Tan Soon Yam: A Witness to Labour History


It was 1964, and 25-year-old Tan Soon Yam was already the vice-president of the Industrial Workers Union of Singapore (IWU).

Back then, IWU was one of the unions that supported the pro-communist Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU), created after the split in the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC).

Even after SATU was denied registration with the Registrar of Trade Unions in 1963, many unions were still pro-communist.

"There was a struggle between pro-communist and non-communist unions after the closing down of STUC. So there were two camps. NTUC on one side, SATU on the other. The environment was very chaotic. A lot of strikes, a lot of political strikes. NTUC was then the minority. The majority was supporting SATU after the split," he said.

Politics aside, Mr Tan, who was working as a storekeeper at the Malayan Refrigerating Company, only cared about bettering the lives of workers.

That was what got him involved with unions at 20, after learning about a worker who was wrongfully dismissed

The Birth of FDAWU

In 1964, the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) branch had broken away from IWU to form the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union (FDAWU), which affiliated itself with the non-communist NTUC. By then, NTUC had managed to build itself up under the leadership of C.V Devan Nair.

NAAFI union leaders realised that the IWU leadership was still bent on pursuing dangerous pro-communist tactics which could prove harmful to the real interests of workers. It had enough of IWU’s anti-national and pro-communist elements.

Mr Tan and his comrades from the Malayan Refrigerating Company branch saw this as well, and less than a year later pulled themselves out of IWU to join FDAWU. Another branch that followed was Walls Fitzpatrick.

The Early Years

Mr Tan eventually became the general secretary of FDAWU in 1966.

Touching on the challenges the new union faced, Mr Tan said: “When it was first formed, FDAWU only had 2,000 members. At that time, we had only started, so we had no money. Our union was financed by membership subscription. We had to go around from member to member to collect the money every month. And most of the unionists sacrificed and didn’t take any pay. Not a cent. All the money went back to our workers.”

For almost 40 years, Mr Tan helmed FDAWU as general secretary. He helped grow the union’s influence and membership numbers until it became the 51,000-member powerhouse union it is today.

Unions Are Strong

Even though Mr Tan believed in working with employers to better the lives of workers, he had never been a pushover.

In a famous press statement he issued to the media in 1970, Mr Tan highlighted the enormous profits that Hotel Malaysia had made through the efforts of educated and well-trained staff, but ironically, the staff were not treated any better than “medieval workers employed under the Tzars of old Russia.”

He had intended to make sure the entire hotel industry knew about the case of Hotel Malaysia.

"In spite of the most truculent attitude shown by the management of Hotel Malaysia, the FDAWU had been extremely patient in its protracted negotiations to secure a better deal for the workers. Taking advantage of the union’s desire to keep industrial peace in the hotel industry, this reactionary employer had earlier made an offer which was a virtual pay cut for the workers," he stated.

Mr Tan also believed that strikes were tools the unions should use as a last resort.

In 1967, he was prepared to call out the entire staff of NAAFI to go on strike due to a redundancy exercise that the workers deemed unfair. However, because the management was able to give FDAWU the assurance that there will be no redundancies for two years, Mr Tan called off the strike and urged his members to carry on with their work duties loyally.

“Strikes were the weapons of the trade union. You can’t say we are not allowed to strike. That is the right of the Labour Movement. But if you want to strike, it has to be genuine and not for political gains,” he said.

Of course, the negotiating table is preferred, he added.

Mr Tan also led FDAWU in one of the fastest wage negotiations on record in 1981. The union wrapped up talks with the management in four hours. Workers got raised salaries and annual wage supplements as part of the negotiated pact.

NTUC Modernization Seminar

FDAWU was one of the 47 unions that participated in the Trade Union Seminar on “Modernization of the Labour Movement” in 1969. Mr Tan recalls the seminar clearly.

“The seminar was a new thing for all the unions. When we participated, all of us were asking, ‘What was in it for the unions and workers?’ But when Goh Keng Swee [then-Finance Minister] introduced the idea of the co-operatives, it was new ground.

“There was enthusiasm at the end of it to play a role in this new area. Although we never had experience in that before. We supported it and campaigned to make the co-operatives a success. It was after setting up the co-operatives that we saw our efforts bear fruit. We realised that these co-operatives were dear to our workers. It helped them stretch their dollar,” he said.

As a union leader, Mr Tan has seen it all and done it all when it comes to industrial relations. But he has a word of advice for the unionists of today.

“Don’t forget about the fundamental role of the union. The most important thing is to serve the workers. Of course, consider the difficulties of the employers. But remember, you are elected by workers, so work for them,” he said.