A True-Blue People's President

Poh Li San
Former Full-Time Aide-De-Camp to former President Mr S R Nathan (from 2006 to 2010)

A True-Blue People’s President
Former ADC Poh Li San (right) celebrating Mr Nathan's birthday at his residence on July 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of Poh Li San.

I had the privilege to serve Mr S R Nathan as the first female full-time Aide-De-Camp (ADC) from 2006 to 2010. The first time I met Mr Nathan in person was when I was called to his office in Istana for an interview. I did not know what to expect except that I must not mess up the interview. My first impression of him was of a very down-to-earth person, stern but kind. I do not remember what I had said but I did pass the interview.

Only later did I find out that Mr Nathan had personally initiated the idea of appointing female military officers as his full-time ADC, a role that had been traditionally held by only male officers, not just in Singapore, but in many developed countries. Subsequently, Mr Nathan also championed the inclusion of the Singapore Civil Defence Force officers to join the Honorary ADCs corps, traditionally represented only by officers from the Singapore Armed Forces and Singapore Police Force. This is just one example of how Mr Nathan constantly thought about how the existing system could be improved and how more people could contribute to and also benefit from it.

To me, the greatest inspiration from Mr Nathan was his genuine care and concern for people, and his relentless effort to help raise funds for the less fortunate. Even as an octogenarian, he pushed himself hard to attend all the engagements lined up unless he was severely under the weather. In a week, his calendar could be easily filled with some 30 different events and meetings, which could be considered punishing even for a younger, more energetic person.

Indeed, he was truly a People’s President. Through these events, Mr Nathan made time to connect with Singaporeans from all walks of life: from the young to the old, from the less fortunate to the well-endowed and from the special needs community to sporting heroes. During his two terms as President, Mr Nathan championed the President’s Challenge to rally Singaporeans to raise funds in different ways so that financial assistance and greater social awareness could improve the lives of those who need a helping hand. Apart from his official and ceremonial duties as the head of state, Mr Nathan devoted much of his time to helping Singaporeans who needed the extra lift in life. Even after he stepped down as President, Mr Nathan continued to help financially challenged students by awarding bursaries via the trust funds he had set up. For that, many Singaporeans are greatly indebted to him.

Mr Nathan made time to connect with Singaporeans from all walks of life: from the young to the old, from the less fortunate to the well-endowed and from the special needs community to sporting heroes.

Mr Nathan’s care and concern for people was also evident in how he treated his family, friends and staff. As the full-time ADC, I travelled with Mr Nathan and his family on several family trips overseas. A particularly memorable one was a day trip to Muar as Mr Nathan wanted to show his children and grandchildren the shop house where he and Mrs Nathan had lived as neighbours before they got married. He wanted to bring back sweet memories of the early years for Mrs Nathan during the trip. Mr Nathan was the most loving husband, supportive and caring father, and a doting grandfather. He would remember upcoming birthdays of friends and relatives, and send presents and personal notes to the birthday boy or girl.

Although he was a strict man with exacting standards where work was concerned, Mr Nathan was always kind and generous towards his staff. He would always make sure we had our meals while we were out and about on our duties and he would bring back souvenirs for us from his overseas trips. Even after Mr Nathan stepped down as President, for the past five years, I have received Christmas greeting cards from him and also his invitations to Deepavali receptions.

My former colleagues and I really treasure the warmth and love from Mr and Mrs Nathan almost like that from our own grandpa and grandma, even though we are no longer serving them in our official capacities. We would visit them a few times a year at their residence and it would feel like a big reunion each time.

This time, unfortunately, would have to be the proverbial last reunion with Mr Nathan as we pay him our last respects at his wake. As we mourn the passing of a great leader, we also celebrate together the legacy left by Mr Nathan for our nation and our people. I feel deeply honoured to have served Mr Nathan and I am inspired to carry forward a small part of his life’s work in his service to the nation and to the people.

Singapore’s former President S R Nathan passed away at the age of 92 on August 22, 2016. Mr Nathan — the sixth and longest-serving President — dedicated more than 50 years to public service, taking on roles ranging from junior civil servant, to director, permanent secretary, ambassador and finally president. Challenge pays tribute to Mr Nathan with some key highlights of his public service career: From Civil Servant To President

For personal reflections on Mr Nathan from two of his Principal Private Secretaries when he was President, visit the links below:

    Aug 24, 2016
    Poh Li San
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