Who’s this Cyrille Tan who made PM Lee feel regret this week?

PM Lee is in Manila for the ASEAN Summit. It’s an important meeting, especially since Singapore is the incoming chairman of ASEAN in 2018.

Even Trump was there, awkward handshake and all.

I imagine very few things in the world would distract PM Lee from the proceedings of the Summit. However, something happened while he was in Manila that distracted PM Lee enough for him to post on Facebook.

So I got curious, and wondered about this Cyrille Tan who had made PM Lee feel regret that he wasn’t able to pay respects in person.

So who’s Cyrille Tan?

Veteran unionist who worked hard for workers

Mr Cyrille Tan, better known as Brother Cyrille amongst unionists, was a veteran unionist. He had been in the United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries (UWEEI) since 1981, and was its general secretary for 22 years. Under his leadership, the union grew in strength and numbers, and is still one of Singapore’s biggest unions today.

The more cynical amongst us might think,

“So what if he’s a union leader? What did he actually do?”

One of Tan’s greatest contributions happened in 2008-2009. The Global Financial Crisis was wreaking havoc throughout the whole world. In Singapore, the electronic and electrical industries were the more severely affected sectors. 

A startling total of 8,220 electronic and electrical workers lost their jobs and at least another 26,000 were placed on shorter work weeks and other arrangements to cope with the crisis.

The situation could have been far worse for the workers if not for Tan’s efforts. According to this story here, he and UWEEI’s former Executive Secretary Halimah Yacob went from company to company, speaking with management partners and persuading employers not to retrench.

Instead, the determined pair persuaded companies to upgrade the skills of workers and to cope with excess manpower using government programmes and schemes like SPUR (Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience) and Jobs Credit Scheme.

Leading by example, always learning

Tan believed in leading by example. When NTUC encouraged workers to go for skills upgrading, he went for a Bachelor of Science in 1996 at the age of 47. That’s quite admirable. Seriously, how many of us would go take up a degree at the age of 47?

And mentoring many

A quick search on Facebook showed up quite many tribute posts dedicated to the man whom many refer to as the giant of a unionist. I saw more than just a few posts from people who had learned much under Tan’s mentorship.

It is, by now, quite evident that Tan’s passing had saddened all of those whose paths he had crossed.

The hidden story behind the photo in PM Lee’s post

Saw that photo in PM Lee’s post? That photo goes a rather long way back to 2006 when Young NTUC wanted to put up a musical, A Labour of Love.

PM Lee congratulating Cyrille Tan on stage at NTUC’s 2007 May Day Musical, ‘A Labour of Love’. (Source: SPH via PM Lee’s Facebook)

Tan must have been in his 50s back then when he was first asked to join the cast. He was initially reluctant. Hardly surprising, since he had no formal training in this area. But he eventually agreed after some convincing.

From that point on, he was absolutely professional, always on time and didn’t miss any rehearsal, even when he had a flu.

Again, from this post, you can see how loved and respected Tan was within the union network.

Even PM Lee learnt much from Tan when PM Lee was adviser to the UWEEI. PM Lee said:

“I learnt much by observing his astute management of union affairs”

Let’s hope that the future generations of unionists will learn from Tan’s example. RIP, Brother Cyrille.

(Featured image via Labourbeat.org)

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