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Diplomat turned popular President

Saturday 20 August 2005, by SURYANARAYANA*P.S.

As S.R. Nathan begins his second term as Singapore’s President, his record as a public servant will remain his strength.

ALERT, ENTHUSIASTIC about state affairs and affable. These and other positive qualities of humanism and erudition have shaped the personality of Sellappan Ramanathan, better known as S.R. Nathan, and defined his popular presidency in Singapore.

With these attributes as primary assets, the 81-year-old Mr. Nathan, originally a civil servant and diplomat, will begin, on September 1, his second successive term of six years as the city-state’s President.

It is truly a measure of his acceptability to the political elite and, no less, the about three million citizens that he has now been re-elected unopposed. Six years ago, his election, for the first time, to the highest constitutional office, which is vested with the unique "custodial powers" to protect the country’s vast financial reserves, was just as smooth. He was unchallenged.

Today, while his re-election is hailed as a triumph of not only the man but also the presidency, some opinion-makers and the younger generation of voters tend to lament that there has been no contest for the high office for the second time in a row.

Being the second person to hold the post under Singapore’s relatively new system of elective presidency, Mr. Nathan has proved that he is second to none in upholding the dignity of the office and in reaching out to the people. In essence, therefore, the debate is entirely about the people’s missed chance of experiencing the excitement of a campaign and a poll in the wider public domain of a country where voting is compulsory.

It was, in fact, a public contest that brought in Ong Teng Cheong as the first elected President, the previous incumbents being "appointed" functionaries.

Perhaps, it is also a sign of the evolving political ethos of the 40-year-old republic that the younger generation is now looking forward to the prospect of having a direct say over the choice of a President instead of seeing the person being elected unopposed. While this may have something to do with the perceived mystique of the head of state, Mr. Nathan’s wise and instructive response is in tune with his political culture and civility.

At a post-victory press conference on August 17, Mr. Nathan said: "I don’t feel that I am any less a President because I was not contested. ... It is in the nature of democratic processes that when you are returned unopposed, you accept it." And, even as he made it clear that he was "not afraid" of a contest from the beginning of this process, he emphasised that there had been "no threat" from the establishment to "discourage" people from throwing their hats in the presidential ring. He did note that the questioners were "labouring" the no-contest outcome, but he was not dismissive of the younger journalists. A sign, yet again, of his unflappable equanimity, which seasoned observers often draw attention to.

Sources close to the President have also indicated that he and his prospective campaign team had in fact made elaborate preparations for a possible contest, when the issue got settled at the first stage itself - the pre-nomination threshold. Under Singapore’s political practices, each candidate-aspirant must first secure a mandatory certificate of eligibility from the Presidential Elections Committee.

Unlike in 1999, four candidate-aspirants were in the field this time. All, except Mr. Nathan, were not found to measure up to the very high standards.

So, on August 13, the Committee notified that the sitting President alone qualified for candidacy. That settled the presidential election of 2005, no appeal being permissible against the panel’s decision. Now, as President Nathan begins his second term, there being no doubts whatsoever about the legitimacy of his re-election, his splendid record as a public servant, inclusive of a tenure as Ambassador to the United States, will remain his strength.

Multi-racial Singapore, which has sought to sustain itself as a cosmopolitan state, has been meticulously moulded by elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, who was once described by the late Michael Leifer, a guru of Southeast Asian studies, as "a political superman."

Over a period of several decades, Mr. Lee is known to have reposed considerable trust in Mr. Nathan. Equally important, Mr. Lee’s successor, Goh Chok Tong, and the present Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, appear to hold Mr. Nathan in high esteem. This augurs very well for Mr. Nathan and the presidency he seems eminently qualified to shape in what is sometimes described as an "exceptional state."

The prescribed constitutional and ceremonial duties apart, the Singapore President has an opportunity to make a positive difference to society by playing a proactive role in the social service sector.

Mr. Nathan, who described himself as "an unknown quantity" among the general public (as different from the elite) at the time of his becoming President in 1999, later interacted with the people, freely and with an evident sense of commitment to the social good. He initiated "the President’s Challenge," a fund-raiser project for charitable purposes. It is seen as a programme of social action.

In a social sense, Mr. Nathan seems to be treading in the footsteps of Wee Kim Wee, who was hailed as "the people’s President" during his time at the helm in the 1980s-1990s.

The late Wee Kim Wee was in fact Mr. Nathan’s mentor, friend, and later colleague in the diplomatic corps.

On matters of Singapore’s security, which Mr. Nathan had dealt with as a civil servant entrusted with "external intelligence" at one stage, he has now noted that "the Government is on top of the problem" of terrorism.

Responding to The Hindu on the President’s custodial powers of safeguarding Singapore’s financial reserves including its huge foreign exchange earnings, Mr. Nathan has emphasised that "certain principles have been enunciated and ... put into practice" during his first term as also the presidency of his predecessor.

These unique presidential powers, crafted in spite of the record of successive governments at prudential management of the economy, are designed to prevent a "profligate government" of the future from rocking the Singapore boat.

Before he became President, Mr. Nathan had come into the limelight when he successfully managed, at the field level, a crisis in Singapore’s ties with the U.S., which was displeased at the way one of its nationals was punished for a crime in the city-state. There was at least one other occasion when Mr. Nathan hit the headlines as a crisis-manager in the civil service.

However, as Gopinath Pillai, Chairman of the Singapore-based Institute of South Asian Studies, points out, "it is Mr. Nathan’s ability to bond with the Singaporeans in all walks of life that could partly explain the ease with which he has been re-elected."

As the second ethnic-Indian to hold this post (the first being Devan Nair), Mr. Nathan, of humble beginnings and concern for the welfare of workers, has endeared himself to the people.

Besides being fluent in English, Tamil (his mother-tongue) and Malay, he is conversant with Mandarin and Japanese. He is very appreciative of India’s classical culture too.

See online : The Hindu

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