SINGAPORE - Veteran trade unionist G. Muthukumarasamy, who was the general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Daily Rated Workers, died on Friday (Nov 29).
He was 68.
His children remember him as a unionist first and a father second. The younger of his two sons, Mr M. Kunalan, once came home to find his father in tears.
“He told me his union members finally got their hardship allowance after a long struggle. That was the love he had for his union,” said Mr Kunalan, 38, who was serving national service at the time.
But his passion for union work did not mean he neglected his familial duties, his elder son M. Saravana stressed.
“He was always there for us when we needed, but he also taught us how to be independent,” said Mr Saravana, 42.
Affectionately known as Brother Kumar to many, Mr Muthukumarasamy was being given intravenous antibiotics for a lung infection when his heart stopped suddenly, Mr Kunalan said at his father’s wake on Sunday.
Mr Muthukumarasamy’s sudden death came as a shock to friends and family. They remember him as someone who protected the interests of daily rated and low income workers.
He joined the union as a member in 1992, the same year it was formed, when he was working for the then Public Works Department as a daily rated wireman.
Over the years, he upgraded his skills and later became a senior electrician. He rose quickly through the ranks of the union, becoming its general secretary in 2002.
One of the initiatives he pushed for was funding support for the funerals of union members. Mr Kunalan said his own family is now benefiting as the union has helped to defray the cost of his father’s funeral.
Mr Manickam Perumal, 61, the union’s assistant general secretary and Mr Muthukumarasamy’s childhood friend, was at the wake, held at the void deck of Block 228 Jurong East Street 21 where Mr Muthukumarasamy lived.
Mr Manickam said with a laugh that his friend took up his first leadership position at age 15 as the captain of a football team called the Toh Tuck Rangers.
“The friendships kept some of us away from bad company. He really looked out for us and supported everyone.”
Mr K. Raman, the union’s current general treasurer, said one of Mr Muthukumarasamy’s unrealised goals was to lift the average wage of the union’s 500 or so members to $2,000 a month.
Currently, most of them earn about $1,600 a month on average doing jobs like cleaning and maintenance work for government agencies and statutory boards.
“He taught me not to ever give up. I will fight for this with my team,” Mr Raman added.
Also at the wake on Sunday were Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, Law Minister K. Shanmugam, labour MPs Zainal Sapari and Seah Kian Peng, and MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling, who is a trustee of the union.
Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu attended on Saturday, along with National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ng Chee Meng and deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How.
In a condolence letter to Mr Muthukumarasamy’s wife, Mr Ng and NTUC president Mary Liew said his contributions to the labour movement over the past 27 years were “numerous and enormous”.
The letter noted that he believed that training is the key to improving lives.
It added that he successfully persuaded daily rated workers from statutory boards to upgrade their skills when the Government launched the National Skills Recognition System in 2000.
Mr Muthukumarasamy also helped employees of the National Environment Agency (NEA) embrace changes after their jobs were redesigned in 2008.
After undergoing a Workforce Skills Qualification course in Environmental Services, the workers improved their skills and enjoyed increased wages of more than 20 per cent, the letter noted.
He was also a believer in tripartism, encouraging unions to work with employers and the Government for the betterment of workers. The idea came from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Muthukumarasamy recalled in a eulogy for Mr Lee in 2015.
“If the three of you work together, the management would be good. If you three fight amongst yourselves, it won’t be right. Sit down, think carefully and work together,” he had said in Tamil, quoting the late Mr Lee.
In 2017, he was also part of the election team for President Halimah Yacob, who called him a “very good friend” and praised his passion for and commitment to the welfare of low income workers.
Madam Halimah attended his wake on Saturday and later said in a Facebook post: “He was a passionate and dedicated leader, working tirelessly for the lower income workers.
"Through his work, he had raised the profile of the union and introduced benefits such as bursaries for his members’ children to help uplift their lives.”
Mr Muthukumarasamy had been unwell for some time but “plodded on with his union work”, Madam Halimah noted.
“The labour movement has lost a strong and dedicated leader but his contributions will be remembered. Rest in peace, Brother Kumar. You’ve done well for the workers. It’s time for you to rest.”
Mr Muthukumarasamy was cremated on Sunday at Mandai Crematorium. He is survived by his wife – Madam Rajah Mani S. Manickam – their two sons and two daughters, and four grandchildren.
Correction note: This article has been updated for accuracy.