Stevedores are people who load and unload ships at a dock. Given that Singapore’s port was instrumental to our growth in earlier days, stevedores are one of the most important groups of workers in Singapore. Their work must have been hard and strenuous. But someone had to do it. And those who did it greatly contributed to our nation building efforts by contributing to building Singapore’s reputation as a global hub port.
It was therefore important to have a union to take care of the interests of the stevedores in Singapore. The Singapore Stevedores’ Union was formed in 1937. It was also one of the first unions to be affiliated to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
Through the 81 years since its formation, it saw a lot of ups and downs.
One of the highlights of the SSU must be when it was conferred the Certificate of Merit by the Queen of England. But that certificate was lost during the struggle with the pro-communist faction. That wasn’t the only tumultuous part of SSU’s history. Its office was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, who also killed its first president. We can’t even begin to imagine the courage that it took for the earliest members of SSU to survive through those dark times.
But survive it did. And it emerged stronger. It became the first union to be affiliated with NTUC, and the first to provide life insurance collectively under NTUC Income. It also did a whole host of other things to help its workers and their families.
Given all that the SSU has gone through, it is certainly not easy for the SSU to have lasted till today. And through its time, it has contributed much to the development of our Singapore ports since independence.
Unfortunately, as with many things in Singapore, SSU’s time has come to an end. All PSA city terminals will eventually relocate to the next generation port at Tuas, which will be technologically advanced and less labour intensive.
SSU General Secretary Tan Chu Beng, who has been working full-time in the union since 1967, plans to retire. Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Tan said:
“In those days, it was hard to find work and stevedores took up odd jobs. Sometimes they worked on weekends, other times they went for weeks without income. Many were afraid to accept mediation by the union during salary disputes. They were afraid that if they offended the contractor, they may not get the job next time. It was challenging for us.”
“Over 10 years ago, we also encouraged members to get certification to operate forklifts. But, stevedoring is a sunset job – companies need less manpower nowadays and the trade is not attractive to youngsters. It’s a pity that we have to dissolve, but it is necessary.”
Mr Lim Ah Kiat, President of the SSU, gave a final speech on behalf of the union during NTUC’s Ordinary Delegates Conference on 16th Nov 2017. Here’s an extract of his Chinese speech, translated into English,
It has been 80 years since our Union was formed in 1937. During this period, our Union’s office had ever been occupied by the Japanese and our first President was even killed by the Japanese.
In Singapore, our Union is the only one that was ever conferred the Certificate of Merit by the Queen of England. It’s a pity that the certificate was lost during the struggle with the Pro-Communists faction.
Our Union is also the only Union whose election was witnessed by RTU during the Members’ Conference. We were the first affiliated union of NTUC and the first Union to insure life insurance collectively under NTUC Income.
It is really not easy for our Union to last until today.
Before the end of this year, we will formally go into the history after all the dissolution matters have been finalized.
As such, the SSU has already dissolved at the end of November 2017. Its members will join the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU).
Labour MP Melvin Yong is the Executive Secretary of NTWU and he has this to say,
“Stevedores play an important role in contributing to the development of our Singapore ports since independence.”
“We are heartened that SSU members have chosen to become members of NTWU. We will continue to take good care of our new brothers as part of our big NTWU family.”
But while the SSU will no longer operate, its name will be preserved as part of the history of Singapore and its stories will remain as lessons for Singaporeans and Singapore.