Our Journey

Biography

Born 1969 Chan Chun Sing

 
 

Chan Chun Sing was born in Singapore and was educated at Raffles Institution, Raffles Junior College and the University of Cambridge. A President’s and Singapore Armed Forces Scholar, he served in the Singapore Army from 1987 to 2011 where he rose to the rank of Major-General and was Chief of Army (2010–2011). He entered politics in 2011, becoming Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency under the PAP ticket.

He was then appointed Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports and Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts. Thereafter, he took on several other appointments before being promoted to full Minister in 2013. In 2015, he joined the NTUC as Deputy Secretary-General, and then as Secretary-General, a post he held till 2018 when he was appointed Minister for Trade and Industry.

1923 – 2005 CV Devan Nair

 
 

Devan Nair Chengara Veetil was born in Malacca, the son of a rubber plantation clerk. He and his family migrated to Singapore when he was 10 years old and he was educated at Rangoon Road Primary School and Victoria School. He started working life as a school teacher, first at St Joseph’s Institution, and then at St Andrew’s School. In 1949 he became General Secretary of the Singapore Teachers’ Union.

Devan was detained for anti-colonial activities under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance in 1956, alongside Lim Chin Siong and James Puthucheary. He was released in 1959, following the PAP’s election victory.

In 1961, he helped establish the NTUC after the old STUC was de-registered and the pro-Barisan unions established SATU. Between 1964 and 1969, Devan was also Member of Parliament for Bangsar Constituency in Malaysia.

After his return to Singapore in 1969, he once again became NTUC Secretary-General in 1970, a position he continued to occupy till 1979 when he was appointed President of NTUC. That year, he contested and won the Anson by-election under the PAP ticket and became a Member of Parliament. He resigned the seat two years later when he was appointed the third President of Singapore. Devan resigned as President in 1985 and migrated to Canada, where he died in 2005.

1923 – 1998 Francis Seah Mui Kok

 
 

Seah Mui Kok was born in Singapore and educated at the Anglo-Chinese School. His education was interrupted by the Japanese Occupation. After the War, he worked briefly for the British Military Administration before getting a job with Shell as a clerk and was instrumental in establishing the Shell Employees’ Union in 1955, serving as its Secretary from its founding till 1959.

He also formed the United Workers of Petroleum Industry (UWPI) in 1961 and served as its General Secretary till he retired from Shell in 1978. From 1967 to 1970, Seah served as Secretary-General of the NTUC. He stood for election on the PAP ticket in 1968 and was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Bukit Ho Swee, a position to which he was successively re-elected till 1984. From 1970 to 1977, Seah also served as a Director of NTUC Comfort. Seah died in 1998.

Born 1941 Goh Chok Tong

 
 

Goh Chok Tong was born in Singapore and educated at Raffles Institution, the University of Singapore, and Williams College. He returned to Singapore and joined the Administrative Service. In 1969, he was seconded to national shipping line, Neptune Orient Lines as Planning and Projects Manager. By 1973, he had risen to become the company’s Managing Director.

He entered politics in 1976 when he was elected Member of Parliament for Marine Parade Constituency under the PAP ticket. He rose quickly within the PAP echelon and served as Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister for Health and Minister for Defence. In 1985, he was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister, and in 1990, he succeeded Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister. Goh stepped down as Prime Minister in 2004.

As Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister, he was instrumental in working closely with the NTUC to get worker support for wage adjustments and CPF cuts during the recessions of 1985–1986 and 1997–1998. During the NTUC May Day Rally speech in 1990, Goh announced that the Government would build the NTUC a brand new home in Marina South, then a newly-reclaimed land parcel where ‘a future city of excellence will rise’.

It was important that NTUC should be there, among its pioneers, just as it had been in Shenton Way, in the 1960s. It was thus fitting that Goh opened the NTUC’s new headquarters in One Marina Boulevard in 2004.

Born 1954 Halimah Yacob

 
 

Halimah Yacob was born in 1954 and was educated at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, Tanjong Katong Girls’ School and then at the University of Singapore where she graduated with a law degree. She joined the NTUC as an Industrial Relations Officer and in 1995 became Director of its Legal Services Department. In 1999, she was appointed Director of the Singapore Institute of Labour Studies (now Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute). That year, she became the first Singaporean to be elected to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on which she served for the next 11 years, and was a member of several ILO committees, notably as the Workers’ Spokesperson for the Committee on Decent Work on Domestic Workers.

She entered politics in 2001 when she was elected Member of Parliament for Jurong Group Representation Constituency. From 2007 to 2011, Halimah was Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC. She was appointed first as Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports and then later as Minister of State for Social and Family Development in 2012. In 2013, she was elected Speaker of Parliament, the first woman and trade unionist to hold this post. Halimah was sworn in as the eighth President of the Republic of Singapore on 14 September 2017, and the fourth unionist to hold this high office.

1918 – 2008 Ho See Beng

 
 

Ho See Beng was born in Fujian, China, the son of a trishaw rider and a washerwoman. At the age of six, he and his family migrated to Singapore. He left school at the age of 17 when his father passed away and worked at various jobs, including being a driver and deliveryman for Cold Storage supermarket. He was subsequently hired as a proof-reader for The Straits Times newspaper and it was here that he joined the Singapore Printing Employees’ Union (SPEU). Ho served as Secretary of SPEU from 1958 to 1961. After the STUC broke up, he succeeded Mahmud Awang as chairman of NTUC.

Later, when the organisation was registered in 1964, Ho became the NTUC’s President, and served in that capacity till 1966 when he became Secretary-General, a post he held till 1967 when he was succeeded by Seah Mui Kok. Ho stood for election on the PAP ticket in 1963 and was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Bras Basah Constituency. He served in that capacity for three consecutive terms before being elected as MP for Khe Bong Constituency in 1976. Ho retired from politics in 1984 and died in 2008.

1929 – 1999 Hsu Tse Kwang

 
 

Hsu Tse Kwang was born in Singapore and educated at Raffles Institution and at the University of Malaya from which he graduated in 1954. He started life as a journalist but at the urging of his good friend, KM Byrne (later Minister for Law and Labour), he joined the Inland Revenue Department, accepting a massive pay cut in the process. In 1962, Hsu was seconded to the Labour Research Unit as its first Director and Chairman of its Governing Board.

For his services to the Labour Movement, Hsu was awarded the NTUC Gold Medal in 1963. Though his stint at the Labour Research Unit was short, he remained a member and later became Chairman of the NTUC Board of Trustees from 1986 up till his death in 1999. Hsu went on to have an extremely successful civil service career as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Culture. After his retirement, he went on to serve on the boards of several listed companies, including the Sembawang Group.

Born 1952 Lee Hsien Loong

 
 

Lee Hsien Loong was born in Singapore. He was educated at Catholic High School, National Junior College, University of Cambridge and Harvard University. A President’s and Singapore Armed Forces Scholar, Lee rose through the ranks to become the youngest Brigadier-General in Singapore history in 1984, aged 32. In 1984, he entered politics as a PAP candidate, and was elected the Member of Parliament for Teck Ghee Constituency. He was appointed Minister of State in the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence.

In 1985, he chaired the Government’s tripartite Economic Committee to assess Singapore’s economy and recommend policies to reduce business costs and foster long-term economic development and growth. Among the recommendations from Lee’s Committee was the flexible wage scheme.

In 1987, he was appointed Minister of Trade and Industry and Second Minister for Defence. Three years later, when Goh Chok Tong became Prime Minister, Lee was appointed one of the two Deputy Prime Ministers. He succeeded Goh as Singapore’s third Prime Minister in 2004. Lee maintains a close relationship with the Labour Movement and often holds candid and lively discussions with union leaders and members. In 1999, Lee was awarded the Medal of Honour by the Labour Movement for his contributions to the Movement.

1923 - 2015 Lee Kuan Yew

 
 

Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore and educated at Raffles Institution and Cambridge University where he was a top law student. Active in the Malayan Forum in London, Lee returned with his compatriots, determined to take an active part in Singapore’s struggle for self-determination. By his own admission, Lee began his ‘political life by representing the trade unions.’ The first of these was the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers (SUPTW) which was about to go on strike in 1952 and needed a legal advisor. Recalling those early days, Lee said:

“For two weeks, the union ding-donged in the press against the Commissioner for Posts representing the Colonial government on the merits of their case. I drafted their statements. Public sentiments swung towards the unions, and the Colonial government had to give way: higher wages and better terms and conditions of service, removal of thick printed red stripes on their trousers making them look like circus attendants.”

In gratitude, the SUPTW presented Lee and his wife a pair of Rolex watches (which are on display in this exhibition). His success with the SUPTW drew more references:

“Because the union won, I was next briefed by the clerical union of Post & Telegraphs for their demands, which went to arbitration. Again the union won. Thereafter, I became adviser to innumerable trade unions English-speaking, Chinese-speaking and Malay-speaking. When I fought my first election in 1955, I chose Tanjong Pagar because that was where the postmen were based and also the dock workers. I won easily.”

In 1954, Lee and a group of committed Singaporeans founded the People’s Action Party (PAP). More than half the founding leaders of the Party were unionists and union leaders. He won the Tanjong Pagar constituency seat in the 1955 general election, alongside Lim Chin Siong and Goh Chew Chua. In the 1959 general election, Lee led the PAP to a landslide victory, riding on the back of trade union support and became Singapore’s first Prime Minister. Lee remained Prime Minister till 1990. Throughout his leadership, he remained close to the NTUC and formalised a symbiotic relationship between the NTUC and the PAP, which continues to this day. When Lee died in 2015, there was a national outpouring of grief.

Born 1947 Lim Boon Heng

 
 

Lim Boon Heng was born in Singapore and was educated at Montfort School. He was awarded a Colombo Plan Scholarship to study at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he graduated with a degree in naval architecture. In 1970, he returned to Singapore and joined Neptune Orient Lines as a naval architect. Lim entered politics in 1980 when he was elected Member of Parliament for Kebun Baru on the PAP ticket. In 1991, he was appointed Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry and in 1993, became Second Minister of the same ministry.

Lim had a long association with the NTUC. He rose from the position of Deputy Director (1981–1983) to Assistant Secretary-General (1983–1987) and Deputy Secretary-General (1987–1991) before leaving to take up his appointment in the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

In October 1993, Lim was appointed Minister without Portfolio and Secretary-General of the NTUC, in succession to Ong Teng Cheong. He served four terms as Secretary-General, stepping down in 2006 when he was succeeded by Lim Swee Say. During his stint as Secretary-General, Lim pushed hard to increase the NTUC’s membership and spearheaded a 10-year membership recruitment drive which reached 473,000 in 2006. He retired from politics in 2011 but retained his post as Deputy Chairman of the Singapore Labour Foundation and became Chairman of NTUC Enterprise in 2012.

Born 1944 Lim Chee Onn

 
 

Lim Chee Onn was born in Singapore and educated at St Anthony’s Boys School and St Joseph’s Institution. He was awarded a Colombo Plan Scholarship to study naval architecture at the University of Glasgow. He then studied for a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard University before returning to Singapore where he entered the public service.

In 1977, he was elected on the PAP ticket as Member of Parliament for Bukit Merah. He joined the NTUC in March 1979 as Deputy Secretary-General and later succeeded CV Devan Nair as Secretary-General of the NTUC. He was also the first NTUC Secretary-General appointed a Minister in the Cabinet in 1980.

He resigned as a Minister and as NTUC Secretary-General in 1983, but remained an MP till 1991. Lim’s tenure as Secretary-General has been associated with the NTUC’s push for the training and re-training of workers exemplified by the BEST programme.

Between 1979 and 1982, Lim was Chairman of NTUC Comfort. After he left politics, Lim enjoyed a highly -successful career in the private sector, serving variously as Executive Chairman and CEO of Keppel Corporation; and Chairman of Straits Steamship Land Limited (later Keppel Land).

Born 1954 Lim Swee Say

 
 

Lim Swee Say was born in Singapore and was educated at Catholic High School, National Junior College and Loughborough University where he graduated with first class honours in electronics, computer and systems engineering. After returning from his studies, he joined the National Computer Board where he was Chief Executive (1986–1991) and Chairman (1994–1998). Later he joined the Economic Development Board as Deputy Managing Director (1991–1993) and then Managing Director (1994–1996). In 1997, he entered politics and became Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC.

From 1997 to 1999, Lim served as Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC. He held various portfolios before becoming Minister for the Environment in 2001 and Minister without Portfolio in 2004. In 2005, he became Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC for the second time and in 2007, he succeeded Lim Boon Heng as NTUC Secretary-General. He stepped down as NTUC Secretary-General in 2015 and was appointed Minister for Manpower, a post he held till he retired from Cabinet in 2018.

Born 1968 Ng Chee Meng

 
 

Ng Chee Meng was born in Singapore and educated at The Chinese High School, Hwa Chong Junior College and the United States Air Force Academy. He obtained a Master of Arts (International Relations) from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA in 2003 and served in the Singapore Armed Forces from 1986 to 2015. He attained the rank of Lieutenant-General in 2013 and was Chief of the Defence Force from 2013 to 2015.

In 2015, he entered politics and was elected Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representation Constituency. Ng was then appointed Acting Minister for Education (Schools) and Senior Minister of State for Transport. He was then promoted to full Minister for Education (Schools) and Second Minister for Transport in 2016. In April 2018, he was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC and was elected a month later, as its Secretary-General.

1936 - 2002 Ong Teng Cheong

 
 

Ong Teng Cheong was born in Singapore and educated at the Chinese High School, the University of Malaya and the University of Adelaide from which he graduated with a degree in architecture. In 1965, he received a Colombo Plan scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Liverpool and he returned to join the Ministry of National Development in 1967. In 1971, he resigned and started his own architectural practice, Ong & Ong Architects. The following year, he was elected Member of Parliament for Kim Keat Constituency under the PAP ticket, and in 1975 was appointed Senior Minister of State for Communications. In 1977, he was appointed Acting Culture Minister and became Minister of Communications in 1978.

In 1983, Ong was appointed Secretary-General of the NTUC and assumed the post of Minister without Portfolio. He paid special attention to the plight of low-income daily-rated workers and ensured that they received their 13th-month bonuses even during the 1985 – 1986 recession.

It was also Ong who managed to gain the workers’ support in accepting wage restraints and a cut in employers’ CPF contribution during this period. In 1986, he sanctioned a strike – the first since 1978 – involving workers of Hydril, an American company, over its unfair treatment of workers. Ong succeeded in reversing the decline in union membership through a massive membership recruitment drive and NTUC’s membership reached a 10-year high of 216,000 in 1991. Today, he is best remembered for building a series of facilities, such as the NTUC Resort and the Orchid Country Club to raise the quality of life for union members.

In 1993, he resigned as Secretary-General to contest the presidential elections and served as Singapore’s fifth President till 1999. Ong died in 2002.

1924 – 2016 Sellapan Ramanathan
(SR Nathan)

 
 

SR Nathan was born in Singapore in 1924 and was educated at Victoria School and at the University of Malaya. After leaving school in 1955, Nathan joined the civil service and almost immediately had his first encounter with labour unions. On the basis of a thesis he wrote, Chief Minister David Marshall appointed him as seamen’s advisor in the Marine Department, responsible for looking after their welfare. Between 1962 and 1966, he was seconded to the NTUC, initially to assist, and then to succeed Hsu Tse Kwang at the Labour Research Unit. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Gold Medal by NTUC in 1963.

After he left the LRU, Nathan served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs. From 1979 to 1982, he was permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He left the civil service in 1982 to become Executive Chairman of the Straits Times Press. In 1983, Nathan was appointed as a Trustee of NTUC and was conferred the Meritorious Service Award on May Day in 1984 for his ‘continued selfless service to the Labour Movement.’ Between 1988 and 1996, Nathan was Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia, and then Ambassador to the United States. In 1999, he became Singapore’s sixth President, serving two terms till his retirement in 2011 when he was one of 50 recipients of the special NTUC 50 Award. Nathan, who died in 2016, famously said:

“The trade union movement is the place where the small man rises. The small man is important. Don’t take him for granted.”

1914 – 1977 Thomas Harold Elliott

 
 

Thomas Harold (‘Tom’) Elliott was born in Great Britain in 1914. At the age of 16, he left school to become an apprentice pharmacist, foregoing a university scholarship as his family needed the money. After the apprenticeship, he spent a year at university to acquire a degree and later worked as a manager of a chain of retail pharmacies. Later, he was chief hospital pharmacist. In 1946, he emigrated to South Africa. He did not stay for long. In 1950, he and his wife arrived in Singapore to work for a pharmacy. Elliott later obtained a PhD in Pharmacy from the University of Malaya and in 1960 was appointed its first Professor of Pharmacy.

A firm and committed socialist, he first became involved in the local trade union scene when he helped organise the Naval Base Labour Union as a volunteer in 1952.

From then on, he continued volunteering his services to the local trade unions and was a ‘guide, friend and philosopher to countless trade union members.’ In 1962, when the Labour Research Unit (LRU) was established, he acted as one of the consultants to its Board. Elliott was also instrumental in formulating the co-operative strategy for NTUC in the lead up to the 1969 Modernization Seminar, and when NTUC Income was established in 1970, Elliott was appointed one of its seven Life Trustees.

In 1972, when the National Wages Council (NWC) was established, he was one of NTUC’s three representatives on the Council. He was conferred the title of Emeritus Professor by the University of Singapore in 1973. Elliott held the post of Deputy Director of Research at NTUC till his untimely death in 1977.