Bet You’ll Never Guess Who This 1960s Toa Payoh Kid Grew Up To Be

It was one year since Singapore gained independence. A baby girl was born into a struggling family which already had two children to feed.

toa payoh
This family was very poor; the five of them squeezed into a rental flat that wasn’t even a one-room flat (there was no bedroom, just one common room) in the suburb of Toa Payoh. (Source: National Heritage Board)

Day and night, the baby girl’s parents worked hard to feed the family. Income was low, jobs were unstable and opportunities were fleetingly rare.

Raising a family of five in the 1970s

Her father held various jobs, from odd job labourer to makeshift letter writer.

He had survived the Japanese occupation of Singapore, persevering to study till Secondary 2 while working, even though many of his classmates stopped education at Primary 6 (as was the norm then).

Bearing the financial burden of raising three kids, he had to be enterprising where possible.

Beautiful penmanship was a virtue that his teachers had extoled upon him, and this skill became his craft and livelihood in between odd jobs.

toa payoh
The father earned a living writing letters or petitions for illiterate workers in front of the Ministry of Labour. (Source: Lockedigital)

In the day, he would set up a table outside the Ministry of Labour (the predecessor of Ministry of Manpower) to earn a few cents writing petitions for illiterate people who were unpaid their wages, treated unfairly at work or had work-related issues that they needed the Ministry to help them with.

Growing up with a nanny in early Toa Payoh

As the baby girl grew up, her parents’ irregular hours forced them to entrust her to a nearby nanny until she entered Primary School.

Whilst she missed being with her family, there was one thing she really yearned for.

On weekdays, she would look out of her nanny’s window to see young children wearing kindergarten uniforms on their way to the kindergarten, and she really wanted to join them.

As the girl grew up, Toa Payoh transformed into a hub of activity. (Source: National Heritage Board)

At first, her mother promised her that she could attend kindergarten when she turned 5, but the family’s financial situation became dire and they could not afford the kindergarten fees.

Being disappointed did not slow her academic progress. The young girl quickly learnt how to read, write and count before she entered Primary School, under the tutelage of her nanny’s children.

How independence impacted her family

Her parents had married in 1957, seven years before Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia. Whilst her father was Singaporean, her mother held a Malaysian citizenship.

Being a Malaysian citizen meant that her mother could not apply for a licenced stall from the government as these stalls were reserved for Singaporeans.

So her mother would diligently wake up early to cook and sell food, illegally at first at the void deck of their flat, like many other Malaysians who couldn’t get a licenced stall from the government then.

The three siblings would help their mother not only sell the food, but also hurriedly pack up and run at the sound or sight of enforcers approaching.

Thankfully, her mother obtained Singapore citizenship a few years later and managed to apply for a stall in the Whampoa English Primary School canteen.

Believing education would break the poverty cycle

The young girl who helped her mother sell food even before she attended her first class was very excited to finally attend Primary One. However there was one marked difference between her and her classmates.

In the morning, she would wake up at 5 am, reach her school by 530 am, and help her mother prepare mee rebus and mee siam for the canteen stall.

After attending morning session classes, she would continue to help out at the stall until it closed in the evening.

By Primary Two, she was trained by her mother to go to the nearby market to purchase groceries for the stall, then help out until her afternoon session classes started, resuming work thereafter until evening.

Although she was tired and malnourished (a common ailment among poor children at that time), she sustained herself on the government’s free milk and cereal programme.

toa payoh
When her family’s financial situation meant they could not afford the electricity bills, she and her siblings continued studying at night by candlelight. (Source: TheCable)

Her tenacity saw her pass A Levels, obtain a diploma from Singapore Polytechnic and subsequently graduate with a 2nd Upper Class Honours degree in Business Studies.

She then continued her adult education with a diploma in Employment Relations, an Advanced Diploma in Marketing, a diploma in Quality Assurance and a Masters in Health Science Management under a Singapore Labour Foundation Study Award.

Her parents were strong believers that giving their children an education would help them break out of their poverty.

Although the family was poor, her parents ensured she and her siblings had the books they needed, the opportunity to attend school and parental guidance to not be distracted by the wrong company or activities.

Giving back to the people

After her A levels, she applied for many jobs but the job market was bad as Singapore experienced its first post-independence recession in 1985.

In the meantime, to finance her studies, she had already started giving tuition since she was Secondary Two, working evenings and weekends.

And yet for a few years every Sunday, she also volunteered her tuition services for free at the Tamil Representative Council, tutoring classes of 20 needy students from mixed racial backgrounds in English, Mathematics and Science.

Wanting to help people through other means such as healthcare, she applied and was accepted by the National University Hospital (NUH).

Her supervisor then was the President of the NUH Employees’ Union (NUHEU), and sent her for various courses on Trade Unionism and Employment Relations.

Soon she was nominated to the union’s Executive Council and she served as a General Treasurer before becoming its President in 1996 at the young age of 30 (she is sitting 4th from left). (Source: NTUC News, 7 Feb 1997)

NUHEU negotiated for better employment terms and conditions for staff in NUH, such as:

  • management sponsorship of staff training,
  • additional leave and benefits over and on top of the Employment Act,
  • bursary awards for staff’s children, and
  • improved industrial relations framework to ensure staff are treated fairly.
NUHEU worked closely with NUH management to collectively bargain for better employment terms and conditions. (Source: NTUC News, 7 October 2005)

In 2006, she convinced her union ExCo and members to merge with another union, the Health Corporation of Singapore Staff (HCSSU) Union, to form the Healthcare Services Employees’ Union (HSEU), so that the combined number of union members would give HSEU:

  • more bargaining power with employees and management and government,
  • have economies of scale to serve union members’ needs more effectively,
  • and increase the network to benefit members.
The healthcare industry is rapidly transforming, affecting the jobs and livelihoods of workers. (Source: ST)

Until today, she and her fellow union leaders are looking for ways to improve the livelihoods and lives of union members.

One example is operationalising the Healthcare Industry Transformation Map (ITM) by bringing in digital technologies to replace manual processes and helping workers upgrade their skills and move into new, redesigned jobs.

Being the voice for working people in Parliament

In 2015, she was selected to be a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), where she has spoken up on issues affecting people, such as:

Ms K. Thanaletchimi (or Thana as she is affectionately known to her peers) grew up in poverty, worked even before she started studying, and never forgot how hard it is for workers to earn a living to survive.

But through the unity her family had to overcome their struggles together, the love they had to persevere for each other and her resilience to pursue education despite financial difficulties, she wants to be the voice for the everyday worker and help others break away from the poverty cycle.