Wednesday 21 January 2015

Former president S R Nathan shares his concerns in new book

He dwells on rising discontent in society and how new media altered tone of political debate
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

FORMER president S R Nathan says he is concerned by an atmosphere of rising discontent in Singapore society, in a new book launched yesterday.

Mr Nathan acknowledges that some of this dissatisfaction is amplified by social media. But he is also concerned that it has seen recent political debate marked by distrust and abuse.

"If this discontent gets out of hand, as a nation we risk stepping on to a slippery slope, a return to the uncertainties of the days before we joined Malaysia and then became independent," he said.

"We could be in danger of losing the progress that we've made over the years. We must all be prepared to compromise," he added in the book.

The 224-page book, titled S R Nathan In Conversation, was launched at the Singapore Management University before some 300 guests.

It features transcripts, presented in a question-and-answer format, from about 20 interview sessions that Mr Nathan had with writer Timothy Auger.

The former president, who turned 90 last July, said in a 10-minute speech at the launch: "I have never been directly involved in politics as a politician, and I have no intention of straying into areas of policy that are properly the territory of the elected government.

"But I have allowed myself to ponder on some of the ways in which our society is evolving, for example with the growth of new media, and what this could mean for us in future."

Mr Nathan feels new media has changed the tone of political debate.

"Reasoned political discourse and intelligent, constructive criticism are rare in this online world," he said.

He noted there were responsible writers and those genuine about doing good online, but said: "For some, it's a kind of sport. 'He's walloping so-and-so, I'm very happy, I'll join in'."

Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam was at the launch. Commenting on Mr Nathan's thoughts on the challenges facing Singapore, he said: "He shares these thoughts from the vantage point of someone who has not only been the head of state for 12 years, but who has also drawn on wisdom accumulated over decades of experience as a civil servant, diplomat, community worker, and fellow Singaporean."

The book is published by Editions Didier Millet, which also put out Mr Nathan's 2011 memoirs, An Unexpected Journey: Path To The Presidency. Mr Auger was its former editorial director.

The book covers a range of topics: from Mr Nathan's early years to foreign policy, as well as anecdotes of his personal interactions with Singapore's pioneer leaders like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam. It also features Mr Nathan's thoughts on Singapore's future - as well as a brief chat with Mrs Nathan.

Mr Auger, 67, who also worked with Mr Nathan on his memoirs, told The Straits Times: "He wanted to share his thoughts more generally and in a less structured way, and suggested a series of very informal conversations that were fairly unplanned."

The hardcover book costs $39.90 (including GST) and will be available at all major bookstores from Friday. Mr Nathan will also be at a book-signing session for the public at Times bookstore at Tampines 1 mall on Saturday at 2pm.


'If the test comes, the young will be strong'
Being President involves making tough calls like whether to sanction dipping into the reserves or granting death-row inmates clemency, says Mr S R Nathan, who released a new book, In Conversation, last month. Walter Sim meets the 90-year-old for a wide-ranging interview on his presidency and issues Singapore faces today.
The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2015

Some people think being President is a cushy job because it is a ceremonial role. Do you agree?

I've taken an oath of secrecy, so I can't go about discussing it. But there were moments because of constitutional constraints when you wished you could do something. But you can't, because the Constitution prescribes what you can do as President and what you cannot. In some instances, it is provided that you must act as advised by Cabinet.

Unfortunately, some people seem to think the President can do anything. They don't know this is not true.

Sometimes you will have to make a difficult decision, like during the financial crisis. If you haven't kept in touch by reading about developing economic circumstances, then you will have difficulty deciding whether to accede to the release of funds from the reserves, which are under your protection for a purpose. You must be fairly convinced, in good conscience, that the circumstances warrant such a delivery and you have to do it.

I'm no expert in economics. But due to my civil service and diplomatic career, I've been following up on happenings in the economy and reading up. So I was conscious about the developments in economic matters.

What about granting clemency to death-row inmates? Did this weigh heavily on you?

You're bound by the laws, you're bound to check whether all the protective processes that have been provided for such a decision have been taken. You have to decide whether the evidence is so overwhelming in the direction of guilt.

Even in that matter, before Cabinet really pushes it to the President, all due processes have been gone through. This is what they endorse. I can't turn around and say, 'No, I disagree with you'.

Of course, I may disagree, but when all due processes have been gone through, everything has been done fairly, and this is the evidence, I'm not in a position to reject the recommendations of the Cabinet. I can question it, but I cannot overrule.

During the two terms you were elected President uncontested, would you rather have seen some fight?

I was prepared for a fight. I still thought they would contest it because of my ethnicity. Or they might think it's easy, let's defeat this fellow. I was surprised from Day One. There wasn't... one candidate came, but was unqualified. There was a hesitancy to contest it. Why, I can't explain. But at the stage when I left, 12 years later, the institution had acquired a certain - how shall I say - perception in the minds of people. And somebody was prepared to give it a try.

You dropped out of school at 16, yet became President. Is such a career trajectory possible today?

The possibility is there, but as for the probability, I'm not sure. It's a new age.

People are given a variety of educational opportunities. They acquire skills, and are much more and better educated than during my time. (Then), leaders grabbed anybody who came along and I was one of those grabbed.

Each time they tested me, and gave me the next challenge. I was privileged to be given the opportunity to walk with them, to feel their pain, to suffer their anxiety, as they searched for solutions.

At that stage nobody was fully qualified. All of us were equal. Some bond developed between us as we worked each stage.

Are you saying educational qualifications are not as relevant?

When I went to university (at age 28), I realised how ignorant I was. It teaches you how to think. Problems don't come in a defined way. Each is different and has different ramifications.

Education is just the beginning. But it's the experience that ultimately moulds somebody to be better than the other fellow.

You were in the civil service during Singapore's early years. What is your view about attempts by revisionists to give an alternative version of history?

In all these incidents, the Government and political leaders had been central. Now, there are critics who put the blame on the leaders and claim that whatever the Government says is suspect.

For Coldstore (a major security crackdown on leftists in 1963), there are so many articulations that all this was fiction. But those of us who lived through it saw the danger that was there. I cannot argue that the violence, intimidations and threat to peace did not happen.

So how do you get these stories told in a way that the maximum number of people take it at face value and that the side of the story being presented is factual? Because a lot of it is subjective.

Some people say there was no threat. There will always be somebody with a different view.

The question is whether the person is being intellectually honest - even on the government side. It is very hard to find a neutral party to say, 'Yes, this is the truth'. Because there are things you can disclose and there are things you cannot.

We must try and put it across as best as we can. And for those who want to criticise, we should give them a chance to prove themselves. The struggle we had was a proxy war. Those who were involved will not admit they were party. So how do you discriminate between truth and fiction? It will be up to the reader or listener to convince himself as to which is the version nearest the truth and to be believed.

You were involved in a key moment in history - the 1974 Laju ferry hijacking. A recent Institute of Policy Studies survey showed that the incident, Coldstore and the 1987 Marxist conspiracy were the least remembered moments of local history.

The younger generation should be told. They should learn. But I don't want to pick on anybody.

This happened. We think it's important. But it hasn't impacted them. Maybe in their later years they will look back and they will be curious. But they are not going to live their lives because of what happened in the past.


This ties in with an observation in your book: that youth generally do not see the value of being informed.

Their priorities today are different. They are preoccupied with their lives today - one of a successful circumstance. And so they are not conscious of the past and even the cost of failure for the future.

In our case, failure gives us no respite to recover because we are a small island. We depend on everything from outside and, without money, we cannot feed ourselves. And in a crisis or a famine of sorts, we have five million people to feed. You can't feed without money that comes from our economic success.

It doesn't reach them yet, but to those who are mid-career people and so on, they must be conscious of this.

Our economic success keeps us together - our races, our people, religion, language - because we are comfortable where we are. When that collapses, we will all be fighting each other. This I'm telling it from experience.

To them it's another story, maybe they don't believe it. But I am trying to urge them to ponder, that's all. Not just to acquire the knowledge and make the judgment, but to ponder about this issue.

Do you think this state of comfort has led to discontent with the way things are - which you said in the book is a concern to you?

It's not universal. What is loud and clear is that it reflects (the views of) a minority, but is magnified in the way it comes out. There is a large silent majority.

But our individualism which has been growing is, in a way, contributing to this discontent and being unappreciative of foreigners and neighbours you don't like.

Where did this stem from?

I wish I knew. But the individualism is quite evident: I don't want so and so as my neighbour; I don't want to mix with a person of that race; I am myself.

Whereas for the older generation, we recognised there were others. There were times that others could be helpful to you. We were in adversity and experienced it, and we had that sense of interdependence. Now everyone has enough CPF money and better jobs and regular income. Maybe they think all that (interdependence) is not necessary.

The head of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce said recently that Singaporeans have a misplaced sense of entitlement, leading to materialism and pervasive job-hopping. Do you agree?

Yes, I think so. Because you hear about people moving from one job to another. And all because the next job pays $50 more.

If they move to the next job, and they acquire a newer experience and a higher level of experience, you can understand that.

But many employers find this frustrating. It's so easy for (employees) to move in and move out, whereas those of us who experienced unemployment dreaded it. People today don't. They talk of their entitlement, but they never talk about their obligations.

Do you consider the younger generation a "strawberry generation" - soft and unable to take pressure?

No, I think if the test comes they will be strong. What's their threshold of pain? I do not know. But I'm fairly confident they will develop their own capacity to deal with the problems of society in a different way.

You said in your book that the "Government needs to have a firm hand and not pander to populist demands". How do you reconcile not pandering to populist demands and being there to help?

I did not mean that our Government is pandering. The Government has a responsibility to know whether it is one voice, or one million people's voices. You mean when every fellow opens his mouth the public accepts it as universal? As a government, you have the responsibility to find out how widespread is this. That is what a responsible government does. Not to pander.

What have you been doing since you stepped down as President?

You don't have to adhere to protocol and ceremony.You are free of all the responsibilities. But at the same time, you have to keep your reserve because you are a former president - and you're still not as free as one believes you would be. I have not much responsibility, but I kill time by keeping myself engaged and my mind occupied.

People have seen you taking walks in East Coast Park. How you are doing health-wise?

I've not been able to do my walks for more than six months. I cannot walk any distance. My health isn't good. I became breathless and tired. But my mind is okay.

What would you advise youth who will be tomorrow's leaders?

To be conscious of the nature of our society: our multiracialism, multi-religious tolerance, willingness to give and take and trying not to be exclusive. These are things you must preserve.

Understanding that without economic success, multiracialism and tolerance for others can break up. Because economic success gives us a brand name, a certain evenness. And we must not jeopardise our economic opportunities because of personal sentiments.

To recognise that the world as a marketplace is something we must always be conscious of, and anticipate developments that can offer opportunities or threaten what we have.

'If the test comes, the young will be strong'

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