Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Mr President Writes Back, Critics Silenced



When I last wrote about Singapore's sixth President Sellapan Ramanathan, a more senior member of our legal fraternity sent me an angry response chiding me for being grossly unfair to an aged member of our country, whose driving motivation had been to do nothing other than give the best he could for his country. 

I dismissed his response and I said it was for the President to one day tell young Singaporeans like me what he had done for our country. I now wish I had held my tongue then.

Since leaving the Istana, Nathan, at 91, has been indefatigable. He would put many younger Singaporeans like me to shame simply by his sheer energy. 

He is fighting back to ensure that Singaporean 'ingrates' like me will not forget the great contributions he has made to Singapore with a series of publications. 

Given the chiding I received, I made it a point to read two of these publications recently. 

The first is a publication that goes to the bookshops this week: S R Nathan in Conversation. 

When I picked it up to read the night I bought it, I wondered what could he say that I didn't already know about him or Singapore. 

I started with his views of the divide we see in contemporary Malaysia today and he painted vivid a picture of how the well-intended roots of United Malays National Organisation, which should have evolved into a United MALAYANS National Organisation, has put Malaysia on a polarised path.

Of course, one could perhaps argue that he is looking at Malaysia from the tainted lens of battle-hardened Singaporean who toiled restlessly to bring Singapore from a colony to sovereign state, driven by a motivation to be all that a less divisive Malaysia should have been.

Ironically, Nathan makes clear his agenda at the start of the book: "My concern is not political debate, but simply the future growth, prosperity and wellbeing of Singapore and its people." 

In the pursuit of his agenda, he weaves together a series of stories from different stages of his life in shaping contemporary Singapore. He shares his stories with a diplomatic candour clearly burnished through his sensitive sojourns. 

Indeed, the strength of his story-telling made it such a difficult book to put down that I finished it in one sitting.

From time to time, he also refers to his autobiography, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the President, to fill in the gaps in his stories. This makes the reason for reading his autobiography even more compelling, which became the second book I read about Nathan. 

Reading both books you realize how invaluable Nathan's expansive contributions have been to Singapore. 

Here was a man with a ringside view of change in independent Singapore, who was happy to assert his influence whenever called upon to do so in sheer defence of such developments; something he felt was necessary to feed millions of mouths in Singapore. 

Hence, his involvement in reforming both the printing press and the diplomatic corps to enable each of these institutions to stay relevant to a government that became increasingly sensitive to negative criticism and bourgeois idiosyncracies. 

The relevance of his books can be  best summarised in Nathan's own words, "History never repeats itself exactly, but a close study of it can alert us to dangers. Experience of the past can prepare us for contingencies." 

Through his publications, Nathan has effectively silenced those who criticised his quiet ways of getting a job done. 

My President Nathan, thank you for doing the best you could.

Happiness,
Dharmendra Yadav