For nurse and unionist, serving others is in her blood

Ms Chia followed in the footsteps of her parents, becoming a nurse and a unionist. A union leader since 1989, she was NTUC president from 2011 to last year. She received the Distinguished Service award yesterday for her contributions to the labour mo
Ms Chia followed in the footsteps of her parents, becoming a nurse and a unionist. A union leader since 1989, she was NTUC president from 2011 to last year. She received the Distinguished Service award yesterday for her contributions to the labour movement.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

When former NTUC president Diana Chia received one of the labour movement's highest awards yesterday, the person who first set her on this path was not there to see it.

Her father, a former unionist with an insurance firm, died of a brain haemorrhage in 1990, aged 60.

He would never see his eldest daughter become the National Trades Union Congress' first female president in 2011, or accept the Distinguished Service award at yesterday's May Day dinner.

Ms Chia, who has just turned 60 herself, teared up at his memory. She said: "I think he would have been damned proud."

She is single and has two sisters. Their mother, a retired nurse, is 88.

Ms Chia followed in the footsteps of her parents, taking up nursing as her profession and union work as her calling. She said: "From my father, I learnt integrity. My mother taught me tenacity. They're the two most important people in my life."

She became a union leader more than 25 years ago, when she was part of a core team that set up a union in 1989 to represent 2,000 workers in restructured hospitals.

In 1994, she was one of two women elected to NTUC's central committee, its top decision-making body. She was president of NTUC from 2011 to last year.

During her term, she served on various tripartite boards such as the National Wages Council and championed quantitative guidelines recommending built-in wage rises for low-wage workers.

She also urged the Government to allow the Employment Act to cover more professionals, managers and executives.

In her award citation, NTUC described her as "resolute in her efforts to improve workers' lives".

She downplayed her status as a trailblazer for women in the movement. "Somebody had to be the first," she said. "I'm just an ordinary person, paving the way for others to have these opportunities."

She spoke passionately, however, about the rights of working mothers and the importance of flexi-work arrangements. "Working women have a right to a decent job. And as more women go to work, men need to play a bigger role in family upbringing and employers need to make that possible."

She stepped down as president last October, deciding not to seek re-election because of her age. She was succeeded by another woman, former Nominated MP Mary Liew.

Ms Chia remains active in the movement, dashing between renovations at the hospital and union events. She remains general secretary of the Healthcare Services Employees' Union.

She believes the labour movement's greatest challenges ahead are grooming the future leadership and preparing an increasing number of retrenched workers to seek their next job.

"We don't want to wait for the problem to happen. When it does, we want the whole engine of the labour movement to be already there, ready to lift them up."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'For nurse and unionist, serving others is in her blood'. Print Edition | Subscribe