Devan Nair: He formed and led the NTUC

He was Singapore's third President, but the late Mr Devan Nair was the voice of ordinary working men and women.

In 1961, he founded the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), which remains the sole trade union group here, with more than 830,000 members.

Back when trade unions ran along political lines, Mr Nair saw how they flocked to the pro-communist Singapore Association of Trade Unions and knew then that "the party who controlled the trade union movement... ruled Singapore".

He fought back by leading NTUC with pragmatism and within three years, his practical leadership won over more than 60 per cent of the trade unions.

"The workers were interested in salaries, payrolls, bonuses. Not in strikes or a communist state," he said.

Ever the revolutionary, he decided in 1969 that it was time for trade unions to ditch their confrontational methods.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, workers often staged strikes to wrestle more benefits from their employers.


The charismatic Mr Nair persuaded them to join forces with their employers and the Government, sowing the seeds for a strong tripartite alliance which still stands today.

Former unionist and Member of Parliament Lawrence Sia recalled: "He got the unionists to stop banging tables and shouting slogans, and to work together with employers to build a modern labour movement."

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs: "Devan taught the union leaders the basic principles of economics and helped make the tripartite National Wages Council a success."

But while he was busy modernising the labour movement, Mr Nair never lost sight of workers' welfare.

During the 1970s, Singapore experienced double-digit inflation and food prices spiked due to soaring oil prices.

He pushed for the setting up of cooperatives like the NTUC Welcome chain stores which sold essential goods to workers at low prices. The chain later evolved into NTUC FairPrice supermarkets.

Before his death in 2005, Mr Nair described the time spent in trade unions battling for workers as his proudest years.

As for his contribution to Singapore's history, he said: "Some verdicts had best be left to history."


He possessed a near concert-quality singing voice and used to entertain his family with Hindi and Bengali songs.

He was conferred an Honorary Doctors of Letters degree by the University of Singapore in 1976. But he never used it as he felt that he had not earned it in the "academic way".

His son Janadas Devan recalled that Mr Devan Nair spanked him only once and then "spent the rest of the day apologising" for it.

In the 1950s, he was detained by the British in St John's Island for anti-colonial activities. He referred to his prison as "St John's University" as he spent his time there reading books on philosophy and religion and copying excerpts into exercise books.


Mr Devan Nair was fiercely anti-colonial.

As a student, he led the Victoria School choir in singing Rule Britannia before a British guest-of-honour.

All was well until he got to the verse "Britannia rules the waves, Britons shall never, never, never be slaves".

Without missing a beat, he belted out: "And Britain shall never, never, never rule the waves!"

He was not allowed to sing in the school choir again.

In 1951 and 1956, he was imprisoned by the British for anti-colonial activities.

Even while in jail, he wrote letters calling for independence from the British and those letters were published in the newspaper Singapore Standard.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was quick to spot his talent and asked him to join the People's Action Party in 1954.

This article was first published on June 1, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.