Devan Nair

Chengara Veetil Devan Nair BBM (5 August 1923 – 6 December 2005), also known as C. V. Devan Nair and better known simply as Devan Nair, was a Malaysian-Singaporean politician who served as the third president of Singapore from 1981 until his resignation in 1985.[2]

Devan Nair
3rd President of Singapore
In office
23 October 1981  28 March 1985
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byBenjamin Sheares
Succeeded byWee Kim Wee
Secretary-General of the
National Trades Union Congress
In office
Preceded bySeah Mui Kok
Succeeded byLim Chee Onn
In office
Succeeded bySteve Nayagan
Secretary-General of the
Democratic Action Party
In office
11 October 1965  30 July 1967
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byGoh Hock Guan
Secretary-General of the
People's Action Party
of Malaysia
In office
14 August 1965  9 September 1965
Preceded byLee Kuan Yew
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Member of the Singapore Parliament
for Anson
In office
10 February 1979  13 October 1981
Preceded byP. Govindaswamy
Succeeded byJ. B. Jeyaretnam
Member of the Malaysian Parliament
for Bangsar
In office
18 May 1964  20 March 1969
Preceded byV. David
Succeeded byGoh Hock Guan
Personal details
Chengara Veetil Devan Nair

(1923-08-05)5 August 1923
Malacca, Straits Settlements (now Malacca, Malaysia)
Died6 December 2005(2005-12-06) (aged 82)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Cause of deathDementia
Resting placeHamilton, Ontario[1]
Political partyIndependent
Other political
People's Action Party
(1954–1965, 1979–1981)
Democratic Action Party
Malayan Communist Party
(until 1950)
SpouseAvadai Dhanam Lakshimi
Alma materVictoria School
  • Politician
  • trade unionist

Nair was a communist as a young adult, having been affiliated with the Malayan Communist Party. He harboured anti-colonial sentiments and aspired self-determination of Singapore, which was then a British colony. These caused him to be detained by the British colonial authorities in 1951. In 1954, he joined the People's Action Party, which was more leftist at the time. He was detained again in 1956, and remained so until the PAP won the 1959 general election and helped secure his release.

During his parliamentary career, Nair was the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Malaysian constituency of Bangsar between 1964 and 1969 and for the Singapore constituency of Anson between 1979 and 1981. Prior to his presidency, Nair was Secretary-General of the People's Action Party of Malaya prior to Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia, and continued to serve after the expulsion under its new name Democratic Action Party (DAP) until 1967.

Back in Singapore, Nair echoed his leftist beliefs by becoming involved in the labour movement, serving as Secretary-General of the National Trade Union Congress between 1970 and 1979. Nair lived out his final years in Hamilton, Canada, when he died there at the age of 82 of dementia.

Early life and education

Born on 5 August 1923 in Malacca, Nair was the son of a rubber plantation clerk, Illathu Veettil Karunakaran Nair, who was originally from Thalassery, Kerala, India.

Nair and his family migrated to Singapore when he was ten years old and he received his primary education at Rangoon Road Primary School before enrolling into Victoria School for his secondary education where he passed his Senior Cambridge examination in 1940.[2]

After the Second World War, Nair became a teacher at St Joseph's Institution and later, at St Andrew's School. In 1949, he became General-Secretary of the Singapore Teachers' Union.[2] His disdain for colonial rule was apparent in those days, as he changed the lyrics of Rule Britannia to anti-British ones in a school choir performance before a British guest-of-honour.[3]


Anti-imperialism beliefs

Initially, a member of the Communist Anti-British League, he joined Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party (PAP) in 1954. Nair had been detained in 1951 by the British for anti-colonial activities. In 1955, Nair contested the 1955 Singaporean general election but lost—becoming the only PAP candidate who did not get elected.[4]

In 1956, he was detained again under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance Act together with trade unionists Lim Chin Siong and James Puthucheary as suspected communist subversives after the Chinese middle schools riots.[4] Nair was released in 1959 when the PAP won the 1959 Singaporean general election in a landslide victory. He was subsequently appointed political secretary to the Minister for Education. He returned to teaching after a year. In 1960, he became Chairman of the Prisons Inquiry Commission and launched the Adult Education Board.[2]

Joining the People's Action Party

He was the only PAP member contested in the 1964 Malaysian general election and won Bangsar, near Kuala Lumpur. This contrasted with his 1955 election defeat. He stayed in Malaysia after the separation, forming the Democratic Action Party (DAP),[5] but returned to Singapore to lead the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the labour union movement which he helped to established in 1961. Nair and P. P. Narayanan were advocates for the concerns of developing countries and voiced their concerns at the ICFTU as they saw economic and social policy documents that were biased towards industrialized nations. They wanted greater attention paid to extreme poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment of their countries. These proposals were accepted and later reflected in the work of ICFTU's Economic and Social Committee.[6]


He entered the Parliament of Singapore in 1979 by winning the Anson seat in a by-elections and retained the seat in the 1980 general election, but resigned the seat in 1981 to accept the largely ceremonial office of President.[7] This resulted in a by-elections of the Anson seat which was then won by opposition leader J. B. Jeyaretnam, the first time in Singapore since 1963 when an opposition party candidate won a parliamentary seat.


On 28 March 1985, Nair suddenly resigned in unclear circumstances.[8] Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong stated in Parliament that Nair resigned to get treatment for his alcoholism, a charge Nair hotly denied.[9] According to Nair's counterclaim, he resigned under pressure when their political views came into conflict and Goh threatened him during a game of chess to oust him as president. Nair also alleged that he was fed drugs to make him appear disoriented and that rumours were spread about his personal life in an attempt to discredit him.

However, Nair's claims were never substantiated. In 1999, an article about the case in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail resulted in a libel suit by Goh.[10] Some claimed that the suit was thrown out of court after Nair's counterclaim.[11] However, in a letter to The New York Times, it is said that Goh agreed to discontinue the suit only when two of Nair's sons issued a statement, reported in The Globe and Mail on 1 July 2004, maintaining that Nair was no longer mentally competent to give evidence in court.[12] The Globe and Mail statement concluded that "having reviewed the records, and on the basis of the family's knowledge of the circumstances leading to Mr. Nair's resignation as President of Singapore in March 1985, we can declare that there is no basis for this allegation (of Mr. Nair being drugged)."[13]

Death and legacy

After his resignation as President, Nair and his wife migrated first to the United States in 1988 where they settled in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Then later they moved to Bloomington, Indiana. The couple later moved to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where they lived for the rest of their lives. His wife, Avadai Dhanam Lakshimi, died on 18 April 2005 in Hamilton, whilst Nair, who had developed severe dementia, died on 6 December of the same year as his wife in Hamilton, Canada.[14][15]

Devan Nair Institute

Despite his unorthodox end to Singaporean politics, his legacy remains highly respected in Singapore, especially in regards to his association with the labour movement. The Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability located in Jurong East was opened on 1 May 2014 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to recognise his contributions to the labour movement when he was Secretary-General of National Trades Union Congress.[16] The goal of the institution is to establish a network for workers and employers seeking employment and employability solutions in Singapore. [16]


Nair is survived by his daughter, three sons, and five grandchildren.

His eldest son, Janadas Devan,[17] was a senior editor with The Straits Times and is currently Chief of Government Communications at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and also a director at the public policy think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). Janadas Devan is married to literary scholar Geraldine Heng.

His second son, Janamitra Devan, was the former Vice-President of the International Finance Corporation,[17][18] and the World Bank.

His third son, Janaprakash Devan died in 2009.[17]

His only daughter, Vijaya Kumari Devan continues to reside in Hamilton, Ontario.[17][19]


  1. Independent, The (11 April 2016). "Of best friends, bitter foes and the bane of sailing through a fog".
  2. "Mr Devan Nair". Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 8 March 2016.
  3. "Devan Nair: He formed and led the NTUC". AsiaOne. Retrieved 19 August 2017.
  4. "Who's Who - The Top 15 Names". The Straits Times. 28 October 1956. Retrieved 19 August 2017.
  5. Woon, Leven. "". MToday News Sdn. Bhd. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
  6. Munck, Ronaldo (2004). Labour and globalisation: results and prospects. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-85323-817-1. OCLC 897033047.
  7. Singh, Bajinder Pal. "Thailand's Indians hope for stability, peace after coup". Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
  8. John, Alan (29 March 1985). "President resigns". The Straits Times. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  9. "Obituary:Devan Nair, 82, ex-president of Singapore". The New York Times. 8 December 2005. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 19 August 2017.
  10. "SW: Former president Nair criticises suppression of dissent". Archived from the original on 2 January 2017. Retrieved 18 November 2010.
  11. "Lee v. Globe and Mail (Nair v. Lee)". 1 November 2006. Archived from the original on 1 November 2006.
  12. "Letters:Devan Nair". New York Times. 22 December 2005. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  13. "Former Singapore leader stricken by illness". Archived from the original on 17 April 2016. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  14. "Obituary:Devan Nair, 82, ex-president of Singapore". The New York Times. 8 December 2005. Retrieved 11 December 2018.
  15. Singh, Daljit; Salazar, Lorraine Carlos (2006). Southeast Asian Affairs 2006. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 279. ISBN 978-981-230-373-8.
  16. "Devan Nair Institute opens". Archived from the original on 19 July 2018. Retrieved 19 July 2018.
  17. "Growing up in the President's shadow". my paper. Archived from the original on 11 August 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
  18. "Management Team - Janamitra Devan". Archived from the original on 25 March 2012. Retrieved 9 December 2020.
  19. "Devan Nair helped shape Singapore". Asian Pacific Post. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
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