NTUC Secretaries-General Over 60 Years

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By Nicolette Yeo

It has been said that “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”. The NTUC Secretaries-General over the years may have come from different walks of life, but each possessed the same ability to convert their ideas into better wages, welfare and work prospects for our workers.

With NTUC turning 60 this year, we honour the ten labour chiefs for their exemplary work in standing shoulder to shoulder with unionists, management partners and tripartite partners all these years to ensure that every worker matters.

#1 CV Devan Nair: The Founding Father

Years in office: 1961-1965, 1970-1979
Devan Nair is a founding member of the NTUC who committed 20 years of his life to build and grow the Labour Movement and its co-operatives.

Most significant contributions:

  • Helped to found NTUC in 1961. He was credited with gaining the vital support of workers for the newly-formed NTUC, converting them from the militant and aggressive brand of trade unionism advocated by the communist-inspired unions.
  • Played a pivotal role in modernising and expanding the Labour Movement in 1969.
  • Initiated the establishment of NTUC Income, as well as NTUC Comfort and Welcome Co-operatives.

What his contribution means for you:

Are you facing issues at work? You can turn to a union for help.

Thanks to Devan Nair’s founding of NTUC, there are around 60 unions today that exist to help improve your working conditions as well as enhance your economic and social status at the workplace.

S T Nayagan, second from right

#2 ST Nayagan: The Loyal Supporter

Years in office: 1965 to 1966
Apart from taking on the top job, Nayagan had a long association with unions, and served in various capacities within the Labour Movement.

Most significant contributions:

  • Served in various areas in NTUC which included international affairs, research and training, organisation and administration, as well as welfare and social programmes.

What his contribution means for you:

Know of any needy workers or families? You can refer them to NTUC for help.

Nayagan’s efforts in supporting welfare and social programmes may have enabled NTUC to serve the more vulnerable workers in the workforce.

#3 Ho See Beng: The Fearless Fighter

Years in office: 1966 to 1967
One of the founding members of the NTUC, Ho dedicated a big part of his life’s work to fighting for the labour cause. He is also sometimes referred to as an architect of tripartism.

Most significant contributions:

  • Helped to found NTUC in 1961.
  • Laid the foundation for tripartism after putting up a case with other pioneer leaders for a more rational Employment Bill in 1968.
  • Persuaded workers to accept change in labour laws in order to attract foreign investments that would help Singapore prosper.
  • Played a pivotal role in modernising and expanding the Labour Movement in 1969.

What his contribution means for you:

Do you work in a foreign company and have a good salary and benefits?

With Ho’s support, the Employment Bill in 1968 sought to attract foreign investments. Over the years, foreign companies have helped create many jobs for Singaporeans like you; and continue to do so today.

#4 Francis Seah Mui Kok: The Pioneer Unionist

Years in office: 1967 to 1970
Seah was a veteran unionist who founded unions and helped to modernise the Labour Movement.

Most significant contributions:

  • Helped to found the Shell Employees’ Union in 1955 and the United Workers of Petroleum Industry in 1961.
  • Became member of parliament from 1968 to 1984.
  • Defined the role of the Labour Movement in 1969 and mapped out its programmes for the next decade.

What his contribution means for you:

Do you work in the oil and petroleum industry? Then you would be glad to know that the Shell Employees’ Union and United Workers of Petroleum Industry founded by Seah are still around today to support you at the workplace.

#5 Lim Chee Onn: The Workers’ Champion

Years in office: 1979 to 1983
Lim was the first NTUC Secretary-General to be appointed a Minister in the Cabinet. His work is mainly seen in the restructuring and professionalising of unions.

Most significant contributions:

  • Pushed for the training and re-training of workers as exemplified by the BEST programme.
  • Restructured the omnibus unions of the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation and Pioneer Industries Employees’ Union into nine industrial unions.
  • Brought the first wave of professionalism into the unions by inducting university graduates and talent into NTUC.

What his contribution means for you:

Did you participate in the BEST programme or know someone who has? Then you would know how it has helped people stay employable.

The programme initiated by Lim helped workers without secondary education learn basic levels of English and Mathematics, so that they could attend skills courses.

#6 Ong Teng Cheong: The Firebrand Leader

Years in office: 1983 to 1993
Apart from being known as the first NTUC Secretary-General to sanction a strike, Ong’s impact as a leader can be seen in many other ways, from preserving jobs to developing lifestyle facilities.

Most significant contributions:

  • Focused on the plight of low-income daily-rated workers, particularly during the 1985-1986 recession.
  • Gained workers’ support in accepting wage restraints and a cut in employers’ CPF contribution during the 1985-1986 recession.
  • Sanctioned a strike involving the employees of Hydril, an American company, over its unfair treatment of workers in 1986.
  • Organised a massive membership recruitment drive to reach a 10-year high of 216,000 members in 1991.
  • Pushed for lifestyle facilities such as NTUC Pasir Ris Resort, Aranda Country Club and Orchid Country Club.

What his contribution means for you:

If you’ve visited Orchid Country Club or Downtown East, you may realise that they aren’t just playgrounds of the elite.

Their development, among others, was mooted by Ong so that ordinary Singaporean workers could have a chance to enjoy leisure facilities normally reserved for the rich.

#7 Lim Boon Heng: The Labour Veteran

Years in office: 1993 to 2006
Lim is the longest-serving Secretary-General in NTUC. During his time, he made strides in the areas of wages, membership and skills upgrading.

Most significant contributions:

  • Pushed for training, skills upgrading and job re-design.
  • Called for a flexible wage system in response to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. This saw a shift from seniority-based to performance-based wages.
  • Spearheaded a 10-year membership recruitment drive that reached 473,000 members in 2006. The move to encourage workers from non-unionised companies and non-bargainable workers to join the “General Branch” of union membership drew over 200,000 members into the fold.

What his contribution means for you:

Look at your payslip today and you will notice a component known as the Monthly Variable Component (MVC). This was something suggested by Lim to make our wage system more flexible.

This could make it unnecessary to cut CPF contributions in any future economic downturn unless the situation was very grave.

#8 Lim Swee Say: The Selfless Leader

Years in office: 2007 to 2015
During his eight years as labour chief, Lim focused on enhancing the employment and employability of workers and repositioning the Labour Movement to keep up with changing times.

Most significant contributions:

  • Pushed to enhance the employability of workers, so as to minimise structural unemployment during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
  • Persuaded employers to “cut costs to save jobs” during the global financial crisis of 2008/2009. The government responded with measures to help businesses keep jobs for workers.
  • Repositioned NTUC into an inclusive Labour Movement for all collars, all ages, and all nationalities of workers in Singapore.
  • Grew the membership base from less than 500,000 when he joined to over 850,000 in 2015.
  • Championed initiatives that evolved into policies and programmes at the tripartite level, such as skills redevelopment, job recreation and flexible work arrangements.
  • Implemented a structured leadership renewal plan for union and labour leaders.

What his contribution means for you:

Do you currently have the flexibility to choose your working hours? Or are you working on a part-time arrangement based on your choice?

These are known as flexible work arrangements and were advocated by Lim during his time in NTUC.

#9 Chan Chun Sing: The Industry Transformer

Years in office: 2015 to 2018
Chan took the job at a time where Singapore was undergoing rapid industry transformation. He rose to the challenge by transforming the Labour Movement in tandem with the economy’s transformation.

Most significant contributions:

  • Grew the Labour Movement network to serve all working people in Singapore, including PMEs, workers in small and medium-sized companies, freelancers and self-employed individuals, and migrant workers.
  • Supported industry transformation by working with the network of partners to operationalise the Government’s Industry Transformation Maps from the ground up.
  • Encouraged workers to transform themselves to be ready for the digital workplace by building up adaptive, technology and industry-specific technical skills.

What his contribution means for you:

Are you a freelancer or business owner?

Chan’s push to represent freelancers and self-employed individuals is now helping people like you make freelancing a viable career option. It also gives you a platform to speak up for your rights and working conditions.

#10 Ng Chee Meng: The Diligent Innovator

Years in office: 2018 to present
Ng’s focus has always been to innovate to remain relevant and representative. This can be seen in his efforts to achieve better wage, welfare, work prospects for workers.

Most significant contributions:

  • Introduced the Company Training Committee (CTC) initiative in 2019 to go upstream in working with companies to identify workers’ skills and training needs in tandem with business transformations, thereby supporting workers in achieving better work prospects. To date, over 600 CTCs have been formed.
  • Initiated various efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, such as the NTUC Job Security Council and Fair Retrenchment Framework, working with management to cut costs and save jobs, as well as training and redeployment of workers.
  • Currently focusing on bringing a progressive wage and skills model into sectors such as lift & escalator, and waste management.

What his contribution means for you:

Did you receive help from the Job Security Council to get a new job?

It is an initiative introduced by Ng to quickly place workers like you who lost their jobs due to the pandemic into new ones.

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