Biography - S.Rajaratnam
S Rajaratnam


S. Rajaratnam was born in 1915 in Jaffna, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and was raised in Seremban, Malaysia, where his father rose from being a supervisor of rubber estates to a plantation owner. He attended the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus for six months and was transferred to St Paul's, a boys' school. He continued his education in the prestigious Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur and then in Raffles Institution, Singapore.

In 1937, He went to King's College, London, to pursue a law degree. There he received his political awakening, became fashionably anti-imperial, anti-British, joined the socialist Left Book Club and became a Marxist.

The lack of communication between London and Malaya during the Second World War meant that Rajaratnam could no longer receive money from his father to continue his education. He therefore turned to journalism to earn a living, never returning to university to complete his degree.

On his return to Singapore in 1948, he joined the Malayan Tribune. In 1950, he was appointed Associate Editor of the Singapore Standard and held that post for four years. He then worked for The Straits Times till 1959. He was the secretary of the Malayan Indian Congress and a founder member of the Singapore Union of Journalists. His writing was clearly of the Left and anti-British, but at the same time he was not for the Communists.

Rajaratnam met Lee Kuan Yew by chance at the Chinese Swimming Club. Recognising that they were both dissatisfied with the prevailing political situation, they arranged to meet to discuss the situation. Rajaratnam became a founding member of the People's Action Party. In 1959, he resigned from The Straits Times to run for the Legislative Assembly seat of Kampong Glam.

S. Rajaratnam is recognised and recognises himself as the theoretician and ideologue of the People's Action Party. In his own words, "the ideas man," "a public relations man… who projects the PAP image."

He is also known as a strong believer in multi-racial Singapore. In 1966, with the 1964 race riots fresh in his mind, he wrote the National Pledge containing the words, "One united people, regardless of race, language or religion."

He also wrote 'PAP's first ten years', published in the 1964 souvenir publication marking the party's tenth anniversary. This account, the first by a minister and founding party member, has become a classic reference for subsequent accounts of Singapore's history of independence.

In Cabinet, Rajaratnam served as Minister for Culture (1959), Minister for Foreign Affairs (1965), Minister of Labour (1968-71) and second Deputy Prime Minister (1973). He was appointed Senior Minister in 1988 after he retired from active politics.

February 22, 2006

The Passing of a Titan

Clement Mesenas

THIS Saturday, he would have turned 91. Instead Singapore's first Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam, the man who gave Singapore a louder voice than its size or geopolitical significance suggested, died yesterday of heart failure.

His last few years had been spent in loneliness as the man with a giant intellect grieved for his beloved Hungary-born wife Piroska, who died in 1989.

His closest relative in Singapore, orthopaedic surgeon, Dr V K Pillay, said his uncle, who had been ill for the last few years and was very frail, died at 3.15pm in his Chancery Lane home.

The body of Mr Rajaratnam will lie in state at the Parliament House from 9.30am tomorrow until noon on Saturday. The public may pay their last respects at the Parliament House until 9pm on Friday, a statement from the Prime Minister's Office said last night. A State Funeral for the family and invited guests will be held at the Esplanade on Saturday.

As a mark of respect, the State Flag on all Government buildings will be flown at half-mast from today until Saturday.

The former journalist was one of the original Big Three of the People's Action Party along with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, now the Minister Mentor, and former finance minister Dr Goh Keng Swee.

Mr Lee, in an interview with Channel NewsAsia last year, said of his old friend: "He had this enormous gift of being self-possessed - friendly, approachable, very personable and he got on with people. I thought he was the one who would represent us best abroad, and he did."

And it was he who phrased the Singapore Pledge, in which his vision of "one united people" shines through.

"If you think of yourself as Chinese, Malays, Indians and Sri Lankans, then Singapore will collapse. You must think of Singapore: 'This is my country.' I fight and die for Singapore if necessary," he said in a speech in 1984.

Born in Sri Lanka in 1915, Mr Rajaratnam was educated at the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur and then Raffles Institution in Singapore. His parents took him to Malaysia when he was an infant.

When he was 22, he went to London to study law at King's College. But he didn't complete his degree and went on to study journalism.

But the 10 years he spent in Britain during World War II helped shaped his anti-colonial stance and when he returned to Singapore, he joined the Singapore Standard, where, in the words of Mr Lee, "he was a tower of strength, writing editorials and forcing the pace in The Straits Times, which was a much bigger newspaper".

"His weapon was the typewriter," recalled Mr Lee. "He loved putting up the drafts of the ideology, which was a group consensus."

It was his presentations that helped make the party's policies understood and acceptable to the people.

But there was one subject on which he and Mr Rajaratnam did not see eye-to-eye. Mr Lee argued that graduate mothers should be offered incentives to have more children and non-graduate mothers less so. Mr Rajaratnam refused to accept this.

Mr Rajartanam, who was the longest serving Member of Parliament for the Kampong Glam constituency, was a man the people grew to love, respect and support for three decades.

He always held his meet-the-people session every Wednesday, 8 p.m., come rain or shine.

Grassroots activist Phua Him Koh recalled "how we would all listen eagerly to Mr Rajaratnam's views on the country's politics - but we could also offer our views and he'd never shoot them down".

Mr Rajaratnam had the ability to simplify ideas. He could relate both to the common man and to the intelligentsia.

He said: "Singapore run only by PhDs would be my vision of a purgatory. Equally, a government run by roadsweepers can be no less a terrifying place to live in."

Yet Mr Rajaratnam, as Singapore's Foreign Minister, was combative and could really fight on the international stage, said Singapore Ambassador to the United States, Professor Chan Heng Chee.

"I think that Mr Rajaratnam has left an imprint on the Foreign Service of Singapore that it is a foreign policy of ideas," she said.

She recalled Mr Rajaratnam as looking very distinguished, there was a sort of quiet elegance about Singapore's No 1 diplomat, well cut without seeming to strive very hard for it.

"And he combined that with an intellect. That was very powerful," said Prof Chan. Yet, in contrast to his hard hitting speeches, he was a very quiet and courteous gentleman and a very warm human being, she said.

Mr Rajaratnam had two brushes with mortality - in 1983 when he had a triple heart bypass operation and in 1989 when his wife of 48 years, Piroska, died after a long illness.

When asked if he was afraid of death, he answered: "No, not death, but how one dies.

"One day before the curtain closes, I'd like to know: Did I do something worthwhile? Will it all vanish?”

And for his epitaph? He suggested: "Here lies a man. We are sorry that he has left the earth".

He paused and added: "So, somebody feels sorry that I have left - and that's good enough."

See also:   The Short Stories of S. Rajaratnam
The not-so-Victorious Return of a Victorian:
Two Weeks in Search of Choice China and/or
Wax Figures in the Tumasik Almeirah under a/the Haze

   Dr T. Wignesan's Victorian (pen-in-cheek) Vignettes X

VI The V.I. Web Page