PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Book Launch of the late Ho See Beng
Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the book launch of the late Ho See Beng on 5 December 2014.
Mrs Ho See Beng (Madam Lee Beng Kiow), family of the late Mr Ho See Beng, Mr Lim Swee Say, friends, ladies and gentlemen. A very good afternoon to all of you. I am very honoured to be here today to celebrate a distinguished pioneer, Mr Ho See Beng (何思明), who has left his indelible mark on Singapore history. Let me first start with a few words in Mandarin.
大家下午好！这本名为《无所畏惧、勇于挑战》的书，叙述了何先生的一生。他的故事反映了多位建国前辈的经历。何先生刚从中国移民来到新加坡的时候，只是个赤贫小子。他凭着坚强的毅力，和对新加坡的一股热诚，不断努力，奋发向上。六十年代初， 新加坡的劳工运动分成两派：亲共产党派和非共产党派。何思明和其他工运领袖 — 蒂凡那先生、佘美国先生、甘达三美先生 (G. Kandasamy) 都决定支持非共的全国职工总会，就是今天的NTUC。
THE RELEVANCE OF NATIONAL MEMORY
Friends，the launch of this book is timely because it is just before our nation’s 50th birthday and coincides with the 60th birthday of the PAP and is a meaningful contribution to the growing literature about the formative years of our nation. This revival of interest in our national history is heartening, especially among younger Singaporeans. They are asking questions, asking why we are the way we are. As we look back on our history, it is useful both to celebrate our successes, as well as to consider how differently things might have turned out so that we can learn from the choices and actions of pioneers like See Beng, chart our future wisely and confidently, recognise and honour our pioneers who overcame many challenges to shape our nation and create today’s Singapore.
A CHAMPION FOR LABOUR
That we enjoy harmonious and stable industrial relations now is not an accident and not a natural state of affairs, but the result of a long struggle.
In the 1950s and 1960s, industrial relations in Singapore were confrontational. We had high unemployment, poor working conditions and social unrest. The Communists had infiltrated the major unions. As a result, when the PAP split in 1961, with the pro-communists leaving the party to form the Barisan Sosialis, the Trade Union Congress also split. The pro-Communist unions organised in SATU – the Singapore Association of Trade Unions. They used the legitimate grievances of workers for political ends – staging strikes and work stoppages to undermine the government and destabilise society. The non-communist unions, the minority then, formed the NTUC – the National Trade Union Congress. See Beng himself thought the PAP were bound to lose, so overwhelming did the communists seem.
But nevertheless, out of loyalty and conviction, he joined the other NTUC stalwarts, including Devan Nair, Seah Mui Kok and G. Kandasamy, to rally moderate unions behind the PAP and resist the communists. Much to See Beng’s surprise, the PAP prevailed and NTUC became the dominant trade union grouping in Singapore. We rightly celebrate the lions of the movement like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee, but the lions could have not been lions had they not had lion-hearted lieutenants and supporters – and See Beng was among the most stout-hearted among them. If not for cadres like him, the PAP and NTUC might not have prevailed.
Once the political battle was settled, the pioneer unionists turned to economic development, improving the lives of workers to constructive harmonious cooperation. They were instrumental in reorienting the unions to Tripartism, which was a dramatic change from traditional, adversarial industrial relations to close collaboration between unions, employers and the government. Now we could now solve problems through negotiation and arbitration, instead of resorting to strikes, riots and other industrial action. Tripartism and harmonious labour relations became critical factors in making us competitive, attracting investments and creating many good jobs for our workers and it elevated the standing and the role of union leaders too – today it is common for union leaders to sit on statutory boards and be actively involved in informing policymaking, whether on the MediShield Life panel or the CPF panel.
But most of all, our pioneer unionists were driven by the goal of improving the lives of workers. They broke new ground to do so, like setting up social enterprises – NTUC Welcome Supermarket, now Fairprice, to keep down the cost of living for workers. Income to provide affordable insurance for workers and other cooperatives – many of which have become household names and still benefit Singaporeans today, and See Beng was personally involved in these and particularly with Welcome.
It was in this spirit that in addition to his work in the unions, See Beng served as a Member of Parliament for 21 years, representing Bras Basah for many years and later Khe Bong. For his many contributions, he was awarded the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lintang), the Public Service Star (Bar) in 1990. See Beng retired as a MP in 1984, the same year when I entered politics – so we did not overlap in Parliament. But I served together with Geok Choo, his daughter. I remember Geok Choo’s interview by the Secretary-General’s Committee before she entered politics. I am not sure if she remembers, but I do. Mr Goh Chok Tong chaired the panel, but Mr Lee Kuan Yew was on it too. He asked her – “Did you discuss your joining politics with your father?” She said: “Yes”. He said, “What did your father say?” She replied: “He said: ‘If you do it, give your heart and soul to it.’” Mr Lee’s comment was that See Beng had given Geok Choo the right advice. Her answer left a deep impression on me and indeed that is what Geok Choo did when she served as an MP for ten years.
See Beng gave his heart and soul to the cause, the movement, even when he believed that the PAP and NTUC were not going to win. It is good that this book, chronicling his life and legacy, is being published now, as we celebrate the PAP’s 60th anniversary and as Singapore prepares to celebrate SG50 next year. The book does not tell the story from the vantage point of the big names from the era but it gives a view from the perspective of a man of simple but profound courage who stood up to be counted at a tumultuous and pivotal moment in our history and made a difference. The story of Ho See Beng, a washerwoman’s son, reminds us that each and every Singaporean, no matter what his background, how humble he may be, he or she has a contribution to make to the Singapore story. May it inspire young Singaporeans to emulate the extraordinary tenacity, courage and conviction of our pioneers and may they take Singapore on to similar great successes. Once again, congratulations on the launch of this book. Thank you very much.
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