Union Leader Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab: From Reluctant Union Leader to Passionate Nominated Member of Parliament

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By Ian Tan Hanhonn

For 60 years, union leaders have been at the forefront of taking care of workers’ wages, welfare and work prospects. This article is one of a 11-part series where union leaders from various industries give insights into what matters to them and workers on the ground.

It seems that in the Labour Movement, we are not short of leaders who may not have seen their own propensity to stand up for their fellow workers.

As with my previous interview with the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees General Secretary Sanjeev Tiwari, 49-year-old Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab (Brother Samad) is yet another union leader who was identified by his peers to best represent the workers of the Union of Power and Gas Employees (UPAGE).

The UPAGE general secretary shared that he was not even interested to join the union when he first began his career in the power and gas sector in 1995. But in 2003, he was persuaded by a senior union leader to give it a shot.

He recalled: “I am not sure if I was convinced or confused by an old union leader. He told me ‘Young boy, just join the union as member lah.’ Out of respect for the man, I just signed up.”

Then in 2006, he was elected to be a union leader, and subsequently an executive council member of UPAGE in 2010.

Today, beyond his position in the union, Brother Samad is also, the NTUC Oil, Petrochemical, Energy and Chemical (OPEC) Cluster Chairman, a Central Committee Member at NTUC, one of the three Vice-Presidents of NTUC, and most recently, a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) representing the unions in Singapore.

The OPEC Cluster

Many sectors have all been affected by the pandemic over the past nearly two years, and the OPEC cluster is no exception.

Around November last year, both Shell and Chevron announced plans to streamline their local workforce by some 38 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Then more recently in March this year, ExxonMobil announced that they would be cutting some 300 positions from its workforce in Singapore by the end of the year.

But as the retrenchments were not immediate, Brother Samad said that the unions within the cluster still have some runway to turn things around for those affected.

He said: “Every union leader is sensitive whenever retrenchments come to mind. But if they [retrenchments] are planned early, then it gives us [the unions] leeway to re-train workers.”

Stating that retrenchments could happen to anyone, he spoke fervently about the need for workers to always upgrade themselves, so that when the need arises, they will be ready to seize their next career opportunities.

“With or without COVID, retrenchments will happen,” he said.

“But what separates our unions with others internationally, is that we prep our workers early so that they can transit as soon as possible.”

When asked about the viability of a career in the energy sector, Brother Samad believes that renewable energy will be the game changer for the sector.

He said: “Nowadays we hear about different kinds of energy coming in. You have renewables, you have solar, and then you have battery storage systems. I am from SP Group, and we started to identify this three years ago, that the energy landscape is going to change.”

However, with that said, he still believes that there will still be demand for traditional power generation, and hence workers will still be needed.

“Even if we have renewable energy from Laos or Malaysia, we must never be dependent on third party [for energy]. Even if we diversify our sources, we must have our own power generation capabilities within Singapore,” he said.

On workers remaining a relevant contributor to the workforce, Brother Samad said: “The world is going to evolve. COVID has taught us that nothing is permanent. I don’t think before COVID that anyone ever thought that the airline industry will be so badly hit; if it can happen to SIA, it can happen to any company.

“As workers, we must never be indebted to one company. You must always find new ways to improve yourself as an individual, so that you can be an asset to the company … Technology is going to be the game changer. Whether we like it or not, we need to live with it. Just like the Government says that we need to live with COVID, we need to live with technology.”

Being a Nominated Member of Parliament

Brother Samad recently started to gain more Internet notoriety, and that was largely to a closing statement made by an opposition party in Parliament.

Calling NTUC the “weak link” in Singapore’s tripartism efforts, Brother Samad rose to ardently defend what the congress stood for.

He went: “I’m not so sure what’s the right word to use. When you said about NTUC not doing workers’ justice, I take it very badly because I am a walking union leader … We’re not [completely] represented when we talk about FairPrice, that’s talking about trying to mitigate the cost of living compared to other merchants, but we are a holistic institution that upholds every worker – who needs to be paid due respect for what they have contributed to the company.”

To get further clarity on the matter, I asked him once more if the member had a point; that NTUC was truly the weakest link in our tripartism.

“I would say no,” he replied with certainty.

“Why? Because we are doing what we are supposed to do, and [that goes for] every union leader within NTUC. What we are lacking that makes people give that statement is that we don’t show what we do. Typical of unionists, we are not here to play to the gallery.

“So perhaps it is about time that NTUC and all union leaders keep sharing via whatever platform, what they have been doing for their members and the workforce. Don’t be silent because if you are silent, nobody will know [what it is that we do].”

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