Chandran Ponnusamy

Tough time don’t last; tough people do. Mr Ponnusamy Chandran is one of those tough people who lived through a tough childhood and has managed to change his own fortune through sheer effort.

During his early years, his basic needs and necessities were not met – he had to walk a great distance to fetch water in a bucket and transfer it into a drum. He had to rise early and do the household chores all by himself. With the 5 cents he used to get from his sister, he couldn't even afford to get the food that he wanted. Mr Chandran was also made to stand outside the classroom in school for not being properly dressed.

Yet despite all that he has gone through, he believes that one’s suffering will not go in vain, and that at the end of it all, there’ll be some form of reward to reap from it all. All the skills he has picked up in life is of use to him now as he has a choice not to rely on anyone to get things done.


“The failure was a turning point for me. It was a foundation for me to succeed.”

Mr Chandran was determined to move up the ranks and he knew upgrading himself was the way to go. His busy hours from work did not dim his drive to study. He used to finish his work and any overtime work, take a shower and then attend classes at Singapore Vocational Institute in the evenings. The launch of evening classes (popularly known as ‘Lembaga’) by unionist and ex-president Devan Nair was a boon to motivated people like Chandran.

His mode of transport was his beloved cycle, which faithfully brought him from his work place at Thomson to the vocational institute in Balestier. However it was not always smooth going as Chandran also had to overcome the lack of support from his colleagues and seniors at work, as in the 70’s the management and even the government were not supportive of employees furthering their studies.

With his initial salary of $4.45 as a daily rated worker, he saved up to study and slowly made his way up at the workplace. His relentless effort in improving himself and his skill sets speaks for itself as he got promoted progressively to become a principal technical officer just before retirement.


“First time in PUB history, a daily-rated employee was promoted within 4 months of joining.”

It is astounding to learn how Mr Chandran made his way up the ranks from a regular member to become the President of the PUB EMPLOYEES union.

Although union work was part time, done after regular work is completed, Mr Chandran put in his best and he was duly recognised and pushed up the ranks even though seniority based promotions were the order of the day. He honed his skills in negotiations, handling grievances and employee issues by taking up many courses offered by the union.

One of his biggest achievements was the removal of barriers that hindered technicians without diplomas from advancing in their career. Mr Chandran changed the mindset that while a diploma has great value, hands-on experience at the actual workplace was equally valuable and that, the practical benefit that comes from work experience should not be disregarded.

Mr Chandran changed the daily salaried worker system in the union that was put in place by the British. Under this old system, only the workers who were needed for the day were paid for the day’s work and those who did not get called went unpaid. Mr Chandran sought to change this and implemented a new system such that everyone was paid monthly.

He introduced new policies where technicians who were limited to their particular role, could improve their skills and get promoted to a higher rank. This gave those who were not highly educated a chance to study again and rise up the ranks. Mr Chandran cites an example of how someone who used to earn $1,500 monthly could earn up to $5,000 monthly after the certification.

Furthermore, he negotiated for fringe benefits such as allowances for workers in power station who had to put up with problems like heat and noise. He also ensured that shift workers, who work odd timings that disrupt their daily routine, were adequately compensated for the daily inconveniences and troubles they had to go through.

“Everybody wants to eat meat and you want to eat the bone?”

While his work in the union continued unabated, Mr Chandran also wanted to do something more for the larger Indian community. He saw how the Indian children were lagging behind in school especially in the three key subjects of English, Math and Science. He got in touch with like-minded Indians through his network to seek ways to remedy this situation.

Unionist Kandasamy had similar thoughts and Chandran joined forces with him to work with the Tamil Representative Council. Community stalwarts like Gopal from HDB, Elangovan from PUB, Balasubramaniam from Singapore Postal service and Dr Veeramani from the academic services joined forces, brainstormed and came up with a concerted tuition program for the youth. But it was not just a matter of starting the tuition service. A lot more had to be done to ensure the success of this program.

Even Mr Chandran’s own children, went to study at those schools on Saturdays. They also found it effective and his son was supremely rewarded when he achieved 4A Stars and received the Prime Minister Book Prize from Dr Tony Tan for Tamil and English.

“There was a worrying concern of schools reducing their Tamil language classes.”

It is evident from his words that he worked not only for himself but also for his children so that they would lead comfortable lives. The constant thought of his kids’ futures drove him to work hard to ensure that his children do not have to suffer the way he did.

Coming from a humble beginning himself, Mr Chandran stresses the importance of treating everyone equally and never looking down on anyone. He also places great emphasis on the saying “charity begins at home”, and that while it is good to advocate for social causes and help others, it is equally important to look after one’s own family before reaching out to others. He has lived by this motto all his life and now in his retirement, is still helping others and is always ready to offer a helping hand.

Perhaps, the most conclusive message that he has for us is that we should all lead meaningful lives till our last breath. For this is what gives beauty to life.


A dedication to the pioneers in the Indian community.

50Faces brings your stories of ordinary Singaporeans who have contributed to our community and nation building.