PME Conversation - Nursing the way to a strong, unified voice


Photo by Lim Weixiang


DIANA CHIA
PRESIDENT, NATIONAL TRADES UNION CONGRESS
 

LIFE AS A NURSE IN THOSE EARLY DAYS WAS TOUGH. WE DIDN’T HAVE A LOT OF THE THINGS THAT WE TAKE FOR GRANTED TODAY.
 

    I didn’t go into nursing immediately after I finished my ‘O’ Levels, because my mother had been a nurse and I think subconsciously I didn’t want to fit into the stereotype where the daughter follows in the footsteps of the mother. So I tried out various other jobs before eventually finding my true calling as a nurse.

    I thought my days of studying were over because I had thought nursing to be a very practical and hands-on job. But after signing up as trainee nurse, I realised that there was actually a lot of studying involved. On top of the practical aspects of the job, where we served in the wards, there were a lot of theory tests and exams that we had to study for.

    As a trainee nurse, my starting salary was $180. I don’t know how we got by on that paltry sum but somehow we managed and we were happy. I have fond memories of those early days, living in a dormitory with the other trainee nurses. The camaraderie we had was wonderful. We lived, ate, cried and laughed together. After a hard day in the ward, there was always someone to lend a sympathetic ear to your problems and frustrations.

    Life as a nurse in those early days was tough. We didn’t have a lot of the things that we take for granted today. Unlike today where most medical implements are disposable, recycling was more prevalent then. Everything was so precious, even the mercury thermometer for temperature taking! We also had to manually calculate and count the number of droplets to infuse drips timely, but now we have the auto-infusion pumps to take over the job.

    We do not only have to be physically strong; we also have to fortify ourselves and develop mental toughness. Nursing is not a job for the faint of heart. You see a lot of blood in this line of work; you see accident victims or burn victims come into the hospital, and you need to steel yourself and help the doctors treat them. You have to learn to control your emotions. My first patient was a young girl who was fighting cancer. When she passed on, I was completely heartbroken because I had nursed her for such a long time.

    After five years as a nurse in a government hospital, I decided to further my nursing education in midwifery and operating theatre course in the United Kingdom (U.K). Today, there are plenty of options for various types of training available in Singapore for nurses who want to upgrade their skills. But back then, training opportunities were limited and we had to wait a long while for the courses. Some nurses go overseas to pick up more specialised skills. Singapore was still a very young nation then. The government wasn’t very rich, so there weren’t many government grants I could tap on. To raise enough money for me to travel overseas, I had to leave the hospital and take on a more highly-paid job as a private nurse.


THE CATALYST WHICH LED ME TO TAKE UP A MORE ACTIVE ROLE IN THE UNION WAS THE RESTRUCTURING OF SINGAPORE GENERAL HOSPITAL IN 1989.

 

JOINING THE UNION
When I was growing up, my father was very active in the union. He was very passionate about the cause and would often tell us about the work he did for them. So I have always understood the importance of the union. I supported the work of the union but my involvement in the union was limited in the initial years of my nursing career.

    The catalyst which led me to take up a more active role in the union was the restructuring of Singapore General Hospital in 1989. It was a period of great uncertainty for the hospital staff. Many feared for their jobs, which were hitherto considered to be “iron rice bowls”. Would the new management take care of us all?

    The Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) could no longer represent us, because we were no longer part of the civil service. There were plenty of murmurings on the ground, but these were soft and scattered voices. I believed strongly that what we needed was a strong, unified, and clear voice which would be heard by the new management. So some of us from AUPE formed a protem committee with the assistance from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and AUPE.

    During my time as a student nurse in the U.K, I had experienced first-hand the ill-effects of a health-care and transportation strike; we couldn’t leave our patients without care, but with essential services cut, it was very difficult for us to travel to work. In the wards, there were lots of compromises. We couldn’t wash the dirty linen, so we had to dispose of them by burning. It was a period of great inconvenience for everyone. The experience made me see that while our first priority is to protect the rights of workers, at the same time, we must not be too restrictive. We need to be fair not only to the employee but to the employer as well.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Singapore’s economy has changed dramatically in the last decade. Life-long employment is quickly becoming a thing of the past. In the workplace, the pace of change is accelerating. Jobs are constantly being redefined. Workers have to be on their toes, and continually pick up new skills.

    I work in the fertility department in the hospital and we are constantly learning. We learn, relearn, unlearn. Medical science moves very quickly. We have to keep up with the changes in medical techniques and master new medical technologies so that we can continue to do the best for our patients.

    I am worried about whether workers will be able to adapt quickly enough to pick up the new skills required in this new economy. There will always be workers whose skill-sets are sought after, but what about the workers with more common skillsets? Society cannot take care of the fittest alone. How do we take care of the people in the middle and the bottom? How can NTUC help them to stay relevant in the
workplace?

    To meet the challenges of a changing economy, the whole union movement will have to embrace change. NTUC has to be the first mover, but we need to have buy-in from our affiliates so that we can move together in tandem to meet these challenges.

 


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This story is part of the PME Conversation book which was launched in April 2015. To read more stories, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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