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Human relations key to tackling challenges: S R Nathan

04 March 2013

Mr Nathan (left) recounting his social work experience and varied careers during the NUS Senior Alumni Tea and Chat. With him was moderator Dr Rosemary Khoo, President of the Senior Alumni (Local Alumni Group)

Mr Nathan interacting with senior alumni at the event

Human relation is the most important relation to address challenges in society, individuals and family. Indeed, it has helped Mr S R Nathan to safely return home in a hostage crisis, said the former Singapore President at the NUS Senior Alumni Tea and Chat at the NUS Shaw Alumni House on 28 February.

At his talk on "How the university opened my eyes and how my social studies course shaped my career(s)" and "My unexpected journey to the Presidency", he related to a capacity crowd of more than 200 his journey from a fatherless young boy without education to assuming the highest office in the nation.

Mr Nathan's social work background served him well as it equipped him with the capability to deal directly with problems of society. "In social work, you must have a field, believe in a cause, although academically you're trained to be detached from all of them." He added that the knowledge and opportunities he gained from the course led him to multiple careers, including the hospital, the maritime industry and even the trade union movement. The many-faceted human relation experience he acquired enabled him to handle each job with great competence.

After Singapore's independence, Mr Nathan joined the public service, serving in the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Defence. After his mandatory retirement from the civil service in 1979, "I've not retired since then," he quipped.

He went on to take up key positions in various companies including the Straits Times Press, followed by posting as High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to the US, before setting up the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. He was there until he was elected 6th President of Singapore in 1999.

He recalled how he was asked by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to run for the presidency. He was hesitant about taking office, being aware of his lack of contact with people from the heartland and wondered if he was able to reach out to them. But he rose to the occasion and gained much respect and popularity during his two terms till 2011. He felt his achievement during his presidency was the bond he has built with the people. "Leadership is not about people rising to your level. It's about you coming down to their level and pulling them up," he noted.

When answering questions from senior alumni ranging from why he chose social work to his toughest moment as the President, he was asked about the Laju incident in 1977 when four armed men hijacked the ferryboat Laju. He, then head of Security and Intelligence at the Ministry of Defence, and 12 other men volunteered to be taken hostage in the negotiation to secure the ferry crew's release. During the long flight taking the hijackers to Kuwait, he engaged two of the terrorists from the Japanese Red Army to try to build good will.

The situation was very uncertain and tense, beset with problems when they landed. However, Mr Nathan, who had built up rapport with the Japanese, pointed out that his team had fulfilled their part of the bargain by ensuring the armed men's safe passage. The terrorists finally delivered on their promise and set the Singaporeans free. "In some way, even terrorists have their code of honour," he mused.

He pointed out that no books can teach how to deal with such critical situations. The key was the relation he had cultivated, besides the ability to make a judgment because of his training, vocation and establishment skills.

Organised by the Office of Alumni Relations and the Senior Alumni (Local Alumni Group), the NUS Senior Alumni Tea and Chat also saw Mr Nathan engaging senior alumni from the University over tea and signing autographs for his books Why Am I Here?, Winning Against The Odds and An Unexpected Journey - Path to the Presidency. He revealed that he has extracted 50 stories from his books, which will be published in a few months.