The Secret Service of Mr S R Nathan for Singapore

Mr S R Nathan, who was Singapore’s President from 1991 to 2011, passed away peacefully yesterday night. May he rest in peace.

SR Nathan

Mr S R Nathan is well-known and respected for his many contributions to Singapore, such as:

  • his negotiations to rescue hostages during the Laju ferry hijacking
  • maintaining US-Singapore relations during the Michael Fay incident
  • authorising the release of S$4.9bn of our national reserves to help us survive the 2009 global financial crisis

SR Nathan NTUC

Here are some lesser-known yet significant stories of S R Nathan’s life I learnt from a book he wrote in 2011 called “Winning Against The Odds: The Labour Research Unit in NTUC’s Founding”.

1. Creating a new collaborative brand of unionism

Trade unions in the past were belligerent and often aggressive. Many unions faced deadlocks with management due to an inability of both sides to communicate with each other.

In order to attract foreign investment to Singapore yet allow workers to still have a voice, S R Nathan joined the Labour Research Unit (LRU), a “mysterious, apparently nonexistent organisation” to help unions and workers who needed advice in collective bargaining, as there was no NTUC then.

SR Nathan Labour Research Unit

He started work with a handful of colleagues at one corner of the National Museum, with just one order – help the trade unions.

Although some unions were initially distrustful of his style of collaborative negotiation with employers (they preferred strikes and threats), he won their respect one case at a time when he was at the LRU from 1962 to 1966.

SR Nathan NTUC
S R Nathan during his years at LRU

One LRU success case includes helping workers get fair wages and working conditions from the joint venture between Ishikawajima-Harima Industries and EDB (which we know as Jurong Shipyard).

S R Nathan literally researched and researched many collective agreements to find a flexible wage structure which had all these things:

  • based on skill levels
  • scale of each category of workers
  • had provisions rewarding for years of service and productivity

After finally finding one by a company (Watts & Akkerman), he modified the wage structure and proposed it successfully to the IHI head office in Japan!


2. Going beyond political affiliations and modernizing the Labour Movement

In 1964, the Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ) faced a deadlock in their negotiations for their collective agreement renewal with the Straits Times Press management, which still viewed the union as pro-communist.

The experienced SNUJ unionists had already been arrested and detained in the 1963 Operation Cold Store, so the journalists who were left behind to pick up the union work of SNUJ were inexperienced in union matters!

Operation Cold Store

A group from SNUJ approached LRU for guidance and legal aid. This act in itself caused controversy within the union as journalists generally felt they should not be aligned with any political group (and LRU was seen as associated with the PAP somemore).

Some in LRU also felt hesitant to help SNUJ because they suspected the union still had some communist sympathies (like why help the “enemy” right?).

However, S R Nathan overruled his colleagues and helped SNUJ in their collective bargaining efforts because he wanted to help the workers.

SR Nathan NTUC Modernization Seminar


Later on in 1969, S R Nathan participated in the “Modernization of the Labour Movement” Seminar which re-evaluated the role of the labour movement and trade unions in Singapore.

NTUC SR Nathan Modernization Seminar

He wrote a paper and chaired a session on “The need for financial autonomy, leadership and structural development” to strengthen the unions and NTUC to be financially-sustainable, so they could provide “realistic benefits to individual members”.


3. Sleeping on cement with just a blanket in Cairo, on a mission to improve Singapore’s international standing

In order to represent the Singapore committee of the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Movement (AAPSO) at its Algiers conference in 1964 (to gain membership and international respectability for NTUC), S R Nathan travelled to Algiers on his own without a visa.

SR Nathan

At a Cairo stopover, he was subsequently quarantined in a building near the airport for 3 days, sleeping on cement with only a blanket for bedding, which he says was a “harrowing experience”.

After the Malaysian embassy got him a visa, he continued his solo journey to Algiers.

As there were no handphones invented yet in 1964, S R Nathan couldn’t call the Algiers secretariat to find out where he was staying and authorisation details to attend the conference.

So at the Algiers airport, he tried seeking the help of other delegations who were also going for the same conference.

The first group he met verbally abused him and one almost spat in his face, calling him a “neo-colonial stooge” (a derogatory term used by pro-communists).

Another delegate, Johnny Makatini, witnessed S R Nathan’s situation and came to his rescue. Johnny invited S R Nathan to his own apartment to rest and wash up while he contacted the conference secretariat to check on S R Nathan’s conference details.

SR Nathan

S R Nathan also received his very first introduction to African liberation politics through witnessing Johnny’s conversations with other African visitors who called on him. Talk about an act of kindness and a learning journey rolled into one day!


4. Lobbying support for Singapore with a handful of good jokes and drinks

At the conference, S R Nathan had to lobby the other delegates to support Singapore’s admission into the AAPSO, but faced opposition, hostility and verbal abuse (again by the guy at the airport who almost spat on him).

An elderly African delegate (a Minister for Education no less!) noticed that S R Nathan was depressed by the abuse and gave him an unconventional tip: go to the lounge of the Alleti Hotel where some African delegates were staying, buy them a drink and try the best jokes on anyone willing to accept the drink.

Not long after, S R Nathan had a whole bunch of Arabs and Africans accepting him as their buddy and introducing him to their network just to share his jokes.

With this support, S R Nathan managed to keep NTUC in the running to represent the Singapore delegation for AAPSO membership, even when there was widespread support for Barisan Socialis from pro-communist delegations.


5. Saving livelihoods when Indonesia chut pattern during Konfrontasi and severed trade with Singapore in 1963

Indonesia was pissed off by the formation of the Federation of Malaysia (which Singapore was part of) and almost declared war. It also severed trade with Singapore, which affected thousands of workers’ livelihoods mainly in the rubber, coffee, coconut, pepper and transport industries.

Various solutions were suggested: government to absorb one-third of salary costs, set up a training scheme, absorb displaced workers into other areas of employment etc.

S R Nathan was nominated by NTUC to join a committee tasked to study the problems arising from the trade severance, which cost Singapore about S$1 billion dollars in total trade affected.

In 2014, S R Nathan unveiled a marker to remember Singapore’s struggle against Communism at Esplanade Park, dedicated to 8,000 people who were killed or wounded in Malaysia and Singapore, and to those who fought for a democratic and non-communist Singapore.

SR Nathan

Thank you, Mr S R Nathan, for your lifetime devoted to building Singapore up to where we are today.

You have taught us what being a fighter in life means, and how we can create our own future when we are thrown into the deep end of the sea with only our wits and resourcefulness to make things happen.

We will miss you. Rest in peace.

SR Nathan