THE late Dr P P Narayanan used to tell me: "There's plenty of darkness under the lighthouse!" Many of you would know that PP, as he was fondly referred, was somewhat of an icon in the Malaysian trade union movement.
In his hey day, PP was well-loved and respected, and in the rubber estates, he was seen as the champion of workers who toilded to make our rubber industry what it is today. Today, as Malaysian workers celebrate Worker's Day, I'm not sure if PP is still remembered for his contribution to a better life for Malaysian workers.
In the early days, Worker's Day was referred to as Labour Day, which was also referred to May Day. Changing the name Labour Day to Worker's Day was an attempt to dignify the blue collar workers, while widening the scope of recognition of other employees.
PP, usually in his white suit, would walk the estates getting them united in the common pursuit of better wages, living conditions and benefits. He led the National Union of Plantation Workers and under his leadership gave the workers reasons to be together as a movement seeking a better life.
PP had a disciple in the form of the late Dr V David, another stalwart who took labour into active politics. David succeeded in garnering workers sentiments and votes that took him to Parliament in the early '80s. David was a labour leader in every sense of the word, and with his burly size, was often mistaken as a rebel-rouser, which he was not.
His erstwhile partner in labour then was Zainal Rampak, a younger version of David himself. Zainal was a pupil to both PP and David, though it was with David at the Transport Workers Uion that he made his name as an influential trade unionist.
There were other names too who were respected - Ragunathan of the Malaysian Technical Services Union and T Narendran of Cuepacs. Both these leaders were articulate and argued their cases with force and conviction.
The trade union movement had its fair share of critics too. Imagine PP, David and Zainal having had to deal with a union of their own employees! The workers of trade unions formed a trade union because they felt left out and were taken for granted by their employers!
Today's trade unions have a different set of challenges. They have to make a paradigm shift because they no longer lead workers who are only good with their hands but with their brains as well. Today's trade unionists must be e-unionists as well, competent with today's ICT tools so that they can lead by example.
If they don't, they may find themselves no longer relevant to the employment scene in the country. Happy Labour Day!