CV Nathan

There is a famous Tamil song, “ The love from a mother tansforms one into a learned man” which comes to mind when we listen to Mr C V Nathan’s lifestory. Mr Nathan is a living example of the impact and influence parents and relatives have on the thinking and outlook of a young man in his growing years. Mr Nathan recalls that he watched with keen interest his parents’ involvement in social activities and charity work. Mr Nathan’s father, Mr U Sellapan, was a porter in the government quarters those days and was already quite revolutionary in his thinking and was independent minded. One example of this was the fact that he neither smoked nor consumed alcohol unlike many of his co-workers who often indulged. He recalls that what stuck deeply in his mind was that his mother always gave food to those who were hungry. He says that the humanity shown by his parents left a deep impression on him which lead to his joining the trades union and doing community work.

Mr A Manickam, his maternal uncle, was an accomplished speaker. He was well known in Alexandra, Anderson and Tiong Bahru for his oratorical skills and for his contributions to the Tamil language, he was bestowed the title ‘The protector of Tamil’. Nathan was intrigued and inspired by his uncle’s love for the language. However, he never had the opportunity to pursue and learn Tamil formally as the schools he attended, were one by one, closed or merged, and the schools he moved to, unfortunately did not offer Tamil.

When Nathan was 25, his father slowly started losing his sight and subsequently became bedridden. As Nathan knew that his dad liked reading ‘Tamil Murasu’, he started reading the news to him daily. Though he struggled at first, slowly he improved his grasp of the Tamil language and was soon composing poems in his mother tongue.


“Wherever I saw a book or even a piece of paper with Tamil words in it, I would definitely read what was in it.”

He was enlisted into active duty for national service when he was 18 years old. His exemplary behaviour, strong sense of responsibility and the camaraderie he developed with his fellow soldiers, lead to rapid promotions in the army and within 12 years he was appointed as Assistant Commandant.

In 1970, he joined Jurong Shipyard. His immediate supervisor at the shipyard was so impressed with his command of English that he invited Mr Nathan to join the executive committee of the Shipyard Workers Union. Not long after, he stood for elections for Union Leader and won with a decisive majority. He continued to serve as a Union leader for 45 years.

He fought with courage and conviction for workers’ rights. He treated his fellow workers with utmost respect and was concerned for their needs and was able to relate to how they felt about issues. As a result he was able to improve significantly the relationship between the management and the workers. One example of this was when he successfully persuaded the management to set up a Union Fund. This fund served the workers in many ways. It was used to support the studies of the children of workers; it was also used to help workers who were in straitened circumstances; and for the funeral expenses of families of workers who suffered bereavement. These good practices he established continue to this day.


“They call me mafia because I do not fear anyone.”

In 1980, he joined the Jurong Co-operative Society and also became a member of SASCO. At that time, many low income families struggled to provide care for their elderly when the adult members of the family had to go to work. Mr Nathan realised that if a way could be found for these families to look after the elderly, the caregiver could then go to work and earn much needed income. Seeing this, he started a Home for the Elderly in Block 30 at Telok Blangah. Today, in addition to the Home, there are 3 day care facilities which have benefited about 200 senior citizens. To do all this, he has often canvassed the wealthy for financial support. He has also used the SASCO Co-operative funds as well as a portion of the income from the Shipyard, to run childcare facilities and classes for upgrading. He has also sought funds from the government to support these various programmes.


"It is a result of a desire to help these low wage workers and their families.”

Mr Nathan says that our government renders much help to the needy and praises the government for being amongst the best in the world. He says that he had been an ardent fan of the speeches of Mr Lee Kuan Yew since he was 11. However, he does concede that just like two sides of a coin, some policies may suit some people while others may disagree.

He feels that his wife is truly a blessing as she has not questioned once, the countless hours he has spent on social work. She has been patient, understanding, caring and believed in what he was doing and his heavy involvement would not have been possible without her support. His daughter, Neeshalini, who works as a teacher in a school for children with learning disabilities, cites the example her father set her, as the reason why she chose this challenging but fulfilling career.

"Every human being must be able to understand and practice humanity.”

We at 50 faces are indeed proud to tell the story of this man who has shown us how his parents’ imbued him with a strong sense of community and how this has translated to effort, endeavour and great contribution to society.

As we wrapped up the interview, Mr Nathan decided to share a poem specially dedicated to the youth of tomorrow.


"Young lions eagerly and enthusiastically run and play. With similar attributes, may you help to develop the Tamil language.”


A dedication to the pioneers in the Indian community.

50Faces brings your stories of ordinary Singaporeans who have contributed to our community and nation building.