Temasek Foundation-Union Scholarship Award Ceremony – Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 01 November 2023

Ms Ho Ching, Chairman, Temasek Trust

Mr Lim Swee Say, Chairman, Temasek Foundation Cares Executive Board

Mr Ng Chee Meng, NTUC Secretary-General

Family members of the late union leaders – Nithi, Nachi, and Kumar

Scholarship recipients & families


Ladies & gentlemen

1. Good morning.

The Three Union Leaders

2. We are here today to honour the memory of these three individuals: Mr G Muthukumarasamy (commonly known as Muthu or even more commonly known as Kumar), Mr Nithiah Nandan Arumugam (Nithi) and Mr RKS Nachiappan (Nachi).

3. Well-known union leaders. Kumar was a former General Secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Daily Rated Workers (AUPDRW). Nithi was a Founding member and later General Secretary, and Executive Secretary of the Union of Power and Gas Employees (UPAGE). Nachi also former General Secretary, and Emeritus General Secretary of the UPAGE.

4. The three of them were strong advocates of education and lifelong learning.

5. They worked very hard to improve the welfare and career prospects of low-income, daily-rated workers.

6. They were an inspiration to many.

7. And it is really a privilege for us to have their families here with us. 

8. Today, we are here to honour the three union leaders in a, I would say, uniquely Singaporean way – by setting up scholarships, for students from relatively less well-off backgrounds.

9. Last year, I met with the current leaders of the daily-rated union. I have been an advisor; I now forget how many years, but it must have been like 30 years. And I worked with Kumar for a very long time.

10. I know Nithi and Nachi but I didn’t work with them. I worked with Kumar all these years first as an MP and later as a Minister. I have been an advisor, went with them for events and helping them at fund-raising and so on. I said, you know Kumar has passed on for some years now, but we should do something to remember him. You can do an event, you can do a dinner, you can put up a plaque but I wanted something that will carry on in living memory. I said, why don’t we do a scholarship – let’s do a scholarship, we raise some money, name it after him and we have students who will then remember forever. 

11. And I thought of Nithi and Nachi, I said they all helped daily-rated union workers. When I thought about it, I thought that I will be going around raising money, and I thought about it in very modest terms, $150,000 for each; and then I decided, well, maybe we should think a little bit bigger, and I called Ms Ho Ching. She was supportive and she passed it on to Tsai Kee, and I then spoke with Tsai Kee. I know that Temasek hadn’t done this sort of thing before so you really need to overcome those issues, I thought given the very good work that Temasek Foundation does both in Singapore and around the region, this is one way in which it can really help. They came back, Tsai Kee says it took a year. I can see why, it’s really well-curated. I was thinking in terms of maybe $500,000, a million dollars, if I went round and asked. Temasek Foundation’s involvement has meant they put aside $4 million dollars over a five-year period – that’s a decent sum of money to give a lot of students. And the whole idea is that you have 38 students today, every student who receives it, will remember I received the scholarship in the name of Nithi, Nachi or Kumar. And I suggested that we have some write-ups on these three leaders, so that every time somebody gets the scholarship, they will know who the scholarship was named after. And that way, the memory lives on, and for the rest of their lives they remember – I got Kumar scholarship, I got Nithi scholarship, and it will make a serious difference in their lives and successive generations, and pushes up and brings up people. 
12. If you go back to the three leaders - Nithi devoted his entire life to uplifting low-wage workers. He was a daily-rated worker for 20 years. He repeatedly turned down promotions, because he wanted to champion the training and skills upgrading for his co-workers. That’s the difference between unions in Singapore and unions elsewhere.  Unions elsewhere, you think in terms of fighting with the employers, fighting the government and strikes. Unions here, the leaders talk in terms of skills upgrading, sensible bargaining, employers share in the good years, in the bad years, we also take the pain, but workers’ rights must not be sacrificed. There are ways in which you advance the workers’ rights. He helped more than 2,000 daily-rated workers to have better lives. In his final days, he was fighting cancer, yet he signed the Collective Agreements. Pretty much the penultimate way to protect workers in the Singapore Power Group and generation companies. Speaks volumes of his spirit and heart. 

13. Look at Nachi, he also did much to improve the lives of low-wage workers. In the UPAGE, he brought daily-rated and monthly-rated workers under one union. Together with other key UPAGE leaders, he helped to foster tripartism, good industrial relations in the energy and power sector. 
14. Turning to Kumar, of course I know more about him.

15. He started as a daily-rated wireman in the Public Works Department. Over the years, he upgraded his skills, became a senior electrician. He rose in the AUPDRW to become its General Secretary in 2002, until he passed away in 2019. His contributions were significant. 

16. The union started out with about slightly more than a thousand daily-rated workers. It includes cleaners, gravediggers, maintenance workers.

17. Salaries were low day to day, skills were limited and of course lots of social and financial issues.

18. They did essential jobs. And they did jobs that kept the rest of Singapore clean and safe but their salaries were low, and they were not well-educated. 

19. They lived hand-to-mouth. It was a very precarious existence. You don’t turn up for work, you don’t get a salary.
20. But over time, as Singapore developed, opportunities increased, workers’ salaries went up, there were constant negotiations for better terms. I feel the story is not well told - but if you look at the daily-rated workers, including Kumar, you go to his house, a flat that he can call his own, a nice flat, his children own flats, all the daily-rated workers upgraded, they all became owners of their own houses, their own children got better educated. So today, the families of the three union leaders, I asked what each of the children were doing, what the grandchildren were doing – all being educated, all landed jobs, different, higher, better jobs. And their skills got upgraded too and many of them became PMETs.

21. Kumar was part of this journey. He and I had many conversations over the many years on the projects that they were doing and fundraising that we were doing, the kind of events they were having. We agreed on many things. 

22. One of the things, and probably the only thing that we disagreed on, he used to be somewhat emotional about the fact that the number of members in the union was coming down. In the last few years, it came down to like 300, 400, before he passed on.

23. He said: Sir, you know, I only have 300 members, not enough people. I said that’s a good thing. Why do you only have 300 members? Because Singapore has changed, life has changed, they have gone on to better jobs. They have gone on to jobs where they are no longer daily-rated workers, or no longer doing just one type of job. So you should be happy. The less numbers you have, the more successful you have been and Singapore has been, So he could see it, but that was always a continuing conversation. 

24. To give you a sense from another industry, under the Progressive Wage Model, starting salary for full-time security officers. We all know how security officers in the past were paid. From next year, I am told, that starting salary will be $2,650. And if you’re a supervisor, you get more than $3,000, close to $3,500. So that is progress. I am told, now, younger people want to become security officers. They are signing up. They understand IT, they understand video analytics, they want to join. Because within a year and a half of joining, with their skills and training, they can get a salary of $3,500. So it is no longer a job only for retirees who want to sit down and take it easy, it is different.

25. So, the unions by helping their members, in the context of the approach that Singapore takes, helps everyone to move up, in a more prosperous Singapore.

26. I think of all three union leaders, this is the best way in which we can remember them and they will be smiling at us from up above, because their names are going to be enshrined forever, in the hearts of people. And I am glad that my conversations have led to three scholarships or rather named after three people, or five years’ worth, well over $4 million and benefit close to 200 students and families who have lesser means. This is far bigger than the scale I have been thinking of, but I didn’t say that earlier because then the money might reduce. I am glad that it was curated to this extent that is far bigger than what I was thinking. 

27. I am extremely happy. I think Temasek Foundation’s role highlights a number of ways, special ways in which Singapore operates. They all come together, Government, unions, Temasek Foundation, Sec Gen of NTUC supports, Temasek supports, corporate and foundation. And the families understand, and people who need it come in and apply.  

Temasek Foundation Scholarships

28. The scholarships are bond-free, and they are awarded to low-income Singaporeans, who show academic excellence.

29. Recipients will be given support to pursue their studies in various Institutes of Higher Learning, including our six Universities, five Polytechnics, and the ITEs. 
30. The support comes in two forms. It will cover the recipient’s living expenses of between $3,000 and $5,000. It will also provide $2,000 to be shared among the recipient’s family. This second aspect is unique, and I congratulate the foundation for doing this. It recognises the important role of the recipient’s family, and helps to mitigate the family’s financial and other sacrifices.

Scholarship Recipients

31. To our scholarship recipients today, I say congratulations.  
32. There are 38 of you. You are the first batch to receive this Temasek Foundation Scholarships.  

33. Each of you has different backgrounds and aspirations. I went on asking for your courses and I am told that your courses include:

• Artificial Intelligence
• Accounting
• Aerospace avionics
• Business
• Chinese studies
• Culinary arts & operations
• Engineering
• Medicine
• Nursing
• Pharmaceutical Sciences
• Amongst others, healthcare too.

34. All very exciting opportunities. I am sure as Singaporean students, you will make the most of the opportunities, develop your potential, chart your paths. 

35. And I will say this, I spoke to some of you just now: I said in Chong Pang we give scholarships too. We require you to come back and do something for the community. We recognise that education, you doing well in school is a primary thing, but we also expect you to spend whatever bit of time you can, coming back and helping the community in some ways, so that you understand the lives of others too, and pay it forward. I hope that the 38 scholars today and the successive generations of scholars will be working in that direction, I will ask NTUC and Temasek to help in this, talk to you all, send you to different places to understand, do a little bit of community work. That’s the Singapore way, it’s what the three union leaders believed and dedicated themselves to.   

Closing Acknowledgements

36. In closing, let me thank your families, for all the support they have given you.  

37. Let me also thank Temasek Foundation, the unions, and the IHLs, for making these scholarships possible. 

38. This is an effort that can change lives. 

39. Thank you very much.