Biography of S. Rajaratnam

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Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam Biography

Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, better known as “S. Rajaratnam”, (25 February 1915 – 22 February 2006), was a Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 1980-85, and a long-serving Minister and member of the Cabinet from 1959-88.

S. Rajaratnam is regarded as one of the founding fathers of independent Singapore as it achieved self-government in 1959 and later independence in 1965. He devoted much of his adult life to public service, and helped shape the mentality of Singaporeans on contemporary issues.

One of the schools of Nanyang Technological University, is named the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in honour of him, as a 7-storey Rajaratnam block at Raffles Institution.

S. Rajaratnam Early Life

The second child of Sabapathy Pillai Sinnathamby and his wife, both of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, Rajaratnam was born in Vattukottai, Jaffna, Sri Lanka. His father had wanted him to be born there for auspicious reasons after the premature death of his older brother. He was then brought back to Malaya and raised in Seremban and Selangor.

Rajaratnam studied in , St Paul’s boys’ school, Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, and later in Raffles Institution in Singapore. In 1937, he went to King’s College London to pursue a law degree.

However, due to World War II, he was unable to receive funding from his family to continue his studies; instead, he turned to journalism to earn a living. He met his wife Piroska Feher, a Hungarian teacher while in London.
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S. Rajaratnam returned to Singapore in 1948 when he joined the Malayan Tribune. In 1954, he joined The Straits Times as a journalist. He was bold in writing about the way Singapore was governed by the British. This incurred the displeasure of the colonial government.

S. Rajaratnam column, “I write as I please”, attracted so much attention that he was called for questioning by the government.

S. Rajaratnam Political Career

In 1954, Rajaratnam cofounded the People’s Action Party together with Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and others. He became popular among his supporters for being able to effectively follow the ‘mood of the people’. He thought of a multiracial Singapore and envisioned her to be a ‘global city’.

S. Rajaratnam was also actively involved in organising major political campaigns against Singaporean groups on the far left. During his years in parliament, he served as Minister for Culture (1959), Minister for Foreign Affairs (1965-1980), Minister for Labour (1968-1971), and Second Deputy Prime Minister (1980-1985) and was later appointed as Senior Minister until his retirement in 1988. Rajaratnam is remembered for writing the Singapore National Pledge in 1966.

Rajaratnam was Singapore’s first foreign minister, following its abrupt independence in 1965. During his tenure as foreign minister, Rajaratnam helped Singapore gain entry into the United Nations and later the Non-Aligned Movement in 1970.

S. Rajaratnam built up the Foreign Service and helped to establish diplomatic links with other countries and secure international recognition of the new nation’s sovereignty.

S. Rajaratnam carried out the foreign policy of international self-assertion to establish Singapore’s independence during the period when the country faced significant challenges including the Konfrontasi conflict in the 1960s and the withdrawal of British troops in the early 1970s.

Rajaratnam was one of the five “founding fathers” of ASEAN in 1967 and helped to draw international attention to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

Sompong Sucharitkul, an aide of Thailand’s then foreign minister Thanat Khoman, conveys Rajaratnam’s stance on ASEAN membership for Sri Lanka in 1967 :

I remember one was an economics minister. He waited there anxiously for a signal to join the discussion; but it never came. It was Rajaratnam of Singapore who opposed the inclusion of Sri Lanka. He argued the country’s domestic situation was unstable and there would be trouble. Not good for a new organisation.

During his term as Minister of Labour, he implemented tough labour laws to attempt to restore stability in the Singaporean economy and attracted multinational corporations to invest in Singapore.

This important appointment emphasised the trust that the government had in him in overcoming the challenges Singapore faced.

Throughout his political career, he played a key role in the successive pragmatic and technocratic People’s Action Party governments that radically improved Singapore’s economic situation, alongside huge developments in social development on the island with massive expansion of healthcare programs, pensions, state housing and extremely low unemployment.

This is well underlined by his following statement :

We believe in a democratic society by governments freely and periodically elected by the people.. We believe, in the virtue of hard work and that those who work harder in society should be given greater rewards… We believe that the world does not owe us a living and that we have to earn our keep.

Nonetheless, Rajaratnam did not believe in the need for a strong opposition in parliament, which he considered “non-communist subversion”; he was unapologetic about the dominant party system in Singapore saying :
Given a one-party government, the capacity of such a government to act far more independently than if it were harassed by an opposition and by proxies, is obvious.

In the game of competitive interference pawns which can behave like bishops and castles and knights can in certain circumstances be extremely inconvenient and very irritating.

Rajaratnam was a strong believer in multi-racialism in Singapore, and when drafting the Singapore National Pledge in 1966 just two years after the 1964 Race Riots, he wrote the words “One united people, regardless of race, language or religion.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the government began implementing several policies to promote the use of “mother tongue” languages and ethnic-based self-help groups such as Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) and Mendaki, Rajaratnam expressed his opposition to these policies which, in his view, ran counter to the vision of establishing a common Singaporean identity where “when race, religion, language does not matter”.

S. Rajaratnam advocated for greater racial integration which he felt was still lacking in the country. Rajaratnam also disagreed with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on the policy of giving incentives to women who are college graduates and have more children, as Rajaratnam felt that the policy was unfair.

Despite their differences in opinion on certain issues, Rajaratnam was loyal to Lee and he remained as a member of the “core team” of Lee’s government that include Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen and Lim Kim San, and they dominated Singapore political scene from 1959 to mid-1980s.
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S. Rajaratnam Later Life

Rajaratnam retired from political office in 1988 as part of the leadership transition. He then served at the Institute of South East Asian Studies as a Distinguished Senior Fellow from November 1, 1988 to October 31, 1997.

In 1994, Rajaratnam was diagnosed with dementia and was unable to move or talk by 2001. He was assisted by six maids including his long-time maid of 21 years, Cecelia Tandoc.

S. Rajaratnam Death

Rajaratnam died on 22 February 2006 of heart failure, 3 days shy of his 91st birthday.  As a mark of respect, Mediacorp channel 5 and 8 observed the one-minute of silence of procedure that night.

The State flag on all government buildings was flown at half-mast from 23 February to 25 February 2006. The body of the late Rajaratnam rested at his home in 30 Chancery Lane from 22 to 23 February. Some of his former colleagues, Toh Chin Chye, S Dhanabalan, Othman Wok, Lee Hsien Loong, President S.R. Nathan and santosh Shanmugaratnam paid their last respects at his home.

S. Rajaratnam body lay in state at Parliament House from 9:30am to 9:00pm on February 24, 2006. In recognition of his contributions as one of Singapore’s founding fathers, Rajaratnam was accorded a state funeral at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay on 25 February 2006.

The coffin was carried from Parliament House to the Esplanade at 1:30pm on a ceremonial gun carriage, past the historic Civic District. The service was attended by President S.R. Nathan, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament and invited people from all walks of life.

During the funeral, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh and the Chief Mourner Dr. V K Pillay, an orthopaedic surgeon, delivered their eulogies.

Minister Mentor Lee cried and melted down while delivering his eulogy, and the national flag and the Order of Temasek which was draped on the casket was given to President S.R. Nathan and later to V.K. Pillay.

The Singapore National Pledge was recited by the mourners in honour of Rajaratnam, who penned down the National Pledge against the backdrop of racial riots in the 1950s and 1960s to inculcate in all Singaporeans his vision of building one united Singapore regardless of race, language or religion.

The state funeral was telecast live on Channel NewsAsia. The programme, called “Farewell to S. Rajaratnam”, aired from 1:30 to 3:15 pm (SST) on February 25, 2006. His body was cremated at 5:00 pm, at Mandai Crematorium.

Organizations with which Rajaratnam was associated in life published obituaries in The Straits Times; these included The Institute of South East Asian Studies, Ceylon Sports Club, Singapore Ceylon Tamils’ Association, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, Nanyang Technological University, Old Rafflesians’ Association, Raffles Institution, Raffles Junior College and Raffles Girl’s School. The Institute of South East Asian Studies noted :

In the words he himself chose, “We are sorry that he has left the Earth.”
We are by far the richer because he was with us. We fondly remember and cherish his humility, his warmth, his scholarship, his vision and his deep and unending love for Singapore and all Singaporeans. Yes, we are truly sorry that he has left the earth.

S. Rajaratnam Legacy

In memory of S. Rajaratnam, the then-unnamed newly constructed 7-storey building in Raffles Institution, his alma mater, was christened as the S. Rajaratnam Block.

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