways. In some places we have succeeded, some it hasn’t. Like that fellow who said I don’t like curry. Somebody else has something else to say. If the media picks on these and keeps publicising them, they are contributing something very negative to society, in the name of free press and free expression.
In some ways it’s good. In some ways it’s bad. You magnify the problem. I didn’t know about the curry problem. The media publicised it, and now we begin to look at the fellow who doesn’t like curry. So the media in some ways can be a destructive force. In a small place like ours where everything comes in together very quickly, there’s a certain responsibility in how you present the news. Of course you’ll be blamed for censorship.
When you go back, the founding fathers of different nations —Nehru, Soekarno, Ho Chi Minh — they had a passion. When they spoke hundreds of thousands listened to them without understanding what they were saying. The speeches were in English or French. There was an adulation. How do you explain it? In the Indian context half of them never understood what Nehru was saying. He was speaking in English. But that generation is gone. They were the best communicators. If they face a situation, they go to the podium. Lee Kuan Yew was the same. That was his strength. He’ll joke with you. Throw a Malay word, some Hokkien. Everybody will be there listening. It builds a bond. You need to find that bond.
I remember at Subhas Chandra Bose speeches, estate labourers and their wives who didn’t understand a word of what he was saying would stand there listening. I recall seeing a tapper’s wife who had a small piece of gold in her tali, taking it off her necklace and presenting it to him. Without understanding a word of what he was saying.
It’s about trust.
So we have to find a way of having that kind of communication, where the grumblers and the heartlanders will come together.