In mourning the passing of Mr SR Nathan, Singapore’s sixth President, I would like to share my memories of him as a trade union movement leader, Executive Chairman of the Straits Times Newspaper Group, academic and finally, the crowning glory of his illustrious career, the nation’s President for a record 12 years from 1999 to 2011. He passed away on 22nd August 2016 at the age of 92.
In the 1950s, Singapore was experiencing high unemployment and a wave of turbulent industrial unrest adversely affecting its economy and social stability, with strikes and work stoppages taking place in the major sectors of commerce and industry led by radical trade unions belonging to the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU), to demand substantially higher wages and better terms and conditions of service for its union members and to challenge the colonial labour governance. To combat this fast deteriorating industrial relations climate, the newly fully elected People’s Action Party Government enacted the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) in 1960 (later superseded by the Industrial Relations Act when Singapore became fully self-governing), which banned illegal strikes and work stoppages and requiring the disputing parties to refer their unsettled trade disputes to the newly constituted Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) for final determination if collective bargaining failed to resolve the dispute.
The Court was presided by its first President Dr Charles Gamba, an economics don from the University of Singapore, who enjoyed the same status and immunities of a High Court judge. The court registry was headed by the Registrar assisted by his team of staff. The President hears trade disputes with an employer and trade union panel member and their decision is by majority with the President having a casting vote. The court award is final and not appealable. The court was so inundated with impending cases that a second court was set up in 1962 presided by the Deputy President, with the administrative support of the Deputy Registrar and his staff, to expedite the hearing of these pending and new cases.
I was then a Deputy Public Prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Office (AG’s Office) dealing with criminal and civil legal matters. I was informed by the AG in 1964 that I would be posted to the second IAC as its Deputy Registrar under its Deputy President, Tan Boon Chiang, a fellow senior legal officer in the AG’s office. I was told that I was the most suitable candidate for this post as I was both a mandarin and Chinese-dialect speakers in addition to English. I became quite apprehensive of this unexpected appointment as we all had our own preconceived notions of the challenges of being closely involved in trade disputes between recalcitrant employers and militant trade unions. Despite my initial misgivings, my seven-year term with the IAC turned out to be the most satisfying and rewarding of my eleven years’ career in the Legal Service. I rose to be its Registrar when my predecessor, Lim Ewe Huat, was promoted Director of Legal Aid one year after my joining the IAC. A fellow Legal Officer succeeded me as Deputy Registrar at its second court.
In the mean time, the rival National Trade Unions Congress (NTUC), representing the more moderate group of unions was formed to combat the growing disruptive influence of SATU for the loyalty and support of Singapore workers. It was led by its Secretary-General, Devan Nair, a dynamic trade union movement pioneer. It was more pro-government and shared its declared policy of promoting industrial peace with justice through tripartite cooperation of employers, unions and government to achieve this objective. The then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, personally handpicked SR Nathan in 1962 to head the newly set up Labour Research Unit of the NTUC in order to raise their negotiations skills and techniques and to help them to better prepare their trade dispute case presentations in the IAC.
As Registrar of IAC, among my manifold responsibilities was first the power to ensure that the terms of the collective agreement reached between the employer and union fully comply with the provisions of the IRO and the terms of court awards before submitting it for certification by the President. A collective agreement is valid for three years. Another important function was to act as impartial mediator between the parties even at the threshold of the court before it proceeds to arbitrate on the case as a last resort when such mediating effort failed. Any agreement so arrived at with the help of the Registrar would then be submitted to the court as a consent award. During my term of office, many trade disputes were settled under my chairmanship, and some sessions would end only at around ten in the evening, thus helping to ease the work load of the court. Above all, In this way, the parties would be more satisfied with a freely negotiated settlement rather than having a court award imposed upon them.
I first came to know SR Nathan in 1964 but got to know him much better in the course of time when I took over as Registrar. His younger brother, S Suppiah, who rose from the ranks in the civil service was later promoted Assistant Registrar of IAC. He was many years younger than Nathan. I had regular dealings with Nathan over the telephone, meeting him across the conference table in my office helping the unions at negotiations meetings with employers whenever his presence was deemed essential, otherwise he would help prepare their briefs behind the scene among his other duties. At these negotiations sessions he was always calm and soft spoken and never exchanged hot words with the employer representatives in a cross and heated manner, as many of his trade union colleagues were fond of doing as a show of strength. Throughout this period, he maintained a cordial but arms-length and impersonal relationship with me as head of the Labour Research Unit. This impersonal approach was maintained even on social occasions. He was transferred back to the civil service in 1966 and our paths hardly crossed for many years thereafter.
After his retirement from a distinguished government service career with the top rank of Permanent Secretary , Foreign Affairs Ministry, Nathan was, again, selected by PM Lee to head the Straits Time Newspaper Group as its Executive Chairman. Despite the initial misgivings of the journalists and senior editors that he was a government man and would make decisions influenced by government policies, he soon won them over by his sense of fairness and independent judgement in the execution of his professional functions without bias and with the overriding national interest to guide him in the discharge of his duties. He played an important role in building the reputation of the group, despite some continuing criticisms from some quarters that the paper was too pro-government and not impartial in some aspects of its editorial policies. Our paths did cross on a few occasions, and Nathan would always acknowledge my presence warmly and would once in a while enquire about my private sector career with an international oil firm.
He later served in Singapore’s foreign service in Malaysia and United States as high commissioner and ambassador with distinctions and raised the nation’s international standing in the process. On his return to Singapore, he was appointed the founding director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University. In one of the public lectures conducted by him, which my wife and I were among the packed audience in a lecture theatre, his sharp eyes spotted me there. He not only waved to me but mounted the steps to exchange pleasantries with me and to welcome me and thank me for my interest and support. His warm and spontaneous gesture truly moved me and I unwittingly became the centre of some attention.
Long after Mr SR Nathan was appointed the sixth President of Singapore, I had a very unusual but personable encounter with him at the East Coast Park. My wife and I, together with our four-year old grandson, were taking a leisurely early morning walk there as we always enjoyed such outing at weekends. Most unexpectedly, walking towards us was none other than President Nathan himself, accompanied by a young Chinese man, and he stopped in front of us for a chat. My grandson caught his attention and he enquired if the boy was our grandson and how old was he. He then stretched out his hand to shake my grandson’s. I told my grandson the friendly man was the President of Singapore. Unexpectedly, my grandson refused to respond and held on to me firmly. The president was far from embarrassed and remarked cheerfully that young children in Singapore were generally quite shy in front of strangers. We chatted for a few minutes and he told us that he regularly walked there in the early morning before going to work and found it very relaxing and good for his health. He also enjoyed meeting and chatting with young and old Singaporeans and to find out how they got on in their daily life.
My last memorable encounter with the President was some years later at Apex Harmony Lodge, the first dementia home in Singapore, which was founded by my wife’s aunt, Dr Oon Chiew Seng, a retired surgeon. He made a special visit there, accompanied by the then Minister for Health. At the reception to mark this occasion, he was socialising with the invited guests in his usual jovial way. He then noticed me in the room and, to my great surprise, walked up to me and greeted me warmly like old friends. I was overwhelmed by his gesture. After finding out that I had retired from working life as a legal practitioner, he enquired whether I had kept in touch with his younger brother, S Suppiah, who was my colleague at the IAC a very long time ago. I told him I had not been in contact with him for some years now and asked how he was getting on. He then looked a bit sombre and told me that he was rather concerned that his health was not very good in his old age. He went on to say that he would be seeing him at the weekend family gathering and would have a good chat with him. I asked him to convey my best regards to Suppiah. That was the last time we met before he passed away recently.
Former President SR Nathan died peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital on 22nd August this year at the age of 92 after a stroke. He was deeply mourned by Singaporeans from all walks of life. Hailed as the People’s President, he had devoted practically his whole working life to public service and had always put the national interest above his own. During his presidency, he had made 30 state visits to other countries, more than the combined number made by all his predecessors. He was accorded a state funeral. During his one day lying in state at Parliament House, more than 20,000 Singaporeans, foreign diplomats and foreign dignitaries paid their respects to him. Among the mourners were many whom he had helped. At his formal memorial service held at University Cultural Centre on 26th August, seven eulogies were delivered by the Prime Minister and others who knew him well. It was a fitting final farewell to one of the great sons of the nation. He was cremated at Mandai Crematorium after a private ceremony there.
Lam Pin Foo