TL;DR – “Our brother-in-arms, Workers’ keeper, People’s leader”
The Media Advisory from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) reads like this,
Around 750 representatives from the Labour Movement paid our last respects to Mr S R Nathan this morning at the Parliament House. Led by NTUC President Mary Liew and NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing, the group comprised of NTUC Central Committee Members, union leaders from the NTUC affiliated unions and associations, staff of NTUC social enterprises as well as NTUC Admin & Research Unit. NTUC was the first organized group to pay our last respects to Mr S R Nathan.
The photos accompanying the advisory were a lot more powerful than the words.
Over at NTUC’s headquarters on Marina Boulevard, they also put up a banner in tribute and memory of Singapore’s sixth and longest-serving president, Mr SR Nathan.
So why did so many of these unionists gather so early in the morning to be the first to pay their respect to Mr Nathan? What did Mr Nathan mean to the Labour Movement of Singapore?
They even called him Brother.
Can you think of countries like that? You probably would be quite hard-pressed to think of many, if any, of such countries like that today. But back in the 1960s, many countries were like that. Including Singapore.
Back in the days, many of the labour unions were pro-communist. They were militant. Often violent. Their strikes disrupted lives and cost jobs. Here’s a rather informative account of those not-so-good old days.
In 1955, 275 strikes took place at a cost of close to a million man-days. This situation persisted into the 1960s. Reports also indicated that during the period 21 July 1961 to 31 December 1961, there were 84 strikes in Singapore. That’s like 14 strikes in a month, or yea, EVERY OTHER DAY FOR SIX MONTHS.
One example was the Malayan Textile Mills, which was set up in 1952, and was doing quite well until its workers went on strike for two continuous months. As a result of that strike and many others, the mill lost $1 million between 1957 and 1959. Things came to head when the union launched a 14-day strike. That strike turned violent and damaged the factory. The mill eventually closed down in 1962, destroying the jobs of 386 people, many of whom could not find another job for years.
It was in such tough conditions that Singapore tried to industrialise rapidly. The newly established Economic Development Board (EDB) was trying to attract multinational companies to set up factories here, thereby creating jobs as well as transferring technologies and expertise to Singapore. That was a tall order.
It was against such a backdrop that a young civil servant received a notice to a little-known unit in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). That unit was the Labour Research Unit (LRU). That young civil servant would later become President of Singapore.
He’s Mr SR Nathan.
Risking his life to be a friend of the workers
Along with the notice was a call instructing a young Mr Nathan to meet with the then-Finance Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee. Dr Goh told Mr Nathan: “We knew of the work you are doing and your sympathies for workers. We thought it natural to include you in the team and believed you would agree.”
Dr Goh stressed the gravity of the situation. NTUC’s work then was critical not only in determining Singapore’s economic development, it was also critical in deciding if the communists would be defeated in Singapore. It was, as Dr Goh put it, a “life and death struggle”. Dr Goh was referring to the communist habit of liquidating those who opposed them. Dr Goh said:
“If they win, you and I will be put on the Padang and shot.”
Dr Goh was not joking. He had in mind the conduct of the communists after the end of the war in Malaya and Singapore and after the communist victory in China.
Notwithstanding the risk, Mr Nathan agreed to go to the LRU. His role there included helping unions that had broken away from their pro-communist leaders, as well as workers belonging to any other unions, politically neutral, that needed advice and help in collective bargaining and in disputes awaiting arbitration.
Pioneer starting down the path to an Unusual Labour Movement
In the LRU, Mr Nathan would be involved in helping trade unions draft proposals for wage agreements, with provisions for new wage revisions. Mr Nathan also helped in drafting grievance procedures. Gradually, Mr Nathan found himself to start taking on the role of a trade unionist. He started to help the unions advocate in collective bargaining situations and addressing the issues confronting the unions.
In those days, many union leaders were often hot-headed and were liable to thump tables and make threats. In many cases, Mr Nathan and his colleagues in the LRU were able to persuade such union leaders to lower their temperature and take their advice. Gradually, Mr Nathan and his colleagues in the LRU were able to help unions negotiate base on facts and the merits of their cases rather than through militancy and violence.
This laid the foundation for tripartism and set the NTUC down the path to become a most Unusual Labour Movement.
Mr Nathan left the LRU in 1965. But he remained a member of the LRU’s governing board and a trustee of NTUC until he left for a diplomatic assignment to Malaysia in 1988. He continued to work in several research roles as a trustee of NTUC. The most important was to prepare for the landmark event for the Labour Movement – the 4-day Modernisation Seminar in 1969.
This was the turning point for NTUC and Mr Nathan was pivotal in reshaping the Labour Movement from that of antagonistic, adversarial unionism to that of rational discussion of mutual interests. The Labour Movement wanted to be an active part of nation-building, and it was also during that time that the idea of Tripartism was mooted.
For that seminar, Mr Nathan wrote a paper on the ‘Standardisation of Subscriptions’ and chaired the workshop when the conference was called. Mr Nathan’s paper laid the foundation for the NTUC to have enough finances to develop manpower resources at all levels both for the execution of policies and to provide leadership in the organisational and other activities of the Labour Movement. More importantly, the paper’s recommendations, which were eventually implemented, allowed NTUC to gain financial autonomy and independence from the government.
Mr Nathan’s role, both in the LRU and in preparing for the Modernization Seminar, helped to make NTUC into what it is today: an Unusual Labour Movement, that is a steadfast partner in the development of today’s Singapore, contributing to the progress of Singapore and its workers.
No wonder they called him Brother.
The NTUC Journey
Mr Lee Kuan Yew explaining the ties that bind
SR Nathan: From Kampung Boy to President
SR Nathan: Big Man, Little Stories
Why you need to know these 5 groups who paid respects to SR Nathan