Veteran trade unionist Tan Soon Yam dies, aged 83

The former NTUC vice-president and Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union (FDAWU) general secretary dedicated over 50 years of his life towards the betterment of his fellow workers.

By Ian Tan Hanhonn 24 Jul 2023
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Tan Soon Yam was one of the founding members of the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union (FDAWU). He was also the union’s longest-serving general secretary, helming the position from 1966 to 2005.


The veteran trade unionist passed away on 21 July 2023. He was 83.


Before helping to establish FDAWU, Mr Tan was a member of the Industrial Workers Union of Singapore (IWU), serving as the union’s vice president at age 25.


NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng paid tribute to Mr Tan on Facebook, sharing that he fought selflessly for fairer wages and working conditions for his fellow workers – especially throughout the tumultuous times of the 60s.


He wrote: “Brother Soon Yam was well-respected by union leaders and workers as a fearless fighter for our workers, a relentless protector of our workers’ rights.


“He was instrumental in handling the massive retrenchment exercise in the Navy, Air and Armed Forces Institutes (NAAFI) following the withdrawal of the British forces in 1967 – helping more than a thousand workers to look for alternative jobs, making sure that their needs were taken care of.”


He noted that Mr Tan always pushed workers to upgrade to keep up with the times. He added that under Mr Tan’s leadership, FDAWU came to represent most of all the gazetted hotels in Singapore.


“Brother Soon Yam was a leader who upheld his beliefs against all odds and did what was right and, importantly, what was best for our workers,” he said.


Mr Tan was also a former NTUC assistant secretary-general from 1982 to 1985 and the congress’ vice president between 1985 and 2002.


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Brother Tan Soon Yam with NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng at the National Delegates' Conference 2019.


The founding of FDAWU


During the 1960s, IWU was one of the unions that supported the pro-communist Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).


Even though Mr Tan was vice-president of IWU, he had previously shared that his motivations towards union work had always been non-political and that he only cared about bettering the lives of his fellow workers.


In 1964, when the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) branch of IWU decided to break away and align itself with the non-communist NTUC, Mr Tan and his comrades from the Malayan Refrigerating Company branch decided to do the same.


This was because IWU’s leadership then was determined to pursue dangerous pro-communist tactics – something that Mr Tan and his comrades believed would prove harmful to the real interests of workers.


With that decision, Mr Tan became one of the founding members of FDAWU in 1964. He would become the union’s general secretary less than two years later.


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Brother Tan Soon Yam briefing newly elected FDAWU Branch Officials in the early 70s.


Notable contributions


Under his leadership, FDAWU’s membership numbers grew steadily over the years.


From some 2,000 members in 1964, the union’s membership numbers have grown to nearly 56,000 members today.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also commended Mr Tan's contributions in his May Day Rally 2014 speech.


Mr Lee shared that Mr Tan had helped to manage the retrenchments at the NAAFI stores when British forces withdrew in 1967.


NAAFI stores were big employers during the 60s. They provided goods, retail products, and cinemas to British service members.


Mr Lee said: “When the British left, these people were left with no jobs, and we had to find new jobs for them, and leaders like Soon Yam helped to take care of them, reassure them and find them new ways to make a living.


“He also fought politically because he persuaded hotel workers from the pro-communist union to leave the pro-communist union, join the FDAWU and made FDAWU dominant to represent almost all the gazetted hotels in Singapore.”


Parting philosophy


As a union leader, Mr Tan believed in working with, and not against, employers to better workers' lives.


He believed in solving grievances at the negotiating table and that strikes were tools the unions should use as a last resort.


In an interview in 2019, he said: “Don’t forget about the fundamental role of the union. The most important thing is to serve the workers … Consider the difficulties of the employers but remember, you are elected by workers, so work for them.”