End of a chapter in Singapore's union history

Phey Yew Kok, now 81.
Phey Yew Kok, now 81. PHOTO: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE

The conviction, and sentencing, of former National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) chairman and MP Phey Yew Kok closes a chapter in Singapore's union and political history, said unionists and former MPs who knew him.

"Whether you are a parliamentarian or not, you have to answer for your actions," said Mr Chan Chee Seng, 84, who was Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social Affairs when Phey jumped bail in 1980.

Phey was elected MP for Boon Teck in the 1972 General Election. He was still an MP when he fled Singapore in 1980.

His Boon Teck seat was subsequently contested and won by the People's Action Party's Liew Kok Pun in the 1980 General Election. The former single-seat constituency is now part of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

Unionists told The Straits Times that the case showed the importance of having union leaders with integrity.

Before Phey's arrest by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in December 1979, he was one of the most powerful union leaders in Singapore, holding the post of NTUC chairman and heading two large unions and their supermarket chains.

"He was before my time, so I've no recollection of him," said retired NTUC president John De Payva, 67. "In general, union leaders need to be honest. The level of integrity has to be high."

Before Phey's arrest by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in December 1979, he was one of the most powerful union leaders in Singapore, holding the post of NTUC chairman and heading two large unions and their supermarket chains.

His meteoric rise started in 1966, when he was elected treasurer of the Singapore Air Transport-workers Union (Satu), his first union leadership position.

In March 1970, the NTUC set up the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo) to win over industrial workers from left-wing unions.

Phey was hand-picked to head the union because of his ability to organise workers.

A month later, he was elected NTUC president at the age of 35, the youngest to hold the post.

Later that year, he was also elected 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.

After Phey fled Singapore, the NTUC sent in teams to take over Silo, PIEU and Satu. NTUC also rewrote union Constitutions to entrust power to elected committees and not individual leaders, to prevent charismatic leaders like Phey from having free rein.

Mr G. Muthukumarasamy, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Daily Rated Workers, said Phey had disappointed union leaders.

"He shouldn't have taken union money and left," said the 65-year-old, who met Phey in the 1970s as a young union leader. "The sentence is long, but what is wrong is wrong."

When contacted on the phone last night, Phey's son, Mr David Phey Teck Ann, who works in a lifestyle magazine group, said: "It is inconvenient to talk. I do not have any comment."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'End of a chapter in Singapore's union history'. Print Edition | Subscribe