S. Rajaratnam

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Sinnathamby Rajaratnam
சின்னத்தம்பி ராஜரட்ணம்
SRajaratnam smiling.jpg
1st Senior Minister of Singapore
In office
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byOffice created
Succeeded byLee Kuan Yew
Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
In office
Serving with Goh Keng Swee
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byGoh Keng Swee
Succeeded byOng Teng Cheong
Minister for Labour
In office
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Minister for Foreign Affairs
In office
9 August 1965 – 1 June 1980
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byOffice created
Succeeded bySuppiah Dhanabalan
Minister for Culture
In office
3 June 1959 – 9 August 1965
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byOffice created
Succeeded byOthman Wok
Personal details
Sinnathamby Rajaratnam

(1915-02-25)25 February 1915
Jaffna, British Ceylon
Died22 February 2006(2006-02-22) (aged 90)
Political partyPeople's Action Party
Piroska Feher
(m. 1943; died 1989)
ResidenceBukit Timah, Singapore
Alma materKing's College London

Sinnathamby Rajaratnam (Tamil: சின்னத்தம்பி ராஜரட்ணம்), DUT (First Class), (25 February 1915 – 22 February 2006), was a Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 1980–85, a long-serving Minister and member of the Cabinet from 1959–88 and a short story writer. He was one of the pioneer leaders 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 is the S. Rajaratnam block of his alma mater, Raffles Institution.

Early life[edit]

The second child of Sabapathy Pillai Sinnathamby and his wife N. Annamah, both of Tamil descent, Rajaratnam was born in Vaddukoddai (Sithankerny), Yazhpanam, 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. His younger brother S. Seevaratnam was born in Seremban and was a founder member of the Democratic Action Party.

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. In London, Rajaratnam also wrote a series of short stories which The Spectator's J.B. Trend reviewed positively. Rajaratnam also gained the attention of George Orwell who then worked in the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service based in London and recruited Rajaratnam to contribute scripts for the network. Rajaratnam's short stories and radio plays were later published by Epigram Books in The Short Stories & Radio Plays of S. Rajaratnam (2011).[1]

He returned to Singapore in 1948 when he joined the Malayan Tribune and stopped writing short stories. In 1950, he joined Singapore Tiger Standard that was founded by Aw Boon Haw.[2]:119 In 1954, he joined The Straits Times as a journalist. He was bold in writing about the way Singapore was governed by the British.[3] This incurred the displeasure of the colonial government. His column, "I write as I please", attracted so much attention that he was called for questioning by the government.

Political career[edit]

In 1954, Rajaratnam co-founded the People's Action Party together with Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye, 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'. He 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), 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. He built up the Foreign Service and helped to establish diplomatic links with other countries and secure international recognition of the new nation's sovereignty. He 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. In this diplomatic arena together with UN he helped to draw international attention to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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 programmes, 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.[7]

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.[8]

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". He 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.

Later life[edit]

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 1 November 1988 to 31 October 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.


Rajaratnam died on the 22nd of February 2006 as a result of heart failure at his residence in Bukit Timah,[9] Singapore, 3 days before his 91st birthday.[10] As a mark of respect, Mediacorp channels 5 and 8 observed one-minute of silence that night. The State flag on all government buildings was flown at half-mast from 23 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 Tharman Shanmugaratnam paid their last respects at his home. His body lay in state at Parliament House from 9:30am to 9:00pm on 24 February 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 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 S. Vijayaratnam & S. Jothiratnam (nephews & Rajaratnam's closest relatives). 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 25 February 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 Girls' School. The Institute of South East Asian Studies noted:

In the words he himself chose,


Personal life and legacy[edit]

Rajaratnam first met his Hungarian wife Piroska Feher while studying in London and quietly married in 1943. Feher's grandmother was a member of the wealthy Csáky clan who had lost their fortune due to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Piroska, disgruntled by the rise of Nazism, moved to the UK where she worked as an au pair and teacher and eventually met her future husband. Former Hungarian MEP Gyula Hegyi is her nephew.[12]

The couple moved to Malaya at the conclusion of World War II but Rajaratnam's parents disapproved of their new daughter-in-law, even telling her that they would not accept "half-caste" descendants.[13] They did not have any children and remained married until her death in 1989 from pulmonary pneumonia at the age of 75.[14]


The Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) at the Nanyang Technological University was renamed the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies[15] after his death in recognition of his contributions to Singapore's foreign and diplomatic policy.

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.

Launched on 21 October 2014, the S$100-million S. Rajaratnam Endowment was set up by Temasek Holdings to support programmes that foster international and regional cooperation.[16] Its chairman, Wong Kan Seng, said that the values that Rajaratnam stood for as Singapore’s first foreign minister are even more relevant today.[17]

Film Appearances[edit]

S. Rajaratnam is a central character in Two Meetings and a Funeral, a film about the Nonaligned Movement by Naeem Mohaiemen. Rajaratnam's call for developing economies to become technology sufficient, rather than depending on the technology of the west is featured in the film.[18]


  1. ^ "The Short Stories & Radio Plays of S. Rajaratnam". Epigram Books. Archived from the original on 20 September 2014. Retrieved 17 September 2014.
  2. ^ Ng, Irene (2010). The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S. Rajaratnam. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 978-981-4279-52-9 – via Google Book preview.
  3. ^ "1915-2006 Politician". Archived from the original on 10 January 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  4. ^ Chong Guan Kwa, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, S Rajaratnam on Singapore: from ideas to reality. World Scientific, 2006, p.9. text online
  5. ^ "Asean's birth a pivotal point in history of Southeast Asia". The Nation. 6 August 2007. Archived from the original on 14 June 2013.
  6. ^ "Remembering Mr S Rajaratnam". Archived from the original on 10 January 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  7. ^ Adapted from speech by S Rajaratnam, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at a dinner in honour of His Excellency Mr. Hans Dietrich Genscher, Minister for Foreign Affairs, 20 April 1977.
  8. ^ S. Rajaratnam. 1975. "Non-Communist Subversion in Singapore," in: Seah Chee Meow (ed.). Trends in Singapore: Proceedings and Background Papers. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 118.
  9. ^ "S. Rajaratnam". Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  10. ^ "Former DPM Rajaratnam dies at age 90". Channel NewsAsia. 22 February 2006.
  11. ^ The Straits Times, Friday, February 24, 2006, pp. H25-26
  12. ^ "Tribute to my aunt, Mrs Piroska Rajaratnam". The Straits Times. 7 December 2015.
  13. ^ Chew, Emrys (6 October 2010). "The Singapore 'Herstory': From Sophia Raffles to Kwa Geok Choo and Beyond" (PDF). RSIS Commentaries. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
  14. ^ Hussain, Zakir (1 February 2010). "Lest we forget Raja and his ideals". The Straits Times. AsiaOne.
  15. ^ "S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies".
  16. ^ "S Rajaratnam Endowment". Archived from the original on 10 January 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  17. ^ Ng, Kelly (21 October 2014). "S Rajaratnam Endowment to foster international, regional cooperation". MediaCorp. TODAY. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  18. ^ https://www.metropolism.com/en/features/34367_two_meetings_and_a_funeral_naeem_mohaiemen


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
none, post created after self government
Minister for Culture
3 June 1959 – 9 August 1965
Succeeded by
Othman Wok
(post renamed as Minister for Culture and Social Affairs)
Preceded by
none, post created following Independence
Minister for Foreign Affairs
9 August 1965 – 1 June 1980
Succeeded by
S Dhanabalan
Preceded by
Minister for Labour
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Second Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
Succeeded by
Ong Teng Cheong
Preceded by
none, post created
Senior Minister
Succeeded by
Lee Kuan Yew (post vacant until 1990)