PM Lee pays tribute to late veteran unionist Cyrille Tan in condolence letter

Veteran unionist Cyrille Tan, who died on Nov 10 at the age of 67.
Veteran unionist Cyrille Tan, who died on Nov 10 at the age of 67.PHOTO: NTUC

SINGAPORE - The late veteran unionist Cyrille Tan Soo Leng had dedicated his life to serving the labour movement and Singapore, and touched the lives of many, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

His passing is a deep loss to the labour movement and Singapore, Mr Lee wrote in a condolence letter to Mr Tan's wife Joanna which was made public on Tuesday (Nov 14).

Mr Tan, a retired National Trades Union Congress vice-president, died on Friday at the age of 67. He and his wife have two sons.

He was hospitalised after a heart attack last week (Nov 6) and was discharged on Friday, but he stopped breathing shortly after returning home and could not be revived, Lianhe Zaobao reported. His body was cremated on Tuesday (Nov 14).

In his letter, PM Lee recounted Mr Tan's career in the labour movement, which began in 1981 when he joined the United Workers of Electronic and Electrical Industries (UWEEI) and spanned about 30 years.

Mr Tan was elected president of UWEEI in 1984 before becoming its general secretary in 1990, a position he served in for 22 years.

The union grew in strength and numbers under his leadership, and remains one of Singapore's largest unions today, PM Lee noted.

PM Lee said he had the privilege of working with Mr Tan when he was adviser to the union, which has 125 branches and represents workers in an industry "prone to cyclical ups and downs".

"I learnt much by observing his astute management of union affairs," said PM Lee, adding that Mr Tan led the union through difficult times, including the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis.

Mr Tan was also elected to the NTUC central committee, where he served first as secretary for financial affairs in 1994, and later vice-president till 2011.

"He was well liked and respected by brothers and sisters throughout the labour movement, because of his sincerity, passion and empathy," PM Lee said.

The Prime Minister added that he had many discussions with Mr Tan on labour issues, and always valued his opinions.

"He knew what the workers needed, had a shrewd assessment of how policies would be received by the workers, and also appreciated the broader national picture," PM Lee said.

This allowed Mr Tan to work closely with workers and the Government, to advance workers' interests and help carry through policies that benefited them, PM Lee added.

When he served as Nominated MP from 1997 to 1999, Mr Tan continued to advocate for the labour movement and pushed hard for unions to broaden their representation to include managers and executives, PM Lee said.

For his contributions, Mr Tan was conferred the Public Service Medal in 1999 and the Public Service Star in 2006.

PM Lee recalled how Mr Tan acted as himself during a musical that NTUC put up to celebrate May Day in 2007.

"Even those who knew his affable and gregarious personality were surprised by his performance in the musical, but this was a role which he deeply believed in, and had played with conviction all his life," PM Lee said.

He also said he was very sorry that he could not pay his last respects to Mr Tan in person, as he is currently in Manila for the Asean summit.

"I hope this letter conveys some of what I feel at this sorrowful moment. My thoughts are with you and your family as we mourn the loss of Brother Cyrille," he said.

NTUC president Mary Liew and secretary-general Chan Chun Sing said in a condolence letter to Mr Tan's wife on Saturday (Nov 11) that Mr Tan understood the needs of the man on the street and, as a leader, the need to protect and advance those interests.

"Brother Cyrille was selfless to the cause and as his family, you were selfless in sharing him with us. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts," they said.

Fellow union leaders remember Mr Tan as an easygoing and likeable person who was always there for union members.

Former NTUC president John De Payva, 68, who knew Mr Tan for more than 30 years, said he could communicate easily with unionists, management staff and government officials alike.

"If he wanted to be a little cheeky he'll go into Singlish mixed with his Hokkien, it puts people at ease," he said, adding that tripartite functions were often lively occasions with Mr Tan as emcee, as he would regale the audience with stories and songs.

UWEEI general secretary Tan Richard, 52, who took over the position in 2012, said he is grateful for Mr Tan's mentorship.

"He advised me to push retrenched workers to go for training, instead of being stagnant which makes it hard for them to find work later. He said, 'The job won't find you, you have to look for the job'," said the younger Mr Tan.

Under the late Mr Tan's watch, the UWEEI used investments to generate funding for union initiatives such as bursaries and hardship grants for members.

"Till today our financials are very strong," said Mr Tan Richard.

He added: "There's still more to do. I have to do my best to bring the union to greater heights, I cannot let him down."