Kong Lai Mee: A union leader’s journey

The May Day Awards 2023 Comrade of Labour recipient talks about how she became a union leader, helping others, and why more women should step up to be leaders. 
By Ian Tan Hanhonn 24 May 2023
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While many of us actively seek our purpose in life, for some, their purpose comes from looking for them.


Kong Lai Mee was just such an individual.


The 50-year-old mother of three is one of the 36 Comrade of Labour award recipients at this year’s May Day Awards ceremony.


The award is conferred on trade unionists who have made significant contributions to their unions for over five years and are still active in their executive committees.


She shares how she first became a union leader with the Chemical Industries Employees Union (CIEU), why she chooses to serve her fellow workers, and her hopes for the future.


Starting out

Like many career mums, Lai Mee was content to raise her three children with her husband while contributing to the household income.


She started working when she was 21 in 1994. In 2008, she started working with International Paint Singapore Pte Ltd as a sales support for the marine market.


“It is a fast-moving environment. I support the marine sales team and perform duties such as quotations and delivery arrangements. I also liaise with customers occasionally, depending on their needs and requirements,” she explained.


Around seven years ago, Lai Mee was approached by her operations manager to come on board as a branch official. She was initially uncertain if she should take on the position due to the required commitments.


“I didn’t know what was required of the role back then. But my operations manager assured me there was nothing much to it. He said that if members came to me for help, I just needed to be there for them,” she said.


Even though the role ended up being more than just a listening ear for her fellow members, it became obvious that Lai Mee’s manager had chosen the right candidate for the job.


She went on to helm the position of branch chairperson.


A natural leader


Lai Mee recalled an incident where she was approached by a member who needed help with his line manager.


While many would assume that a union leader should automatically jump to the defence of their member, Lai Mee carefully evaluated the situation before taking the next step.


She shared: “I told the member that before we even [bring up] his complaint, he must first raise the issue to his line manager. If the problem still cannot be resolved after doing so, we will bring the matter up with HR.”


She managed to resolve the issue between the member and his manager without having the matter escalate any further.


Lai Mee found herself wanting to help others as best she could. Whenever she was uncertain of the next steps, she approached the union’s industrial relations officer for assistance and clarification.


It was this quality of hers that made the union take notice. Within a year of becoming the branch chairman, she was also convinced by the industrial relations officer to take on an executive committee position within CIEU.


Today, she is also the union’s general treasurer.


Helping more members


Since becoming a union leader, Lai Mee has played an active role during negotiations with her company involving annual increments, bonuses, and the renewal of collective agreements.


The union has commended her on her attention to detail, tenacity, and proactiveness in gathering ground feedback before bringing proposals to the management.


But Lai Mee admitted that becoming the union leader she is today took years.


She thought being more aggressive during negotiations was necessary during her early days as a leader.


She has now, however, taken a more collaborative approach with her management, which she feels benefits both the company and its workers.


“As a member, I used to dread meeting with HR. But now I think we have a closer working relationship on a personal level, as well as between the union and the company’s management,” she shared.


Her hopes for the future


Even though she shows no signs of slowing down, Lai Mee said she is always looking for the next potential branch chairman.


She also hopes that more younger women would step up to take on union leadership roles as they would be more empathetic toward the needs of other female workers.


She said: “I have learned, by taking part in the NTUC Women’s Committee, that women often face more challenges, such as carrying the burden of work while still caring for the family.


“I think it is important for women to represent themselves – to fight for better support for women at the workplace.”


When asked if she would do it all over again, she said: “Most definitely … The experience has been a fun one. There are many things to learn, but you just need to take things step by step.”