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Thomas Harold Elliott arrived in Singapore with his wife in 1950 to work at a pharmacy. He left us in 1977, but not before sharing the best of his 27 years here with the community. Two of the co-operatives, NTUC Income and NTUC FairPrice, he helped found manage to do more than just survive. They thrive and continue to sustain the working population, meeting diverse needs from the practical to the aspirational.

His passing at the age of 63 (from a heart attack) was mourned by the labour movement. Mr Devan Nair, then Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and his colleagues were painfully saddened. The loss, he said, felt like an amputation.

Glimpsing Elliott’s legacy and accomplishments, one gets the impression that he was a master at time management. And a man of action too.  Shortly after his arrival in Singapore, he set off to work, unpaid work, which he juggled with his day job. A cause close to his heart was children welfare; he raised funds that went into the establishment of the Singapore Children’s Society in 1952.

Workers’ welfare was the other. He volunteered at trade unions, doing labour research, helping  unions with anything that needed to be done and organising new setups, such as the Naval Base Trade Union, established in 1952. When the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954, Elliot joined it as it “was the only party in Singapore with honesty and integrity”.

To countless trade union members, he was “a friend, guide and philosopher”. After Singapore's independence in 1965, Elliot believed that labour strikes would dampen Singapore’s economic growth, and urged unions to work with employers and government in the tripartite system. When National Wage Council was formed in 1972, he was one of NTUC’s representatives. He laboured tirelessly over labour causes, working well past retirement age. At the time of his death, he was Deputy Director of Research at NTUC.

Elliott was on the team that lent brain power to the pivotal NTUC Modernization Seminar in 1969. A socialist who believed that the basic nature of people is co-operative, he was the perfect fit, to a job that appeared to have been cut out for him.  He put his thoughts on paper, a comprehensive and prescriptive document on co-operative strategy that spelt out, in lucid detail, what co-operatives should be formed first and the steps needed. He was also instrumental in translating the plans into action which resulted in the birth of NTUC Income Co-operative (insurance), NTUC Comfort Co-operative (taxi) and NTUC Welcome Co-operative (a people’s supermarket, now NTUC FairPrice Co-operative) between 1970-1972.

It was impressive how Elliott juggled the many commitments which competed for his time, including his love - pharmacy. He took his career to another level, into an academic setting. He was appointed Director at the Department of Pharmacy, University of Malaya (renamed University of Singapore) and on earning his PhD in 1960, became its first Professor. In 1973, he was conferred Emeritus Professor by the University of Singapore. His quest for professional advancement proved valuable to a young nation which needed qualified pharmacists to support the medical service, and by extension, qualified professors to train them.

What events helped shape Elliott’s enterprise and outlook in life? Growing up in Great Britain during the Great Depression years, his childhood was fraught with difficulties. School came to an abrupt end when he was 16. He went to work as a pharmacy apprentice, even forgoing a university scholarship, as the family needed the money. After completing the apprenticeship, he went to the university to study pharmacy on borrowed money. The degree he obtained opened doors to a job in retail pharmacy, and subsequently, to the post of chief hospital pharmacist.  Tracing his life back to those early years, one found the clue to his grit, perseverance and ambition.

Not having privileges and comfort handed to him on a platter, Elliott could readily identify with the struggles of ordinary folks. He had arrived in Singapore in tumultuous times, the images of South Africa (his home country for three years) and the ills of apartheid still fresh on his mind. Starting out anew in Singapore, he did not ask what his host country could do for him. Instead, he focused on doing what he did best, to be a part of the solution to issues he felt strongly about. He identified with the interests and aspirations of the local community, and worked with compatriots to build a stable and prosperous society.

His works are too numerous to enumerate. Within the co-operative movement, NTUC Income Co-operative and NTUC FairPrice Co-operative represent two of his most enduring legacies. Fifty years later, the co-operatives have remained committed to their founding objectives while adapting to a changing labour landscape. They had shown, by being examples themselves, how the co-operative way - one that combines commerce with a social purpose - can be a viable alternative. As role models, they inspire others to take the co-operative route, together.

In recognition of his contributions to the co-operative movement, the Singapore National Co-operative Federation conferred on Professor Thomas Harold Elliott the Rochdale Gold Medal Award (posthumous) in 1982.  Twelve years before that, in 1970, NTUC awarded him the Medal of Honour. As a Chinese saying goes - remember the stream which is the source of the water that we drink - we appreciate Professor Elliott for what we have today.

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Singapore National Co-operative Federation
510 Thomson Road #12-02
SLF Building, Singapore 298135
Email: [email protected]
Tel (65) 6602 0747.

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