Former President S R Nathan was once a Seamen's Welfare Officer, a role that did not have a defined job scope, and frequently saw his role fused with that of the Seamen's Industrial Relations Officer. That was before he was seconded to NTUC to set up the Labour Research Unit and acted as a guarantor for the Laju Hijacking incident.
In hist most recent book - Why Am I Here? - Mr S R Nathan shares his experience as a Seamen's Welfare Officer, in the 1950s/1960s, when seamen were generally vulnerable and enjoyed minimal employment rights from shipping companies.
Coincidentally, Mr S R Nathan turns 92 today (3 July).
Some interesting insights from Mr S R Nathan in this book:
Goh Keng Wee wanted to dismiss S R Nathan
Then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee, whose purview included the Marine Department, had demanded that Mr S R Nathan be dismissed for one of his unsuccessful representations made to the Swedish consul general who had the final say. Fortunately, wise counsel prevailed and he kept his job.
Why the book was named as such
Mr S R Nathan thought of quitting his job as a Seamen's Welfare Officer, following an incident when a seaman lodged a complaint to Political Secretary to Finance Minister, Lim Chin Siong. That was when a Father Fox asked him, "Have you ever asked yourself why you are here?" Father Fox then continued, "Over the period that you have worked in this job, how many have walked through that door, relieved that you had solved their problem, or helped them face their difficulties? Perhaps they have not shown gratitude, but in their heart of hearts they would have left in the belief that there was someone like you to turn to in times of need. You must understand that it is not in the nature of Man to be grateful. So in whatever you or I do for others we must never expect gratitude... think through this question - why am I here? If you think deeply, you will get your answer. It will come through your conscience."
S R Nathan got the Bishop to rein in errant management who were Christians
Thinking out of the box - "Having failed via the media (to shame the bad employer), I sought the Bishop of Singapore for his help, which he initially turned down. After some harsh exchanges with the Bishop, reminding him to draw his congregation's attention to the need for his flock, among whom was the particular shipping company's top management, to be Christians in "deed", I got back a reluctant but favourable response."
Brotherhood of the seamen
A helpless widow, grieving over the loss of his seaman husband, came to seek help and Mr S R Nathan explained to those in queue that he will attend to her first. One man was displeased and went up to Mr Lim Chin Siong's office to complain. Mr S R Nathan was summoned to his office and asked why he ignored the queuing rule and that he should get everyone to wait their turn. A group of seamen in the queue came to know about it and stormed up to see Mr Lim. "In anger, they almost accosted him, saying that if they could wait, why couldn't the particular young man wait?" Mr Lim then called Mr S R Nathan to ignore what he had said earlier. Later the group of seamen went to look for the young man and "threatened him with bodily harm if they ever saw him in the area again".
S R Nathan had a part to play in getting Singaporeans employed on luxury cruises
On 28 September 1960, 220 Indonesian crew walked out of a Dutch luxury liner in support of Indonesian's dispute for the return of the Dutch New Guinea. "Several hundred world cruise passengers were left stranded on board." Realising that "this involved several hundred jobs that were immediately available at a time when unemployment was serious", Mr S R Nathan convinced then DPM Toh Chin Chye, who then "undertook to accept responsibility for any legal complications and any political repercussions or labour agitation that arose out of the matter". "Some policemen working at the then Harbour Board wharves even discarded their uniforms and went on board. They saw it as an opportunity to get to Europe or the United States, without having to pay the cost of travel." From the resolution of the incident, further opportunities to man other cruise ships came to Singaporeans.
The organising of Seamen
In 1971, the Singapore Organisation of Seamen (SOS) became the first truly national trade union for Singapore seamen. In 1956, there were at least 8 Unions, some with dubious interests as they also owned boardhouses for seamen.