Cyrille Tan, the Giant of a Unionist

Cyrille Tan Soo Leng

Most in the NTUC fold would know of Cyrille Tan. Better known as Brother Cyrille.

The veteran unionist has been in the United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries (UWEEI) since 1981.

Cyrille Tan, the Giant of a Unionist

Cyrille Tan stood down from his position as General Secretary of UWEEI after 22 years.

This was back in September this year. I was tasked to interview him to find out his thoughts about UWEEI’s former Executive Secretary Madam Halimah Yacob, who had then just announced that she planned to contest the Presidential Elections.

Even though he had stepped down from the Executive Council as General Secretary in 2011, he continued to stay on as Advisor to the union. The union even carved out a space for him as his office.

So there I stood waiting at the entrance of UWEEI’s office at Tembeling Road. I was expecting the administrative staff to open the door for me, but out came Brother Cyrille who walked slowly. I could only feel a slight sense of embarrassment at making the guy walk all the way to the entrance to receive me.

It was my first time meeting him, but the next few moments with him immediately made me feel at ease. The kind of feeling was as though your father was welcoming you after a long day at work.

“Come in,” he said. “Sorry, my room is all the way at the end of the office, let’s do the interview there.”

“Can I get you a drink?”

“Sorry, we ran out of cups and mugs, so I found a foam cup…here’s your water…careful, it’s hot…”

I sat down on the sofa in the middle of the room, and realised that he was sharing the room together with someone else.

“They’re (UWEEI) quite nice. Still gave me a small space for a old man like me,” he joked.

We started by recounting his days in the union. Who would have known that he had such an illustrious two decades and more as a unionist, including being a Nominated Member of Parliament between 1997 and 1999.

For him, the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis was definitely a moment of reckoning. The union consultant shared that being in a volatile industry, their work of representing the rights of workers was cut out for them.

In total, more than 34,000 workers were retrenched between 2008 and 2009. Of these 8,220 electronic and electrical workers lost their jobs and at least 26,000 were placed on shorter work weeks and other arrangements. As a result, the electronic and electrical industries were the more severely affected sectors.

“At that point in time, we had to reach out and work closely with companies to convince them not to retrench workers.”

Together with UWEEI’s former Executive Secretary Halimah Yacob, they went from company to company to speak with management partners to persuade employers not to retrench but to upgrade the skills of workers and to cope with excess manpower.

Fortunately, the Government introduced skills upgrading programmes such as the SPUR (Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience) and Jobs Credit Scheme to help businesses cut costs and save jobs.

“It was a tedious effort to engage the management one by one, but it was definitely necessary for employers to cut costs and save jobs.”

Many knew that he was a great supporter of young leadership in the union. But he shared that it was also through the encouragement of former Executive Secretary Madam Halimah that he handed over the leadership baton to current General Secretary Tan Richard.

Many described Brother Cyrille as a funny man who never failed to crack people up. But it was actually his ability to make you feel welcome and at ease whenever you spoke with him that was very memorable.

Through it all, he had been a true-blue unionist, one who walked the talk and went with the flow of what the Labour Movement advocated for. Brother Cyrille was definitely someone who would take the lead and show by example the things that he believed in.

When the NTUC encouraged workers to go for skills-upgrading, he undertook a Bachelor of Science in 1996 at the age of 47. When the NTUC amended its constitution to pave the way for union leaders to “flow-on” at the age of 62, he volunteered to step down as a leader.

The one and a half hour interview came to an end. I learnt about his many union experiences, but I learnt what an outstanding character he was in helping union members in the last 30 years of his illustrious life. He left me inspired and I found myself wondering if I could make a difference to people’s lives as he had.

He walked me out of the union office down the long corridor and his last words to me were: “Thank you for coming all the way down here! See you again soon!”

Alas, that was not to be.

He passed away on 10 November 2017.

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