Tough union leader's rise and fall

Phey Yew Kok on a door-to-door campaign in 1973 to publicise two new co-operative supermarkets to be built by Welcome. With him is former minister of state Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who was then an NTUC industrial relations officer. Phey Yew Kok was charged
Phey Yew Kok on a door-to-door campaign in 1973 to publicise two new co-operative supermarkets to be built by Welcome. With him is former minister of state Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who was then an NTUC industrial relations officer. Phey Yew Kok was charged on Dec 10, 1979, with criminal breach of trust and offences related to the alleged misuse of $100,000 of union funds. He was to return to court on Jan 7, 1980, but fled - and disappeared - on New Year's Eve.ST FILE PHOTO ST FILE PHOTO
Phey Yew Kok on a door-to-door campaign in 1973 to publicise two new co-operative supermarkets to be built by Welcome. With him is former minister of state Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who was then an NTUC industrial relations officer. Phey Yew Kok was charged
Phey Yew Kok on a door-to-door campaign in 1973 to publicise two new co-operative supermarkets to be built by Welcome. With him is former minister of state Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who was then an NTUC industrial relations officer. Phey Yew Kok was charged on Dec 10, 1979, with criminal breach of trust and offences related to the alleged misuse of $100,000 of union funds. He was to return to court on Jan 7, 1980, but fled - and disappeared - on New Year's Eve.ST FILE PHOTO ST FILE PHOTO

CBT charges led to downfall of Phey, who was highly regarded for his ability to rally workers

Throughout the 1970s, when labour relations in an industrialising Singapore were marked by strife between jealous factions, Phey Yew Kok helped create a united front for workers, and strengthened the foundations of tripartism.

Then the MP from the People's Action Party (PAP) ran away after being charged with misappropriating union funds, forcing an overhaul of the way unions were run to ensure no one man would have so much control again.

After 35 years as a fugitive and, to the shock of many who knew and worked with him, Phey returned last week to face justice at the age of 81, surrendering himself at Singapore's embassy in Bangkok. The Sunday Times looks at his rise and fall, and the impact on the country.

Meteoric rise to power

Little is known about Phey's personal life. He was born in Johor, married a school teacher and had three children. He began working life as a teacher, but soon joined the now-defunct Malaysia-Singapore Airlines as an accounts clerk.

He rose through the ranks and, by 1966, was a planning officer in the airline's engineering department. That year, he took his first step into union work.

 

He was elected treasurer of the Singapore Air Transport-workers Union (Satu) and three years later was its president. But it was not until March 1970 that his union career really began to take off.

 

At that time, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), founded in 1961 by PAP stalwart C.V. Devan Nair to give workers a voice, set up the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo).

 

Its role was to win over industrial workers from left-wing unions. A man was needed to head the new outfit, and Phey was chosen.

With his Chinese education background and fluency in Hokkien and Teochew - the dialects of the working class - the NTUC hoped he would be able to rally the Chinese ground.

That April, he was elected NTUC president at the age of 35, the youngest to hold the post.

Before the year was up, Phey's power was considerably strengthened when he was made secretary- general of the Pioneer Industries Employees Union (PIEU), which was set up by NTUC to woo workers in the factories then sprouting up in Jurong.

So by the end of 1970, and in less than a year, Phey was heading not just the two largest unions then, but also the fledgling national labour movement.

Reining in bus workers

The union ground at that time was fractious. Media consultant George Joseph, 65, who covered the labour beat for The Straits Times in the 1970s, recalls the mood then.

"The manufacturing sector was growing and NTUC needed to win over workers," he said. "The situation was volatile, union leaders had to be tough and they had their own power bases."

Strikes and fights were not uncommon. Union leadership was personality-driven and Phey had several close shaves - and the scars to show for them.

For instance, a riot took place at the PIEU office in 1974 when a university student leader and workers fought with union officers over failed union talks.

In 1969 and 1970, Phey received death threats and was attacked twice. In the first assault, outside the Satu Building, he was stabbed in the thigh.

The second involved two youths who claimed to have been paid $400 to slash Phey with a razor outside his home. The attack left a three-inch scar on his right cheek - which NTUC and Satu eventually paid $3,000 to have removed in Japan.

A cabin hand and two cleaners with MSA were eventually found guilty of both assaults.

But none of this slowed the rising union star.

One of his biggest successes was to rein in bus workers - who were an undisciplined lot in the 1960s and 1970s. They did not stick to schedules, were known to continue drinking beer and smoking as commuters waited, and moving off even before passengers had completed boarding. There were numerous such complaints.

In 1974, Phey's Silo signed an unprecedented wage pact with Singapore Bus Services (SBS) to give 8,500 bus workers a pay hike that would cost $1 million a year - provided they wore uniforms, underwent courtesy courses and were punctual.

The workers toed the line and bus services improved.

Phey was credited with the turnaround through the three-way partnership between unions, employers and the Government - and that was well before tripartism became a buzz word. He was even made an SBS director.

As his standing in labour circles strengthened, Phey was thrust into a new arena - politics.

In the 1972 General Election, the PAP fielded him as its candidate for Boon Teck, which is now part of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. He won and held the seat in the next election.

Retired storekeeper Lee Ah Bak, who is in his 70s and lives in Toa Payoh Lorong 5, recalls Phey the politician: "He spoke Teochew and he came from a humble background. We felt he could understand our problems when we were resettled from our farm to Toa Payoh. We liked him."

Phey also used bold methods to attract union members. In 1978 and 1979, six landed homes, complete with cash for furnishing, were given away as prizes in union lucky draws.

Childcare centres were set up, a travel arm with new tour coaches was formed to cater to workers, a canteen business was established and cooperative supermarkets were opened to ensure the working class had access to affordable staples in a bid to counter alleged "profiteering" by some private retailers.

By 1978, there were 18 PIEU and Silo supermarkets, which turned in a record $724,490 profit that year. Satu, PIEU and Silo also spent $4.25 million to buy the Big Splash water theme park at East Coast Park.

A $4 million building called Unity House was being built in Jurong to house the two unions. Phey even had an international basketball tournament in his name - the Phey Yew Kok Cup - which drew top-flight teams from the region.

Silo became the richest union in Singapore with $7 million in assets. PIEU was No. 2 with $4 million. Phey was at the helm of both.

Then came the criminal charges.

The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) started probing Phey in the middle of 1979, and his downfall was swift.

The probe

In April 1974, Silo had sold its

union car for $8,000 but the money was credited into Phey's account.

This was uncovered in the CPIB probe. When Phey was confronted with it in September 1979, he claimed it was an error and said he had returned the money to the

union soon after the sale.

But the CPIB found that the money was given back only in 1979, after its investigations had begun, and that Silo treasurer Yoon Mei Yoke had fabricated evidence to help Phey cover up the act.

The CPIB probe expanded and, on Dec 1, 1979, Phey was arrested.

Two days later, NTUC announced that Phey had resigned as secretary-general of PIEU and Silo.

On Dec 10, he was charged with criminal breach of trust and offences related to the alleged misuse of $100,000 of union funds.

These include having misappropriated two cheques - for $40,000 and $25,000 - in 1975 while he was Silo general secretary. In September 1978, he allegedly used $18,000 of Silo's funds to buy Forward Supermarket shares without ministerial approval, breaching the Trade Unions Act.

Forward Supermarket, which was later renamed Savewell, was a private chain which Phey had a hand in setting up.

He was scheduled to return to court on Jan 7, 1980. But on New Year's Eve, he took a train to Kuala Lumpur, then went to Bangkok, and nothing more was known of him - until last week.

In the wake of his disappearance, nine of his former staff members were tried and convicted.

During their trials, the court heard details including how Phey ran the union businesses with an iron fist.

His cousin Phay Yew Jan described how he was left on his own to run NTUC Travel Services and that the only person he consulted was Phey, who had virtually sanctioned all that he did.

Savewell supermarket chairman Wong Say Hong told the court he had been instructed by Phey to transfer goods from Silo supermarkets to the new chain.

The aftermath

Phey's mentor Devan Nair said he took "moral responsibility" for the state of affairs at PIEU and Silo.

He said of Phey: "He was, in a very real sense, a protege of mine. I had spotted him, and put him on the road to responsibility and power in the trade unions.

"It is an error to take even the apparent best of your trade union colleagues on trust all the time, and to have therefore failed to closely monitor his actual performance. I must confess to this error, which I hope my successors will avoid."

NTUC sent in teams to take over Silo, PIEU and Satu's books and assets, and set them in order.

Unity House was sold to National Iron and Steel Mills. A new management team took over Big Splash.

The Silo and PIEU supermarkets continued to run, but they eventually merged with NTUC Welcome to form NTUC FairPrice in 1983.

But most importantly, the NTUC rewrote union Constitutions so that charismatic leaders like Phey would not have free rein. Instead, the unions' power was to be entrusted to elected committees, not individual leaders.

And these elected committees can throw out individuals.

"This is designed to prevent personality cults in the labour movement," an NTUC official was reported to have said when the changes were announced.

Silo and PIEU, which had more than 100,000 members in total, were split into nine industry

unions such as the United Workers of Electrical and Electronic Industries, National Transport Workers Union and Singapore Industrial and Services Employees Union, which are household names today.

In 1986, Silo and PIEU were finally wound up.

Last week, Singapore's best known fugitive finally came out of hiding, putting the Phey Yew Kok saga in the spotlight once more.

tohyc@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Tough union leader's rise & fall'. Print Edition | Subscribe