“If they (the communists) win, you and I will be put on the Padang and shot”, said Dr. Goh Keng Swee to a young SR Nathan, explaining to the future President why he must join a mysterious, apparently nonexistent organisation known as the NTUC’s “Labour Research Unit”.
This was December 1961, pre-independent Singapore. It was a violent time and in Dr.Goh’s words, it was “a life and death struggle”.
In these early years, Unions were extremely militant. Back then, there wasn’t just one congress, there were two: the communist Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Rivalry between the two led to extensive industrial disputes that crippled Singapore.
In 1961 alone, there were 116 strikes, with a loss of around 410889 man-days. 72% of the strikes were called by SATU, but even the NTUC became more militant over the next two years. Unlike SATU, NTUC did not mix politics with industrial disputes.
Pro-communist unions were sacrificing workers in aid of a cause which the workers themselves had not chosen – that of communist revolution. These rouge unions aggravated and exploited workers’ dissatisfaction amongst workers who simply wanted better wages and working conditions.
Violence was commonplace. For example, the communist union leaders would intimidate non-striking workers by burning them with cigarette butts and beating up members of the management.
This was the environment that SR Nathan worked in when he first joined the NTUC.
“He (Dr.Goh) made it clear that my role would involve helping unions that had broken away from their pro-communist leaders, as well as workers belonging to any other unions, politically neutral, that needed advice and help in collective bargaining and in disputes awaiting arbitration”, re-counted Mr. Nathan in his book Winning Against the Odds.
He had to deal with widespread labour unrest, injustice and over the years he rose through the ranks of the Labour Research Unit from assistant director to director. Along the way, he assisted various unions negotiate better working terms to improve the lives of countless workers.
In November 1969, the NTUC was due for reformation. Mr. Nathan was spearheading changes and deeply involved in a four day exchange known as the NTUC Modernisation seminar. The goal was to reinvigorate the Labour Movement, which was then regarded as “entered into a state of decay due to falling membership and disenchantment amongst the rank and file”.
Even in 1969, the leadership knew that strikes and militancy were fast becoming a primitive way of satisfying worker demands. There needed to be new models, new objectives and new methods of running the NTUC and the unions.
Mr. Nathan was pivotal in reshaping the Labour Movement from that of antagonistic, adversarial unionism to that of rational discussion of mutual interests. The Labour Movement was to have a large role to play in nation building.
Mr. Nathan helped workers in every way possible. From individual assistance, collective bargaining, solving disputes and laying the bricks for tripartite partnership, he was involved every step of the way.
“He understood human beings”, quotes Mr. R.O. Daniel, 77, a retired civil servant who worked with him in the Labour Research Unit. “He had diplomacy inherent in him even from the early days”
On Monday evening, the 22nd of August 2016, NTUC Secretary-General and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing thanked Mr Nathan for his efforts for the Labour Movement in a Facebook post.
“In the early days, you fought for the rights of our workers. They were often the poorest and least taken care of. You touched everyone with sincere, brotherly care. You were always there by our side through trials and tribulations,” the labour chief wrote.