He would have been 64 this year. Which means that he would be a recipient of the Pionner Generation Package.
Instead, 21 June 2014 is the 7th death anniversary of one of the union pioneers Nithiah Nandan. He died of cancer in 2007.
Who is Nithiah Nandan?
We did not know much about Nithiah's life until we came across this book "Gritty Nithi". This is probably the only book that celebrates his life and efforts as a unionist, NMP and a family man.
From humble beginnings, Nithiah rose up the ranks to become an unionist. He left his secondary school and joined Public Utilities Board (PUB) to support his family.
When he passed away in 2007, he received tributes and messages from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Ministers Lim Swee Say and Lim Boon Heng.
But unlike NTUC Secretary-Generals such as Devan Nair and Ong Teng Cheong, Nithiah is little known today, even among the trade unionists.
So here are three examples why Nithiah is someone who ought to be emulated by today's champions of blue collar workers in Singapore.
1. He lobbied then DPM Lee Hsien Loong on behalf of his workers
In 1996, the PUB was restructured with the power and gas divisions corporatised. Nithiah was the leader of the PUB Daily-Rated Employees' Union.
When the listing of Singapore Power on the stock exchange was deferred, the promised gratuity for shares was not paid.
Nithiah lobbied then DPM Lee successfully for the ex-gratia payment for workers transferred from PUB to Singapore Power.
How did he do it? The resourceful Nithiah got then Minister Lim Boon Heng to find an NTUC function where DPM Lee was a guest. Nithiah managed to persuade and convince DPM Lee how the workers should be compensated.
2. He does not mince his words in Parliament.
In 2002, Nithiah was selected by the labour movement to be their representative in parliament.
As the Nominated Member of Parliament (2002-2005), Nithi was on the side of the poor and less privileged.
Here is an example: The Public Transport Fares (Motion) in July 2002 was to debate that it was not the best time to increase bus and MRT fares after a recession.
First, Nithi's speech focused on how a fare increase will affect the retirees and housewives:
“The feedback I got is not that they object to fare increase. They know that fellow workers in public transport also have to earn a living. What people are unhappy about is the timing. Is the fare increase reasonable?
Last year, for those who paid cash, feeder bus fares, ie, airconditioned buses, went up by a big jump, from 60 cents to 70 cents. That rankles, and it still rankles. Now, it goes up another 10 cents, together with other fare adjustments. The story is the same for non-airconditioned buses. It went up from 50 cents to 60 cents, and now to 70 cents [...]
The feeder bus fare is still high in their view, especially for short distances. [...] Why the hefty jump in feeder fares? Hardest hit are the housewives and retirees. Why not small steps? I cannot understand why the old fare card cannot allow increases of less than 5 cents. If there was a software or hardware problem, why was it not fixed earlier?
Second, Nithi highlighted the plight and mentality of the poor during the ez-link card changes:
“Now, there is the ez-link card. It is new. Surely, the public transport operators must expect teething problems in implementation. If so, was it wise to raise fares at the same time? Do they know that those who do not use cards are the poorest Singaporeans? They cannot afford it. They do odd jobs, and so they do not have enough money to store in the card, or they are afraid to use it, especially the old. So they use cash. The fare increase is highest for those who pay cash. So those who cannot afford it are the ones who pay most. Should not the public transport operators do something for them?
He then proceeded to poke the board of directors of the public transport operators.
“Maybe it will help if the public transport operators appoint one or two laymen, people who can understand their customers, on the Board of Directors. Maybe it will also help if there is more than just one unionist on the Public Transport Council to provide a stronger voice for the working class.”
3. Although Nithi is a man of action, his words are sound advice for young Singaporeans who wish to serve the public.
"Yes, I have been persuaded that my story (his book) can help aspiring union leaders. So I hope that in death, I can still be of some use".
"We will not hide behind the back of management; if we can't convince our members, then there is no point in us continuing as leaders."
"Unless you're prepared to do a thankless job, don't become a union leader".
"It is not flowery words that make a difference in life...How you say it is not critical, but what you say matters".
Let's hope Nithi's life and words can inspire the next generation of Singaporeans who serve the public daily.
Before you make a decision that is detrimental to public interest, you should ask yourself: What would Nithi do?