Ho See Beng



Ho See Beng (b. 5 February 1918, Fujian, China–d. 5 December 2008, Singapore) served as a labour union leader and member of parliament during Singapore’s formative years.1 A vanguard in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), Ho’s humble background and intimate understanding of grassroots and labour interests made him a political leader particularly attentive to the grievances of workers and marginalised groups.2

Early life and education
Ho was born to a poor peasant family in China’s Fujian province in 1918.3 His father, a trishaw rider, brought him to Singapore to join his mother when he was six years old.4 His father passed away eight years later. He started schooling at nine years old, but left school at the age of 17 to look for work so as to help his mother, a washerwoman, make ends meet.5

While working his first job, Ho was charged for driving without a licence. However, the judge let him go with a stern warning after hearing about his plight. This display of compassion became ingrained in Ho’s memory, and was to become a guiding principle for Ho in his future roles as trade unionist and politician.6

Ho subsequently held various jobs, including working as a driver and deliveryman for Cold Storage supermarket, a laboratory technician and even a pirate taxi driver.7 During his time at Cold Storage, Ho led a strike to demand for better work benefits, but was fired after that.8 Later, he was employed as a proofreader at The Straits Times newspaper, which eventually led him to join the Singapore Printing Employees’ Union (SPEU) as its secretary. Labour conditions at the time were often poor and exploitative, and Ho’s entrance into the SPEU marked the starting point of his career in the labour movement.9

Career in the labour movement
From 1958 to 1961, Ho served as secretary of the SPEU, and successfully fought against the colonial management for better wages and benefits for the employees of The Straits Times by taking the matter to the Industrial Arbitration Court.10


In 1961, the Singapore Trades Union Congress split into two entities, the Barisan Sosialis-linked Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and the NTUC, which had the support of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Ho, a founding member, was elected as chairman of the NTUC in 1962.11 He later became the NTUC’s first president from 1964 to 1966, and its secretary-general between 1966 and 1967.12 Thereafter, Ho served as the NTUC’s secretary for international affairs till 1969.13

In the early 1960s, against the backdrop of a communist threat, Ho rallied moderate unions together to form the NTUC; later, after independence, he managed to win over the unions that were formerly under communist influence, thereby bolstering the strength of the NTUC.14

Ho contributed significantly to the stabilisation of industrial relations after the tumultuous period from 1959 to the mid-1960s, which saw a large number of strikes and sit-downs. He was instrumental in helping workers see the merits of a more diplomatic approach in negotiations with management, rather than holding strikes and protests. As a result, he weakened communist influence in the labour force.15


The government enacted amendments to the Industrial Relations Act and the Trade Disputes Act in the 1960s to ensure the stability of industrial relations so as to facilitate economic growth.16 Ho played a key role in persuading workers to accept the profound changes in industrial relations for the progress of the country, and thus paved the way for harmonious tripartite relations between workers, employers and the government.17

Ho was one of the leaders responsible for sowing the seeds of modernisation of the trade-union movement in 1969. In the 1970s, the NTUC expanded into workers’ welfare and health, and established cooperatives – such as NTUC FairPrice supermarkets and the Workers’ Co-operative Commonwealth for Transport Ltd (or Comfort; now known as ComfortDelGro).18

However, during his helm of the NTUC, Ho also had to contend with criticisms that the NTUC was an appendage of the PAP and was not sincere in protecting the interests of its union members.19 Nonetheless, Ho’s desire to defend the interests of workers and the less privileged was apparent, as he carried that commitment through to his political career as a member of parliament by being an active voice for them.20

Other roles that Ho served in his career as a unionist include the appointment of adviser to the erstwhile Singapore Taxi Drivers’ Association (1963 to 1968) and Singapore Petty Traders’ Association (1964 to 1968).21

In 1969, Ho joined the Economic Development Board and headed its Industrial Relations Unit. He left the statutory board in 1982 and served as executive secretary of the Singapore Port Workers’ Union until 1984.22

Political career
Ho was among the first three trade unionists in the PAP to be elected into the Legislative Assembly in 1963.23 His established credentials as a capable and popular union leader, as well as his ability to converse well in dialects (especially Hokkien), helped him thrive in the political scene.24

Ho was elected as legislative assemblyman for Bras Basah in 1963, and continued his service in the parliament until 1984. He served five consecutive terms: in Bras Basah from 1963 to 1976, then in Khe Bong, a ward with many single-room public-housing flats, from 1976 to 1984.25

As a member of parliament, Ho espoused workers’ interests and opposed bills that he felt were detrimental to them. For instance, in 1967, he opposed – albeit unsuccessfully – the bill to ban strikes, stating that the legislation was unnecessary because trade disputes could be sent to arbitration.26 In 1968, Ho stood up against proposed amendments to the Employment Act, because the bill did not provide safeguards for employees’ interests and welfare. Ho, together with unionists, successfully pushed for the addition of some protective sub-clauses to the bill.27

Ho was committed to alleviating the plight of marginalised and less privileged groups and spoke for their interests during his time in parliament. In 1975, Ho proposed changes to the income-tax structure, such as increased tax reliefs, to help the working class to meet the rising cost of living.28 He also raised the subject of discrimination against ex-criminals and sought to alleviate it.29 To help the aged, Ho suggested that public assistance be increased for this segment of population.30 In 1971, Ho requested for leniency in the treatment of roadside hawkers when the government was phasing out street hawkers.31

In 1983, Ho exhorted grassroots leaders to voice out constructive criticism of government policies, at a time when grassroots leaders were reticent due to their fear of a backlash from the government.32

Retirement and legacy
Ho retired from politics and unionism in 1984.33 The Singapore Management University set up the Ho See Beng Scholarship and Ho See Beng Excellence Awards in 2009 to preserve Ho’s legacy. The scholarship benefits needy students in pursuit of university education, while the study awards aim to motivate students to achieve academic excellence.34 On 5 December 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former President S. R. Nathan launched a book about Ho entitled, Ho See Beng: The Washerwoman's Son. The book was commissioned by Nathan as a tribute to Ho.35

Ho passed away in 2008 at the age of 90 after suffering a long illness.36

Family37
Wife: Lee Beng Keow.
Children: Ho Cheow Seng, Ho Cheow Teck, Aminah Hussin, Ho Meow Choo, Ho Cheow Koon (deceased) and Ho Geok Choo (former member of parliament for the West Coast group representation constituency from 2001 to 2011).38
Ho had 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Awards
Ho received the Public Service Star (Bintang Bakti Masyarakat) in 1963, the Veteran of Labour honour at the NTUC May Day awards in 1979 and the Public Service Star (Bar) in 1990.39 He was posthumously conferred the NTUC 50 Award in 2011 as a tribute to the significant contributions he had made to Singapore’s labour movement.40



Author
Terence Foo



References
1. Lee, S. H. (2008, December 6). Former MP and unionist Ho See Beng dies aged 90. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Zakir Hussain. (2008, December 8). Late MP and the child he gave away. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Untitled. (2008, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 39. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Goh, C. L. (2008, December 7). Last respects for man of integrity. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Zakir Hussain. (2008, December 8). Late MP and the child he gave away. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Lee, S. H. (2008, December 6). Former MP and unionist Ho See Beng dies aged 90. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ahmad Osman. (1982, March 2). Labour leader’s long hard climb. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Goh, C. L. (2008, December 7). Last respects for man of integrity. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
5. Lee, S. H. (2008, December 6). Former MP and unionist Ho See Beng dies aged 90. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Zakir Hussain. (2008, December 8). Late MP and the child he gave away. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6.
 Zakir Hussain. (2008, December 8). Late MP and the child he gave away. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Zakir Hussain. (2008, December 8). Late MP and the child he gave away. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Wong, A. (2008, December 12). A champion of the workers. Today, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Zakir Hussain. (2008, December 8). Late MP and the child he gave away. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ahmad Osman. (1982, March 2). Labour leader’s long hard climb. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. National Trades Congress Union. (2008, December 5). Fearless union pillar passes on, legacy lives on. NTUC This Week, p. 2. Retrieved from NTUC website: http://www.ntuc.org.sg/wps/wcm/connect/03c0808044f48742a37bbf22f54c8cec/Rebel%2BWith%2BA%2BCause%2BWorkers'%2BWarrior%2BBids%2BFarewell.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=03c0808044f48742a37bbf22f54c8cec; Ahmad Osman. (1982, March 2). Labour leader’s long hard climb. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wong, A. (2008, December 12). A champion of the workers. Today, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. No move to unify unions movement. (1961, November 18). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wong, A. (2008, December 12). A champion of workers. Today, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Goh, C. L. (2008, December 6). ‘He knew how to listen, and make others listen’. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. 2 ministers among nine who will be honoured. (1979, May 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Ho See Beng: Union leader who did not mince his words. (2014, July 12). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
14. A man of principle and courage. (2008, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Au Yong, J. (2008, December 12). Happy family video, then a final send-off. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Zakir Hussain. (2008, December 8). Late MP and the child he gave away. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Ho See Beng: Union leader who did not mince his words. (2014, July 12). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; A man of principle and courage. (2008, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1968, May 6). President’s Speech (Vol. 27). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 13. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.5957 SIN).
17. Lee, S. H. (2008, December 6). Former MP and unionist Ho See Beng dies aged 90. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; PM Lee’s condolence letter to wife of Mr Ho See Beng. (2008, December 6). AsiaOne. Retrieved from AsiaOne website: http://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20081206-106046.html
18. A man of principle and courage. (2008, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Transport co-op is launched. (1970, November 21). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. ‘A stooge’ – Zaidi hits back at S’pore NTUC. (1967, April 25). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; NTUC an offspring of the PAP, says Lu. (1965, January 7). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Strike in public utilities will endanger the economy: Wee. (1967, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ho See Beng: Union leader who did not mince his words. (2014, July 12). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
21. Ho See Beng: Union leader who did not mince his words. (2014, July 12). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
22. Ahmad Osman. (1982, March 2). Labour leader’s long hard climb. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, I. (1984, May 29). Ho See Beng to give way to young blood in politics and trade unions. The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Ahmad Osman. (1982, March 2). Labour leader’s long hard climb. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Ahmad Osman. (1982, March 2). Labour leader's long hard climb. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; PM Lee’s condolence letter to wife of Mr Ho See Beng. (2008, December 6). AsiaOne. Retrieved from AsiaOne website: http://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20081206-106046.html
25. Lee, S. H. (2008, December 6). Former MP and unionist Ho See Beng dies aged 90. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; A man of principle and courage. (2008, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Strike in public utilities will endanger the economy: Wee. (1967, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Ho See Beng: Union leader who did not mince his words. (2014, July 12). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
28. Plight of the ‘beleaguered working class’. (1975, March 18). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. MP: Give ex-criminals a chance to reform. (1971, December 18). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Ho to ask for more aid for the aged. (1966, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. MP to ask for more leniency for hawkers. (1971, December 2). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ministry of the Environment. (2000). Hawker management. In Annual report 2000 (pp. 66–69). Singapore: Ministry of the Environment, p. 67. Retrieved from National Environment Agency website: http://www.nea.gov.sg/cms/ccird/pg_66_69.pdf
32. Grassroots leaders must speak up more. (1983, June 28). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33.  Lim, I. (1984, May 29). Ho See Beng to give way to young blood in politics and trade unions. The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Goh, C. L. (2009, April 27). SMU study awards launched in honour of Ho See Beng. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Toh, Y. C. (2014, December 5). Book on pioneer unionist Ho See Beng launched. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
36. Lee, S. H. (2008, December 6).
Former MP and unionist Ho See Beng dies aged 90. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Untitled. (2008, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 39. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Parliament of Singapore. (2014, October 16). Member’s CV: Mrs Ho Geok Choo. Retrieved from Parliament of Singapore website: http://www.parliament.gov.sg/mp/ho-geok-choo?viewcv=Ho%20Geok%20Choo
39. S'pore National Day honours for 424 residents. (1963, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; 2 ministers among nine who will be honoured. (1979, May 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Day honours list 1990. (1990, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Chew, C. (2011, May 12). NTUC pays tribute to ‘special 50’. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.




Further resources
Fong, S. C. (1980). The PAP story – The pioneering years. Singapore: Times Periodicals.
(Call no.: RSING 329.95957 FON)

Josey, A. (1968). Labour laws in a changing Singapore. Singapore: D. Moore.
(Call no.: RSING 344.595701 JOS)

Nathan, S. R. (2011). An unexpected journey: Path to the presidency. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 NAT -[HIS])

Peh, S. H. (2005, December 9). My best friend, Devan Nair. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Vasil, R. (1989). Trade unions. In K. Singh & P. Wheatley (Eds.). Management of success: The moulding of modern Singapore. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
(Call no.: RSING English 959.57 MAN -[HIS])



The information in this article is valid as at 24 October 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.

Subject
Community and Social Services
Personalities
Politics and Government

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