By Goh Chin Lian
POLYTECHNIC student Far'ain Jaafar used to think of the President as a ceremonial figure who looked stern on TV.
But yesterday, the 20-year-old was struck by the candour, friendliness and grandfatherly manner displayed by President S R Nathan at a closed-door dialogue he had with 65 young people.
The 84-year-old head of state told them of how a Japanese military officer, during Japan's occupation of Singapore in the 1940s, saw the potential in him.
His teachers then had seen in him only an unkempt boy. But the officer told him he was a bright child and suggested he learn Japanese. He did, and became a translator-interpreter attached to the top official in the Japanese civilian police.
Miss Far'ain told The Straits Times after the hour-long session: 'His teachers did not recognise his potential. His anecdote was a perfect example of the heavy responsibility of a teacher.'
The third-year student in early childhood studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic plans to teach in a kindergarten.
At the dialogue, the participants aged between 16 and 30 also asked Mr Nathan about his role as President, his views on nationhood, and his handling of terrorists who hijacked the passenger ferry Laju in 1974, after failing to blow up oil tanks on Pulau Bukom.
Mr Nathan, then director of the Defence Ministry's Security and Intelligence Department, successfully negotiated the release of the hostages while promising the terrorists safe passage to Kuwait.
He radioed the airport there to say the plane had little fuel left so he could get Kuwait to agree to let it land.
Said Ada Chua, 17, of Raffles Junior College: 'It's rare to meet someone who has had direct contact with terrorists.'
Added undergraduate Mallory Ho, 21, from National University of Singapore: 'I thought of him as James Bond.'
The dialogue is part of a programme to interest youth in policymaking and community work.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on 3 Dec, 2008.