Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A future President's apprehension

May 30, 2009

By Li Xueying

AN ENERGETIC man of 35, Mr SR Nathan weaved his way through the crowds with apprehension, feeling like a stranger in his homeland where he was born and bred.

Thousands of Singaporeans had gathered in front of the City Hall steps on that evening of June 3, 1959, jubilant at the onset of self-government.

But Mr Nathan - while exuberant that Singapore was 'halfway to independence' - felt a sense of foreboding.

'In the crowds that milled around City Hall, I found myself a stranger,' he says. 'This milling crowd was sometimes hostile in appearance and hostile in demeanour. And they were all PAP supporters.'

Now the President of Singapore, MrNathan remembers clearly the uncertainty of those days through decidedly non-rose-tinted glasses.

Then, he was welfare officer to seamen, administering to their needs, which range from wages to discipline matters.

These seamen were 'tough people, not English-educated'. But they accepted Mr Nathan - who himself was 'non-racial' - as 'one of them'.

But what he felt that night about the crowd of mainly Chinese was a 'body language of hostility'.

'There was a certain aggressiveness, a what the hell were you doing here (attitude),' he recounts.

'It set me thinking of the days immediately after the war, when with the coming of the MPAJA (Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army) in town, the behaviour of people changed. And there was strong chauvinistic conduct, which was later tempered down.

'So my main preoccupation was, what awaited us? Will we be overwhelmed by this crowd, and their behaviour?'

It did not help when Dr Goh Keng Swee made a speech at the rally, warning the English-educated that the special privileges they enjoyed under the British was to come to an end.

For civil servants like Mr Nathan, it came as a blow.

Mr Nathan, who held a diploma in social studies from the University of Malaya, says: 'Disappointment set in with Dr Goh's remarks. I was not sure if what he was telling was meant to be taken as a message that we were going to be shunted away.'

The message 'might have been well-intended', he acknowledges. But it was expressed at 'the wrong place, at the wrong time'.

Says Mr Nathan: 'We were part of this place. We joined in the struggle. We shared everything. And suddenly to feel alienated and to have this remark come in at that time...(there was a) negative effect on us. After all, we have been the mainstay, we ran the administration.'

Alarmed by the message, many Indian and Eurasian families emigrated.

Indeed, that very night, one of Mr Nathan's friends - a Straits Times journalist - sold his house in Serangoon Gardens and left for Australia.

But he himself did not contemplate it.

He says: 'You see, we have been here for three generations; we had very little contact with India.'

But what he did consider was leaving the civil service.

In the ensuing months, party cadre members were haughty towards the civil servants, he discloses.

'They'd come around and ask, why haven't you done this, why haven't you done that, why are you giving priority to this person...and all sorts of petty, petty things.

'So it was very frustrating for those of us working on the ground, dealing with human problems.'

Many considered leaving the service for the private sector, he says. 'But at that stage, we learnt that within the PAP, there was a division and that there were moves in line with our thinking...and we decided to give up any idea of looking for a job.'

So it was a time of transition, one 'marked with so much uncertainty that I can't say that I was looking ahead with great hope'.

'It was only when the split came and the struggle was really on, that there was some hope.'

Ultimately, despite those initial uncertainties, June 3, 1959, was an important milestone in Singapore's history, says Mr Nathan.

'The immediate problem of being a colony had ended. We were on the way to being independent. And a new phase of our existence had come into play.'

No comments: