He Always Recognised That It Is The People Who Matter

Tan Eng Beng, former Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Principal Private Secretary to former President Nathan (2005 — 2011)
He Always Recognised That It Is The People Who Matter
Former President Nathan, as Chief Scout of Singapore, launching Scouts Job Week at the Istana in 2010. Source: Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

All of us are shaped by our growing-up years to some extent. But for former President S R Nathan, perhaps it was more so than usual because of the challenging circumstances of his times. He lost his father at the age of nine, his mother raised a large family on her own, and the war disrupted Mr Nathan’s education and career.

Perhaps because of this, Mr Nathan was a man who cared deeply for others, especially those whom fate has treated cruelly. He has helped so many people that I am sure even he had lost count, not that he bothered to tote up his many acts of kindness to begin with.

A group of young people who started The Hidden Good project, was so impressed by this aspect of Mr Nathan that they launched a book project in 2016 to gather the stories of people whose lives have been touched by him. They presented the book to Mr Nathan as a surprise at an event he was invited to. Some of those whom Mr Nathan had helped were present, and a number were close to tears as they recounted how he provided succour in the darkest days of their life.

Some may have found it hard to reconcile these two sides of Mr Nathan — the caring fatherly figure with the demanding taskmaster.

One example I recall was a young girl from a dysfunctional family struggling to make ends meet. She did not have the money to go to university. Mr Nathan paid for her entire university education himself, including both fees and pocket money for expenses, through a charity organisation. Till the day she graduated with a Second Upper Honours, she did not know who her benefactor was. That was how Mr Nathan helped to turn a life around so generously and quietly.

Mr Nathan’s difficult childhood also made him a resourceful and determined person, and he set high standards for those who worked for him. He was always driven to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

As President, he would scrutinise the briefs prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for calls by his foreign counterparts, writing his own notes and crafting a narrative so that he could effectively engage the foreign leader. And when he needed certain details or had a question on some of the proposed talking points, he would call me into his office and expect an answer, even though I was not the domain expert on the subject.

Some may have found it hard to reconcile these two sides of Mr Nathan — the caring fatherly figure with the demanding taskmaster. But the two sides combined in a rather amazing way: even while getting the job done, he always recognised that it is the people who matter and who achieve the desired outcome.

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 one of his Principal Private Secretaries and his first female full-time Aide-De-Camp when he was President, visit the links below:

    Aug 23, 2016
    Tan Eng Beng
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