Phey 'led a miserable life' and lived in fear while on the run

Phey Yew Kok in court yesterday. His lawyers said he regrets absconding and is ''ashamed and sorry'' for what he did.
Phey Yew Kok in court yesterday. His lawyers said he regrets absconding and is ''ashamed and sorry'' for what he did. ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

He took up odd jobs such as pig farming, had no regular income and worried about getting caught every day

Little was known of how Phey Yew Kok had spent his days since fleeing to Kuala Lumpur on New Year's Eve in 1979 - until now.

Yesterday, Phey, now 81, pleaded guilty to 12 charges and was sentenced to five years in jail, backdated to June 23 last year.

In mitigation, Senior Counsel Chelva Rajah said Phey "led a miserable life" away from his family during 35 years on the run.

In Thailand, the former chairman of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and former MP for Boon Teck had no identity card, passport or regular income.

Each day, he worried about being arrested. Unable to stay in one place for long out of fear of being recognised, he took up odd jobs such as pig farming, hawking and cleaning grease traps to support himself.

But as he got older, finding a job became increasingly difficult.

He started losing vision in his right eye over 10 years ago and did not have enough money to seek medical attention.

His last job, said Mr Rajah, was as a watchman for a godown, but it grew difficult for him to stay on as he began losing sight in his left eye, along with his sense of hearing.

Now, he is completely blind in his right eye and unable to see out of the top half of his left eye. He also suffers from severe hearing impairment. But the jail term is not expected to adversely affect his health.

He is "not the same man" who left Singapore over three decades ago, said his lawyer.

Phey, who is married with three children, had decided to surrender himself at the Singapore Embassy in Thailand on June 22 last year, in the hope of spending his last days with his family rather than in a foreign land.

Being away during his children's formative years, he hopes to mend relations with them, according to his lawyers. He also wishes to meet his two granddaughters.

Phey stood alone in court yesterday, flanked by two guards. He listened with a solemn, unchanging expression as the charges were read. None of his family members was seen in the gallery.

He was represented by Senior Counsel Rajah, partner Chen Chee Yen and associate Andre Teo of Tan Rajah & Cheah.

In mitigation, his contributions to the fledgling labour movement were also highlighted.

In 1970, the NTUC set up the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo) to win over industrial workers from left-wing unions. Phey was chosen to head it and the Pioneer Industries Employees Union (PIEU), which was set up to woo factory workers in Jurong.

His fluency in Teochew and Hokkien and Chinese education background helped him communicate effectively with blue-collar workers in the Jurong Industrial Estate.

Former president and unionist S R Nathan wrote in his memoirs that under Phey's leadership, Silo and PIEU "developed a reach well beyond the expectations of earlier NTUC leaders".

Phey's lawyers said that, with hindsight, Phey regrets absconding and is "ashamed and sorry" for what he did. His actions have let down the union movement "which he was wholeheartedly committed to".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'Phey 'led a miserable life' and lived in fear while on the run'. Print Edition | Subscribe