Who were our Pioneers? A look among industrial workers

Academic Views / Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

Historian Loh Kah Seng meets the people who made up an iconic generation that’s been celebrated for its collective contribution, but whose lives are barely known.

In recent years, older Singaporeans have been classified as members of the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations. Membership, based mostly on age, offers healthcare and welfare benefits. The aim is to ‘honour and thank our pioneers for their hard work and dedication in making Singapore what it is today’.

But for older Singaporeans, pioneerhood arguably is vested with deeper meanings drawn from historical experience and memory.  We still know remarkably little about the life and work of these once-youthful elders. What was their ‘hard work and dedication’ that is regularly mentioned but never fleshed out? History provides not only empirical answers to this question, but more importantly imbues pioneerhood with social meaning and significance.

The excerpt below from the book, Theatres of Memory: Industrial Heritage of 20th Century Singapore, explores the working lives of older Singaporeans in manufacturing from the 1960s. The government’s industrialisation programme transformed Singapore into a developed city-state. But through a social history of industrialisation, based on people’s memories, we can discover who our industry pioneers were – what they did on the factory floor, how they raised their families and in the process contributed to the making of a nation.

Main image: Mdm Deng Ya Yin demonstrates how she sorted rubber sheets in the factory, 2017. Photograph by Loh Kah Seng.

Pioneer Factory Women and Men

A generation of young people—the now adult baby boomers—entered the world of the factories, especially the flatted ones, in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a historic moment, as much as the transformation of Singapore’s economy. In taking up factory employment, many young adults left their parents’ homes to carve out new lives outside of the traditional Asian household. A cohort of economically and culturally independent young men and women emerged, helping to create what might be called an economic golden age for many of them. They forged new lives for themselves while building the nation’s industries. By 1980, more than half of the households in Singapore had two or more breadwinners, doubling real household incomes during the decade.[1] A new society, with very different families, was being formed.

On the factory floor, these young workers were also unlike their immigrant predecessors in colonial Singapore. Those sojourners were often more casually employed and dependent on their kin and community for financial and social support. By contrast, industrial workers were engaged in regular work. They received something that was novel in Singapore’s history, and which they desired: “stable pay”, as former factory worker Normah Dobbs put it.[2] It was novel to have a regular job and source of income for the duration of people’s working lives. The industrial employees were a pioneering generation and Singapore’s true working class, which had taken time to develop because of the tradition of trade. Their jobs and wages enabled them to settle down, buy a HDB flat and have (usually two) children. This laid the basis for Singapore’s new nuclear families.

Employees of Rollei at the end of their shift. Source: ­The Rollei Group of Companies in Singapore.

What was also notable about the new workforce was that it was largely feminine in a number of sectors. This was especially so in lower-paying industries and occupations, and in the 1960s and 1970s when the bulk of industries were labour-intensive. In the production of semiconductors, electrical components and appliances, toys, and garments and textiles, women formed the majority. In 1980, they formed up to 15% of the workers assembling electrical and electronics components, the industry that employed the most women.[3] As the labour shortage grew in the 1970s, the government also tried to attract more women into manufacturing. It even experimented with part-time employment for homemakers, but garments companies were cool to the idea.[4] Between 1957 and 1978, the number of women in the labour force increased by 284%, compared with 68% for men. By 1978, a third of the total workforce was female, and half of the women were in their 20s, though many left their jobs when they married or had their first child.[5]

Factory work became a staple occupation for unskilled women with basic primary or less education, more easily attainable than other popular jobs such as teaching or nursing. As a 1978 Straits Times article stated, “All that any unemployed girl has to do these days is to walk into a factory, especially one producing electronic components, and a job is practically hers”. From an average starting pay of $6 a day, an experienced line operator could earn up to $9.50 daily, while older, married women who continued to work in the industry could make over $400 a month. Besides pay, fringe benefits, although reduced under the Employment Act, were important to many workers. These included pay for overtime and public holidays, annual and sick leave, bonus payment during the Chinese New Year, transport and other allowances, official functions and activities, or even an air-conditioned workplace. Fringe benefits could also be intangible, as Christine Ow, an employee in an electronics factory, explained about her work,

“It is not really hard work. You only need commonsense. Not even strength. And it is safe and honest work. We can also dress sensibly, as we choose. Some girls work in jeans.”[6]

Women in all three major ethnic groups, not just the Chinese, were keen to join the new economy. In the 1970s, although Chinese women were among the first to venture into manufacturing, they were followed by significant numbers of Malay and Indian women; by the end of the decade, there was no real difference by ethnicity.[7] Chinese women were predominant in garments and textiles while their Malay and Indian counterparts were more numerous in electronics.[8] All the women discerningly weighed the pay and distance from home when considering a job. Some of them found their jobs through newspaper ads, but others relied on the recommendations of relatives, friends or even a school teacher—a mix of new and customary methods of finding employment. That word-of-mouth was often instrumental also shows that industrial work was rewarding and, in some cases, even enjoyable.[9]

These working women laid the basis for Singapore’s industrialisation programme, especially in the light industries in the 1960s and 1970s. It is true that this history raises important issues on gender inequality in industrial Singapore. Many of the women had lower levels of education than the men and worked jobs in low-wage, labour-intensive manufacturing, such as garments and electronics. They usually earned less than the men, though the income gap would narrow in subsequent decades.[10] In electronics, for instance, despite quintupling between 1968 and 1979, pay remained lower than the average in the manufacturing sector.[11] A study in 1973 found that women formed more than 92% of the employees in the electronic industry, with men concentrated in the managerial and technical grades. While managers’ monthly pay started from $860, the range for production workers was from $80 to $130.[12] Many, though not all, women had to turn down promotion opportunities due to their domestic responsibilities.[13]

Co-workers, and friends, at Rollei. Courtesy of Maryati Binte Mohamad Ma’arof.
Workers of Fairchild Singapore on the night shift. Courtesy of Vasanthara Devi.

However, the gender history of work also includes the rich and varied experiences of women factory workers and their agency in carving out new futures through employment. Take the example of Siew Gek,[14] a production worker in the Hewlett-Packard factory in Queenstown in the 1970s. When she first started work to supplement the income of her husband, a lowly-paid bus conductor, almost everyone opposed her decision, including the husband, her in-laws and her mother. But Siew Gek not only enjoyed her work, she knew it would expand her horizon. She was promoted to a lead girl in charge of a group of production operators. It was demanding to manage the group, for “[s]ome of them have boyfriends who are gangsters. They talk back at their lead girls and supervisors”.[15] Her work gave her new experiences and achievements.

Siew Gek’s career also marked the development of lower- and middle-income families in industrial Singapore, who gained improved standards of living. Saving from her regular pay, she bought a one-compartment Acma refrigerator, which cost over $400 and was a made-in-Singapore product from the factory in Jurong. Her family was able to move out from their one-room HDB flat into a two-room apartment. Like many emerging families then, she took a keen interest in her children’s education, anxious for them to do well in their studies and enrol in good schools. She said, “I’m not exactly sure what the best jobs for my children will be, but I hope they won’t have to take the kind of jobs their father and I have”.[16]

Many young women like Siew Gek were modern, intelligent and driven. Another female worker, Siti Yatim, was initially anxious upon graduating from school in the early 1970s but was elated to join Rollei Singapore as a production operator. As she wrote eloquently of her experience:

“It was a sense of insecurity, when fresh from school, I faced the world. The thoughts, that I had left behind me the secure and warm cocoon of school life, kept echoing in my mind. Will the ‘real life’ ahead of me be harsh? Will I be economically productive and useful to society or will I be just a debris of life, destined to drift aimlessly? Those were some of the uncertainties that I faced. Thus I felt ‘high’ and wonderful when I was given the opportunity to join Rollei Singapore even though as an operator.”

Like Siew Gek, Siti was promoted to an administrative position.[17]

The flip side of industrial work, affecting both women and men, was the 3Rs—recession, retrenchment and reduced pay. They formed an unavoidable part of the modern experience of working in a global economic system. While its economic growth was generally robust, Singapore was rocked by two recessions in 1974-1975 and 1985-1986. In the former crisis, retrenchment affected mostly foreign workers, but some locals had to take pay cuts. Factory worker Rozitah Abdul Aziz worked part-time as a singer to supplement her income, as she explained,

“I can hardly save now on my present pay. We work a shorter week and there is less pay. Before, I could easily tuck away $50 a month, now I’m lucky if I can manage $5.”[18]

Although they desired a stable income, many of the pioneer factory women and men did not enjoy lifelong employment in manufacturing. The experience of retrenchment—whether due to an economic crisis or corporate policy—seems to have been a mixed one. In 1985, GE closed down its Singapore plant, phasing out its TV assembly work and relocating to Malaysia, where wages were lower. The Straits Times reported a ‘cheery farewell’ for the remaining 500 workers, with a photograph of smiling workers leaving the factory in Toa Payoh. Female workers, in their 20s, appeared happy, receiving ‘windfalls’ from higher-than-expected retrenchment payoffs, and prepared for the outcome.[19] Three years later, National Semiconductor looked to retrench about a hundred workers following its merger with Fairchild. Its workers seemed optimistic about the future, and one of them, Madam Ho, explained her real sadness if she were retrenched,

“I don’t mind being retrenched as I know I will be able to find another job quickly. But I will miss my friends and the familiar working environment.”[20]

However, some factory workers who were retrenched had to settle for lower-paying jobs. In 1985, Goh Sim Ai lost her job at the electronics company E. Hopt, where she had walked to work for over a decade. The union helped her to find a new job the very next day, but this paid less than two-thirds her former salary.[21] In the 1985 recession, industrial companies throughout Singapore, such as Bata, Eveready and Union Carbide, ceased production and carried out a wave of retrenchments. James Jayabalan was let go from Honeywell Synertek, where he had worked his way up from the shopfloor to become a planner. Supporting a family of two, he said, “I need to have a job by the end of the month. Or else I am in trouble”.[22] Another factor in retrenchment was age. As they grew older, the loss of employment was more serious for middle-aged workers, making skills upgrading crucial for them to find new jobs.[23] In recent years, the retrenchment of older white-collar workers has become a serious issue.

We end this section by peering, together with some factory workers, through the microscopes they used. Looking into ‘scopes’, as they were commonly called, for long hours was a strenuous and unhealthy part of assembly work. Economist Linda Lim found in her research that after gazing into powerful microscopes daily for many years, “[c]omplaints of headaches, eye strain and eyesight deterioration over time are common”.[24] However, although such work was unpopular, there were still women who had to work with scopes for extended periods of time.

In addition to the women, their family members often knew the exacting nature of using the scopes. In 2020, we made a Facebook group post with a photograph of factory workers of Singapore Time working at their microscopes. Chua Jia Xiang replied that his mother had worked for many years there to the present day. He emphasised, “Yeah definitely, the picture has portrayed the hardship people went through”, adding, “Working day and night just to take care of me and my two siblings, I always feel thankful that I have a role model closest to me”.[25]


[1] W.G. Huff, The Economic Growth of Singapore: Trade and Development in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[2] Loh Kah Seng, interview with Normah Dobbs, 31 May 2017.

[3] Huff, The Economic Growth of Singapore.

[4] Straits Times, 22 Oct 1972.

[5] Cheng Siok Hwa, ‘Recent Trends in Female Labour Force Participation in Singapore’, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 8 (1-2) 1980, pp. 20-39.

[6] Straits Times, 18 Jun 1978.

[7] Cheng, ‘Recent Trends in Female Labour Force Participation in Singapore’.

[8] Ling Sing Chee, The Young Female Industrial Workforce in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations & Social Development Division, 1982).

[9] New Nation, 9 Jun 1975.

[10] Linda Y.C. Lim, Women in the Singapore Economy (Singapore: Chopmen, 1982); Linda Y.C. Lim, Women Workers in Multinational Corporations: The Case of the Electronics Industry in Malaysia and Singapore, Michigan Occasional Paper No. IX, Fall 1978.

[11] Linda Lim & Pang Eng Fong, Technology Choice and Employment Creation – A Case Study of Three Multinational Enterprises in Singapore (Singapore: Economic Research Centre, National University of Singapore, 1982).

[12] Hsu Mei Zhen, The Electronic Industry in Singapore, Bachelor’s Thesis for Department of Economics, Nanyang University, 1972-1973. 许美贞,《新加坡电子工业》南洋大学商学院经济系学士毕业论文,1972-1973.

[13] Ernest Koh, ‘Gender and Discipline in “The Singapore Story”: The Female Chinese Factory Workers in Perspective, c. 1980-c. 1990’, in Derek Heng & Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied (eds.), Reframing Singapore: Memory – Identity – Trans-Regionalism (Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2009), pp. 109-130.

[14] This is a pseudonym.

[15] Janet W. Salaff, State and Family in Singapore: Restructuring a Developing Society (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988).

[16] Salaff, State and Family in Singapore.

[17] Rollei News, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1972, p. 26.

[18] New Nation, 9 Jun 1975.

[19] Straits Times, 26 Oct 1985.

[20] Straits Times, 24 Mar 1988.

[21] Straits Times, 3 Feb 1985.

[22] Straits Times, 3 Feb 1985.

[23] Straits Times, 3 Sep 1996.

[24] Linda Lim, Multinational Firms and Manufacturing for Export in Less-developed Countries: The Case of the Electronics Industry in Malaysia and Singapore, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, 1978, Vol. 2, p. 350.

[25] Chua Jia Xiang, Facebook group posts, 6 Jul 2020, https://www.facebook.com/lohks/posts/10159906886768222?comment_id=10159906897933222&reply_comment_id=10159906909353222; https://www.facebook.com/lohks/posts/10159906886768222?comment_id=10159906897933222&reply_comment_id=10159906911218222