By Tan Jee Say
My interactions with S R Nathan
I first met the late Mr S R Nathan 40 years ago. I had returned from overseas studies in the UK a few months earlier and was doing my National Service in the army when I received a call to see him. He was then the Director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID) of MINDEF.
As soon as I stepped into the room, Mr Nathan introduced me to the other gentlemen beside him : Eddie Teo, his then deputy at SID and currently the chairman of the Public Service Commission, Daljit Singh, research officer at SID and Wong Kan Seng, then Director of Manpower of MINDEF who later rose to become the Deputy Prime Minister.
Mr Nathan told me that they had been asked by the Minister the late Dr Goh Keng Swee to talk to me before giving me the final security clearance. I had been “rebellious” during my 3 years in the UK (1973-76), speaking against the government at forums and participating in anti-government demonstrations.
Those were the days when Singapore students in the UK actively organised and engaged in protests against repressive measures in Singapore; taped speeches by the late Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai were played to us and they heightened our sense of injustice further.
Mr Nathan dismissed them as attempts by pro-Communist elements to mislead our students and to subvert the peace. He went on for nearly an hour or longer (I lost time!) but I was not provoked; they were even surprised that I did not challenge them. They thought they had convinced me.
Towards the end, Mr Nathan disclosed that they had put me on surveillance in the few months that I had been back in Singapore from the UK and they concluded that I was just an idealist and posed no threat to national security. I then recalled an interrogation session I went through 3 days after I returned from the UK on 3 August 1976.
I thought I was going to an interview with the PSC for a job posting. Instead, I was put in a very cold room where the ISD officer lost no time in shouting at me, accusing me of being ungrateful to the government. “How dare you criticise the government who has given you a scholarship to study in the UK?” He asked detailed questions about my family, what my siblings were doing and where they were working. It was a gruelling 2 to 3 hours.
“Be obedient and rise to the very top”
About a week later, one of my sisters called me. She said an ISD officer visited her at the Ministry of Health where she worked and he had told her, “Tell your brother not to be silly and go against the government. Tell him to do what the government wants him to do and we will take care of his career. Just be obedient and he will rise to the very top.”
It was clearly a coordinated security operation to intimidate young officers and put them in their place. I did not get to meet Mr Nathan again until several years later. I was then a junior officer in the ministry of trade and industry and he was the permanent secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs.
We were together on an economic and trade mission to Myanmar. Initially, he did not recognise me but a few days into the trip while sailing on a boat cruise down the Irrawaddy river, he suddenly turned around and asked pointedly at me, “Didn’t I interview you a few years ago? You were the rebellious young man.” Chandra Das, then managing director of Intraco, who was standing nearby, teased me saying “You can’t hide anymore!”
I couldn’t run away from him even if I had wanted to. Nathan had a commanding presence in government and I could feel his domineering influence as I rose through the ranks.
My colleagues in MFA told me of “morning prayers” at which Nathan would review and brainstorm with his officers international and regional developments that occurred the day before. Relevant desk officers would then put up information notes for circulation to senior levels of government to keep them informed of the implications to Singapore. I had always looked forward to reading these information notes which unmistakenly bore the thoughts of Nathan.
But I enjoyed even more when I personally heard him articulate these thoughts in person and at close quarters. As secretary to the late Dr Albert Winsemius, the economic adviser to the government, I got to sit in when Nathan was invited to brief Dr Winsemius on global developments and their implications to Singapore. Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, the permanent secretary of MTI, would also be present. No one could have asked for a more valuable tutorial session than when these 3 great minds engaged in animated discussions about Singapore and the world economy.
Straits Times as a piece of china
When Nathan retired from the civil service in January 1982, no one expected him to fade away but instead to resurface in some other role. True enough, it was soon announced that he would be the executive chairman of Straits Times Press .
I was amused when I received a telephone call from him in his new role. He told me that he had just had lunch with PM Lee Kuan Yew who had suggested that he persuaded me to work with him to transform the Straits Times. He invited me to lunch.
On his new mission, Nathan quoted PM as having told him: “It’s like handling a piece of china. If you break it, I will pick up the pieces but it won’t be the same again.” PM did not want Nathan to break up the organisation but to work with existing people to change it.
He asked me to join him in this mission as PM had suggested my name. He thought I would be impressed. But I told him that I had been approached a year ago by the chairman of the Public Service Commission, the late Mr Tan Teck Chwee, who was also asked by PM to consider sending me to the Straits Times.
Apparently, the two gentlemen had a long lunch at which the PM expressed his unhappiness over the way the Straits Times reported the Anson by-election which the People’s Action Party lost, its first election defeat in 18 years. He probably expected more losses unless changes were made to the way the media reported on government policies. I had told the good chairman that I was more interested in economic development policy work than in promoting political propaganda.
At the end of the 2-hour interview, the chairman walked over to my side and with a pat on my shoulder, assured me : “Don’t worry, young man. Just continue with your good work in the administrative service and I will recommend you to be PPS to PM when your time comes.”
Respect and Protect
I told Nathan that after turning down the PSC chairman, I could not in good conscience agree to his offer. Nathan did not try to change my mind nor to assure me that it would be alright to do so and that he could explain it to the chairman. Instead, he was quiet, perhaps stunned by a young officer who had the audacity to turn down the PM twice when others would have jumped at the chance. Like the chairman before him, he had concluded that it would be futile to change a young idealist’s mind.
I respected Nathan and the PSC chairman for respecting my wishes and for protecting me from the Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. I had a different reaction from Mr Goh Chok Tong two years later when he too tried in vain to get me to go over to the Straits Times. But I shall leave this to another occasion to write about.
This recollection by Tan Jee Say was first published on his Facebook account. Mr Tan served in the civil service for 11 years from 1979 to 1990.