Saturday, 29 October 2011

NUS thanks ex-president Nathan

His own university years 'life-changing'
By Kor Kian Bengm The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

FORMER president S R Nathan spent two years in university but they were to play a life-changing role in his career that took him all the way to the highest office of the land.

'The university gave me an entree of knowledge. Over time I learnt how to use the knowledge and apply it in my work, all without a brief given to me. I like to believe it applies to the presidency, too,' he said last night at a dinner organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS).

'The university enabled me to face circumstances in each of my careers because I was fortified by the knowledge I had acquired. The university brought out the talent and potential in each of us. My two years in university proved that.'

Mr Nathan, 87, spoke off-the-cuff and the audience of about 100 people listened in hushed silence as he gave a passionate account of the important role the university played in his life.

A school dropout in his teen years, he was 28 years old in 1952 when he did a diploma in social studies at the then-University of Malaya, which was later to become NUS.

Mr Nathan, a former senior civil servant and diplomat, was its chancellor for 12 years, a position traditionally held by the President of Singapore.

He stepped down from the presidency on Sept 1 this year.

Last night, NUS expressed its appreciation for his dozen years of support and contributions to Singapore and the university with a dinner packed with praises from staff and students, led by NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan.

But it was Mr Nathan's personal tale of triumph that was the most captivating.

Coming from a poor family, getting into university 'depended on the finances I could get', he said.

Oil giant Shell came to the rescue, giving him $2,000 a year. It paid for his accommodation and tuition fees.

But more than that, he said: 'The university taught me how ignorant I was and how much there was to learn, through experiences in school or through self-study.'

The knowledge he acquired and realising his potential have convinced him that no one should be written off.

'I think the university taught me that message because each one of us has the capacity. It is a matter of bringing it out.'

He added: 'Social studies taught my batch and subsequent batches not to take our good fortune for granted. It reminded us that many are in need of the good fortune. This helped me in my career and presidency to touch others.'

Mr Nathan then made the pledge that he would do what he could to help NUS continue with this mission of touching and transforming lives.

Earlier, Prof Tan said Mr Nathan 'was truly generous with his time, wise counsel and energy'.

He added: 'Through his many initiatives and actions, he touched the lives of countless students, faculty, staff and alumni and was a source of inspiration for many. For this, we are indeed grateful.'

He also recounted a tale of a car ride to Kuala Lumpur with Mr Nathan three years ago.

During the journey, Mr Nathan spoke at length and in great detail of his friends and people whom he had met since his childhood days.

Said Prof Tan: 'I was amazed by this, as I am someone who has difficulty even remembering what had happened the day before. My conclusion was a simple one - Mr Nathan really cares about other people.'

NUS also thanked Mr Nathan for, among other things, helping to set up the Chancellor's Bursary last year for its needy undergraduates.

He gave the university the contact details of a donor and this year, five needy students received $4,000 each in bursaries.

During a half-hour dialogue at the dinner, Mr Nathan fielded questions seeking his views on a range of topics, including today's young generation and the type of president Singapore would need.

On why today's youth are less engaged and interested in politics than his generation, Mr Nathan said he and his peers were living in an era when countries in the region were seeking independence and so they were more politicised.

Also, today's youth are more preoccupied with their own needs and the opportunities to succeed in life.

As for the presidency, he said he had sought to be a symbol of unity for every Singaporean and expressed the hope his successors would do the same.

He had sought to embrace every Singaporean through various platforms, from community activities to informal interaction with people.

He added: 'Like me, my successor will do the same or more. It may take us another generation or two before it becomes everybody's second nature.

'In my interactions, large numbers of people had embraced me. The Chinese call me zhong tong (Mandarin for president). My race didn't matter.'

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