Beyond Nathan’s leadership, a heart for the disadvantaged – Channel NewsAsia

SINGAPORE: Former President S R Nathan was a successful leader and diplomat, but he was also known for his compassion, and for having a heart for the less fortunate.

Mr Nathan started the President’s Challenge in 2000, an annual outreach campaign that includes among others, fund-raising activities, volunteer work, and the President’s Star Charity Show. It has since raised about S$ 160 million for more than 800 charities, helping children with special needs, people with disabilities, youth at risk, elderly without support, and families in distress.

“I’m glad that the Star Charity show has aroused people’s consciousness about the life of people who are undergoing difficulties, those who are disabled, those who are handicapped, and seeing their plight on screen, “Mr Nathan once said. “I hope it also arouses their consciousness to support them.”

Those close to Mr Nathan say the President’s Challenge reflected values he carried with him throughout his presidency, and a lifelong desire to build an inclusive, caring Singapore.

“He didn’t want charity to be largely in the domain of gala dinners, the rich and the people who are in that high society position,” said Mr Nathan’s former principal private secretary Lim Boon Wee. “He felt that it was something that should be part and parcel of everybody – whatever little bit, all walks of life you can do your part. And it’s not also about money, it’s about time, and ultimately far more important is the sense of care you have.

A sense of care, that Mr Lim says, was cultivated from Mr Nathan’s own vivid life experiences.

“He (Mr Nathan) really didn’t have a great start in life,” Mr Lim said. “It was a difficult start. He lost his father at an early age, he was expelled from school, he ran away from home, and then the war came, and a lot of things. He didn’t get a good education initially, but he always felt that there were people who were significant influences in his life, and gave him that chance, so he felt that he wanted that to be possible for whoever else is in that situation.”

Mr Nathan was involved in the Labour Movement prior to his presidency. He was also a seaman welfare officer and a medical social worker, roles Mr Lim says “are all about giving, helping the disadvantaged, helping the people who needed that protection, needed that help to be taken care of.”

“If you trace back many things – in fact his presidency I would say he always saw it as a continuation of some of these things in a much bigger way,” Mr Lim said.

Today, the President’s Challenge supports the most number of beneficiaries in Singapore, involving schools, grassroots organisations, businesses, and Government bodies. Beyond those who receive the aid, some say it has also left an indelible impression on those who take part.

“Many of our volunteers continue to serve after many years in the charity to projects,” said the People’s Association’s chief executive director Ang Hak Seng. “This has effectively shifted President’s challenge from an event to a movement – a movement where everyone cares for each other. And this is the enduring legacy.”

“It’s about what you value as a society, what we see as important,” Mr Lim added. “And that’s something the President’s office can be, the person holding the office can be – a unifying force, someone who is above politics, but yet someone who is involved enough for people to feel connected. It’s a symbol of unity, and whether it’s in President’s Challenge or the way he conducts himself, he always saw himself as: ‘I am for all Singaporeans’.” 

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