Unions had to find ways to help achieve Singapore's survival

Retired union leader Tan Soon Yam believes unions are just as important today in protecting workers' rights and improving their lives as they were in the 1960s, when the labour situation was chaotic.
Retired union leader Tan Soon Yam believes unions are just as important today in protecting workers' rights and improving their lives as they were in the 1960s, when the labour situation was chaotic.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

As a young union leader in the late 1960s, the first concern for Mr Tan Soon Yam was employment security for workers, and how to improve their working conditions and wages.

In those times, it could take six months to two years to get a new job, he said. Many were laid off as a result of the pullout of the British armed forces after Singapore's independence.

The labour situation in the preceding years was also very chaotic, with a lot of strikes, he said.

Mr Tan, 79, was then a storekeeper in the Malayan Refrigerating Company and the general secretary of the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union, a position he held for nearly four decades until 2005.

He represented workers in hotels and food factories in negotiations with employers, and fought with other unions for the right to represent workers in various hotels.

He went into the National Trades Union Congress' modernisation seminar in 1969 hoping that it would set the tone to assure workers and improve the economy.

"The seminar was a start towards achieving Singapore's success and survival," he said.

"We had to find ways and means to harmonise the industrial scene."

 
 
 

At the seminar held from Nov 16 to Nov 19 at the Singapore Conference Hall, union leaders decided on a new approach for labour in Singapore - going from confrontation to cooperation at the workplace and setting up cooperatives to provide affordable essential goods and services for Singaporeans.

Now, 50 years later, Mr Tan believes unions are just as important in protecting workers' rights and improving their lives.

"If there are no trade unions, employers would be at liberty to hire and fire. Do you think conditions would be as good as they are now?"

He sees Singapore's tremendous progress as proof of the modernisation seminar's success.

"I feel relieved. I have done my responsibility, I'm part of the team that's done the job," he said.

Correction note: An earlier version of this article referred to Mr Tan as Mr Ng. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2019, with the headline 'Unions had to find ways to help achieve Singapore's survival'. Print Edition | Subscribe