Besides LKY, Ho See Beng was one of the unsung heros in NTUC's bid to win back the hearts and minds of workers in the 1960s

Ho See Beng, like the rest of the pioneer labour leaders from the NTUC, was brave, resolute and determined.

Martino Tan| April 01, 03:13 PM

On Sunday, the State Funeral Procession of Lee Kuan Yew passed by several iconic places such as City Hall, the Padang, Singapore Conference Hall, his Tanjong Pagar constituency and the NTUC Centre.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) warmly embraces the late Lee Kuan Yew as a "Father of Our Nation" and "A Brother to Our Workers".

Lee_Kuan_Yew_NTUC Source: Lim Swee Say Facebook

Lee was NTUC's inspiration and leader and many NTUC pioneers and heroes supported his vision for NTUC.

But who were these NTUC pioneers?

"The washerwoman's son", a new book on the life of unionist and MP Ho detailed the improbable journey made by NTUC to win over the hearts and minds of the blue-collar workers from its rival union.



SATU, the union of the 1960s

Many of us probably have not heard of SATU.

It is hard to imagine but SATU, not the NTUC, is the union in the early 1960s.

When the leftists in the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) broke away to form Barisan Sosialis, the BSS leaders formed SATU.

Check out the chart below to understand who the blue-collar workers supported in 1961:

NTUC_SATU Photo from NLB exhibition.


82 unions support the BSS, while 27 unions supported the PAP.

In other words, SATU's union monopoly is similar to the ruling PAP's present day parliamentary monopoly.

And how influential was SATU?

From 21 July 1961 to 31 December 1961, there were 84 strikes in Singapore, with SATU allegedly behind 77 of them.

Book on one of the founding members of NTUC

While the late President Devan Nair is synonymous with his leadership of the NTUC, Ho's role is not as well-publicised and well-articulated.

This book showed how Devan would depend heavily on Ho both personally, and through his ability to carry the Chinese ground as they battle against the BSS to represent organised labour in Singapore.

Without Ho and the other pioneer union leaders like Mahmud Awang,  Seah Mui Kok, Govindasamy Kandasamy and K. Suppiah leading organised labour, Lee Kuan Yew, Devan Nair and the PAP would have found it difficult to chart their nation-building course from third world to first.

And it's no wonder that Ho's book was launched with much fanfare.


For those who think that the biography of Ho is tl;dr, we summarise four reasons on how the NTUC underdogs managed to defeat the powerful SATU


1. The NTUC pioneers think long-term. 

NTUC stood for the improvement of working conditions and wages through negotiations and legal means including recourse to the Arbitration Court.

In contrast, SATU sought to force employers to meet demands of its affiliate unions "without first looking into the merits of the case", which sometimes led to the closure of business and the loss of jobs.


2. The NTUC pioneers were not as ideologically-driven or stubborn as their competitors.

SATU leadership was driven mostly by the need to support the anti-PAP agenda of the Barisan Sosialis. The bread-and-butter issues of their member unions tended to be a secondary priority.

NTUC, aligned with the PAP, was not under any pressure to alter the political status quo with regard to either the merger or more immediately, the referendum.

NTUC could just concentrate on achieving results for its members.

3. The NTUC pioneers were focused on its objective

NTUC's objective was to fight for the workers' working conditions and wages and woo the unions away from SATU.

On the other hand, SATU used union activities for political agitation to discredit the PAP government by making the government respond to strikes or rioting in a heavy-handed manner.

As former President SR Nathan said in the book, "the pro-communist unions were sacrificing workers in aid of a cause which the workers themselves had not chosen - that of the communist revolution."

4. The NTUC pioneers were determined, courageous and resolute

This was what Ho's wife (Lee Beng Kiow) had to face daily during the 1960s:

"The communists... I had never met them, but what I had heard about them - unflinching in what they had to do, beating up and killing people who got in their way - frightened me. If they took See Beng, how was I going to look after the children and myself? I feared for his life. I worried for See Beng the minute he left the house until he came home. When he was late, I would be looking out into the street every now and then. It was uncertain times and it was frightening to me. But See Beng did what he believed he had to do."

Ho See Beng passed away on Dec 5. 2008.

At his funeral, Janadas Devan, the son of Devan Nair, gave a touching eulogy that sum up NTUC's finest generation:

"He (Ho) was my father, Devan Nair's, brother. They belonged to a generation that ate much salt. As a result, their brotherhood was deeper than biology, forged as it was in struggle, in spirit.

We might find this unimaginable, even incomprehensible, today, but Ho See Beng didn't think the NTUC and the PAP would win when he committed himself to the cause. In fact, he was convinced they were going to lose - and that he himself might possible lose his life in the process.

It is very important to remember this: He fought on, he didn't flinch, persisted, though he was convinced he was on the losing side. Singapore is what it is today in large part because of people like Ho See Beng."


Top photo from Lim Swee Say Facebook.

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