For over three decades, Mr Richard Tan
has been a voice for union rights, speaking
on behalf of his fellow workers. He explains
the importance of maintaining the longstanding
dialogue between unions and employers.

When Mr Tan speaks, people listen.

It could be his sonorous voice that compels their attention. Or it could be that they know he’s on their side. “I may look stern,” says the General Secretary of the Housing and Development Board Staff Union (HDBSU), “but my staff and union brothers and sisters know they have my full support.”

Mr Tan joined HDB in 1976. Now 59, he leads a team of over 60 customer service staff at HDB. The team receives about 1 million calls from residents every year. “That means we answer some 3,000 calls daily,” he says with a note of pride in his voice, “and we work really hard to make sure we give each caller our best.”

Mr Tan is passionate about sharing his personal commitment of support with his staff and union brothers and sisters. He first ran for office at HDBSU in 1979 because he wanted to be more proactive on behalf of his colleagues. “The strong and cordial relationship enjoyed by HDB management and the union also won the support of our staff,” he says. “Today, over 80% of HDB’s rank-and-file officers are union members.”

Over the decades, Mr Tan has taken on various posts in the union’s executive committee, becoming the General Secretary in 2007. “Unions are one of the key pillars of industry here in Singapore,” he says, “and all of us share the responsibility of making this unique relationship work.”

When HDB’s Building and Development Division was corporatised as HDB Corporation (later rebranded as Surbana Corporation), the union worked closely with management to ensure that the public remained well-served, and that the transition was a smooth one for affected staff. HDBSU was also instrumental in helping HDB restructure its clerical scheme of service in 2006. Under the new scheme, each clerical officer performs multiple functions – a cashier, for example, also performs counter service, attending to phone enquiries and other administrative duties.

Although the restructuring helped clerical officers to broaden their skill-sets and improve their employability, there was disquiet among union members when it was first announced. Once again, Mr Tan and his team rolled up their sleeves and held numerous dialogues with members, finally winning them over. “We understood that if the scheme wasn’t restructured, the careers of our clerical officers would become stagnant,” says Mr Tan. “But with the new scheme, they now have longer and more varied career pathways, and can serve the public better.”

This delicate balance of interests has only been possible, says Mr Tan, because of HDBSU’s longstanding relationship with its members and HDB’s senior management. “If this trust doesn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to discharge our professional duties properly,” says Mr Tan. “And if the trust is broken, it will take many years to rebuild.