Man of the people was also a 'makan kaki'
Eulogists at funeral service talk about the late former president's love for food. Business leader Jennie Chua recalls bonding over mee rebus
Like any true-blue Singaporean, Mr S R Nathan was a "makan kaki".
The former president's love for food was a common theme among some of the seven eulogies during his state funeral service at the University Cultural Centre at the National University of Singapore (NUS) yesterday.
Mr Nathan, who spent five decades serving the nation, died on Monday night surrounded by loved ones at the Singapore General Hospital.
He was 92.
The eulogists were Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, ambassadors-at-large Tommy Koh and Gopinath Pillai, Cabinet Minister and labour chief Chan Chun Sing, former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed, and business leaders Jennie Chua and Ramaswamy Athappan.
Some of the eulogies highlighted the late statesman's love for local dishes such as mee rebus and nasi lemak.
Mr Zainul Abidin recalled fondly their long chats over tea and durian puffs at Mr Nathan's home in Ceylon Road.
He said in Malay: "I will not forget his love for food. This made our friendship closer. Just mention briyani, nasi lemak and, of course, durians, and a smile would light up his face."
Ms Chua, a former Community Chest chairman, also recounted how she had cooked chicken curry for Mr Nathan using evaporated milk and curry powder when he visited her and other Singaporean students at Cornell University in 1969.
After attending a labour conference in New York City, he travelled six to seven hours by bus to meet them at Cornell in Ithaca.
Since then, Ms Chua said, she had kept in touch with Mr Nathan mostly over meals at official banquets, fund-raising events and birthday dinners.
"The most treasured of all were the mee rebus lunches at Ceylon Road. In fact, I had been looking forward to our next lunch on Aug 18, but he was admitted to hospital before then," she said.
Besides his love for food, Mr Nathan was also dearly remembered for his love for people and photos.
Ms Chua said that at the many fund-raising events that Mr Nathan attended, he would make every effort to engage everyone.
She said: "He would make every effort to speak to as many people as possible and was so obliging in acceding to requests for photo-taking that a short walk to the door as he departed an event could take up to 45 minutes."
Mr Gopinath, who is also chairman of the Institute of South Asian Studies at NUS, said that despite Mr Nathan occupying the highest office in the land, what struck people the most was his "common touch".
"When he was president, he showed a real interest in the Singaporeans he met and endeared himself to them," he said.
"He was warm and friendly and would not leave any function he attended without taking photographs with the employees of that establishment.
"I would venture to say that almost half the households in Singapore have a photograph of Mr Nathan with a member of their family."
Another popular anecdote was Mr Nathan's penchant for handwritten letters.
PM Lee said he kept in touch with Mr Nathan regularly and would receive replies written in his "beautiful hand, which remained steady all his life".
Mr Ramaswamy, chairman and CEO of Fairfax Asia and a personal friend, said that in April this year, Mr Nathan personally delivered a handwritten letter to him along with a gift of a statue of Vinayagar, another name for the Hindu god Lord Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles.
His note said: "Vinayagar will safeguard you from all ills. Vinayagar will shower you with many more success. My days are somewhat numbered. I will be 92 in July. My heart is getting weaker by the day. My only wish is to see you well and successful in your life."
Ms Chua said that Mr Nathan would use his "$2.20 uniball signo broad-tipped black pen" and his "characteristic cursive handwriting" to write his personalised notes, always dated and signed, to friends.
He never wrote from a standard template - no two letters were the same.
"Like the man himself, his words were warm, encouraging, heartfelt and inspiring," she added.
Ms Chua, who gave her eulogy dressed in a dark brown jacket with intricate white embroidery, told the packed auditorium the origins of the jacket material.
She said: "At a fund-raising event a decade ago, I had expressed admiration for a beautiful sari Mrs Nathan was wearing...
"A few weeks later, a parcel arrived from the Istana containing an exquisite deep brown sari with white embroidery.
"The accompanying note said the sari was from Mrs Nathan. The jacket I am wearing today is made from that sari."
The state funeral service was attended by about 1,900 guests, including Mr Nathan's family members, President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Cabinet ministers, Members of Parliament, the judiciary, foreign dignitaries, the diplomatic corps and Singaporeans from all walks of life.
It was followed by a private cremation at Mandai Crematorium.
'THANK YOU, SIR'
He put heart and soul into every task assigned to him, including the highest office in the land. Time and again, he placed nation before self. Quietly and without fuss, he gave his best years and more, to Singapore.
It is with great sorrow today that we bid farewell to one of Singapore's greatest sons.
- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Quite apart from Mr Nathan's remarkable career, the central and brightest thread in his life was his love for Umi, his wife. He first set eyes on her in 1942, when she was 13 and he 18.
After a courtship of 16 years, braving parental objections and a two-year separation while Umi studied in Britain, they married in 1958. Their relationship spanned an astonishing 73 years, an inspiration to us all.
S R loved and honoured Umi all the days of his life. And she, in turn, was his anchor throughout his career, including the 12 years that he was president, when she supported him with grace, charm and warmth. Mrs Nathan, thank you.
- PM Lee
He loved to watch Tamil and Malayalam movies. He appreciated both the classical Carnatic music and light film songs.
The song that we heard at the beginning of these proceedings, Thanjavooru Manneduthu, was a particular favourite.
It speaks volumes of the man that this Tamil song resonated with him precisely because he heard it in a tale of Singapore - how from many, we became one; how despite our different traditions, cultures and religions, we could be 'one people'.
- Mr Gopinath Pillai, ambassador-at-largeI had fallen ill during a business trip to India. On the advice of doctors, I delayed my return to Singapore by two weeks. Somehow, Mr Nathan got wind of this and personally visited me at my residence on the way to his morning walk to inquire after me. He was 90 then.
- Mr Ramaswamy Athappan, Fairfax Asia CEO
In 2011, I entered politics and Mr Nathan retired as our president. One day, he asked to come to my office at the then Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports to call on me. I was shocked. I rarely not listened to Mr Nathan, but this time, I disagreed. I told Mr Nathan that it was not right.
When I eventually called on Mr Nathan at his home, he told me that he wanted to call on me to affirm me and the Office of the Minister. (And) that since he was no longer president but a normal citizen, it was only right that he called on me, the Minister.
I grew even more respectful of him. I told Mr Nathan that he would always be my mentor and a president whom all would always remember in our hearts.
- Mr Chan Chun Sing, labour chief and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office