My one and only close up encounter with Mr SR Nathan

My heart freezes and I cringe each time I recall the one episode I met Mr SR Nathan in person, not because of anything unpleasant he said or did, but because of the circumstance in which our paths crossed.

It was about 20 years ago. I was working then a freshie working in a government organisation and my role then was to oversee the scholarship program. We had just confirmed the list of scholars for that year and I was working on a series of orientation activities to induct the scholars and prepare them for their overseas studies. My then direct boss had a brainstorm, he was confident that, because his dad once worked for SR Nathan, that he could get Mr SR Nathan (who then held the position of Ambassador-at-Large) to give a talk to the scholars in a closed door cosy setting to instil in them the role they would have individually as “ambassadors” as they made their presences felt across all the top universities in the world where they were going to pursue their studies. So, my boss went to work with sending him an invite and I went to work on getting the programme and the kids ready.

That faithful day came. The scholars arrived, all excited and enthusiastic. I made sure they came earlier much earlier. Then, just before the scheduled time, I went out to the office corridor to try to catch my boss with the VIP and to welcome him into the meeting room, when I saw only my boss walking along the corridor. I had expected him to be with Mr Nathan, but he was not. In fact, he seemed somewhat surprised to see me. When I asked him where Mr Nathan was, my boss asked me to quickly pop down to the MFA’s office to bring him up (our office was then located in the same building as MFA) as he had to hurry off for a very important meeting. We parted and I rushed to the lift lobby.

My VIP guest was not pleased to see me. He was curt and he told me that I was late. I apologised and kept silent as I did not know how to respond. I brought him up to the floor where the session was to be held, and brought him first to a waiting room to brief him. But he was not ready to listen, he was furious, and he did not hide the fact that he was not happy. He paced the room, sat down, got up, walked over the window, stared out and then paced the room again. He was clearly angry. I fumbled my way through the briefing and then halfway, he cut me short. Where’s my boss? He asked me. My heart sank. I thought for a moment that he was going to refuse to have me brief him, and demand that my boss be called to give him the briefing instead. After all, I was but a small-fry. I answered him and again repeated that my boss had been called away for an important meeting and that I was the only one left to manage this session. Mr Nathan stared out of the window in deep thought, alone in his world, as if I were not there. Then, he returned to the world. He looked at me and said something really strange. He said that he knew my boss, in fact, my boss’ father had once worked for him. Now, why did he say something like that? I was puzzled. I looked at him and he at me. I think I was drenched in cold sweat by then. Then he said he was ready for the session and I brought him to the meeting room. He was very composed and relaxed during the scholars’ session and the kids had a great time with him. I was relieved that it went on well. When it ended, I walked Mr Nathan out of the room and apologised to him again when I was alone with him. He accepted my apology graciously, cordially thanked me for organising the session and said that there was no need for me to escort him back to his office as it was merely a few floors down the lift. With that, he left. And that was the end of my one and only meeting with Mr Nathan.

It was only later after confiding in my colleague about my rather peculiar transaction with him, that my colleagues told me how absolutely dumb I was in not being able to read the situation. She then explained to me what had probably gone wrong that afternoon. My boss had probably completely forgotten about that appointment and only remembered it when I bumped into him at the corridor! I must have jolted his memory whereupon being unprepared and terribly late, he must have panicked, cooked up an excuse and got me running the whole show and taking the #$@* while he scooted off. And I must have behaved like the most naïve gullible junior officer in complying and taking over. And… the ironic thing is that Mr Nathan must have been very aware of what had happened as well.

On hindsight, I must say that Mr Nathan carried himself superbly. He never once raised his voice at me. He must have seen how naïve I was and was calculating a response for the situation. In the end, he did what only a gentleman could have done: Without venting it out on me or leaving a black mark in my career trajectory, he obliged, fulfilled his role in hosting a very memorable session for the kids, and left.