Pioneer unionist and PAP founding member dies

Mr Lee Gek Seng, a pioneering unionist and a founding member of the People's Action Party, passed away last Saturday from heart failure. He was 87.

Mr Lee was among the PAP's 14 convenors when the party was officially inaugurated on Nov 21, 1954, and one of 11 men who sat on the party's first pro-tem committee.

On Monday, politicians, unionists and family members paid tribute to a man they described as humble, self-sacrificial and a generous mentor.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who visited the wake at Mount Vernon Sanctuary late on Monday night, noted in a Facebook post Mr Lee's many contributions, including serving as PAP deputy secretary-general and as a community leader. PM Lee said he had just met Mr Lee at last month's Pioneer Generation party at the Istana. "He came in a wheelchair, but was clearly very happy to be there. Now he has left us."

In a condolence letter to Mr Lee's eldest son Lionel, NTUC president Diana Chia and secretary-general Lim Swee Say praised the instrumental role he played in setting up the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers in 1947, and later on in forming the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE). Mr Lee then went on to serve as general secretary of the postal and telecommunications branch of AUPE for 20 years and remained an AUPE trustee after he retired.

In their letter, Mr Lim and Ms Chia said Mr Lee had staved off promotion at Singapore Telecoms for over 20 years so that he could continue being a unionist to represent and fight for workers. Mr Lim told The Straits Times that Mr Lee "laid a very strong foundation" in expanding the public sector into a core pillar of the labour movement and building up AUPE to the number one union in NTUC's public sector arm.

Mr Lee's youngest son Lewis, 55, recalled that it was as a fiery young unionist that his father first met Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the lawyer engaged to represent the union in 1952 after his father led a postal and telecoms workers' strike. "He was a trade unionist at heart and a political activist as a consequence," said Dr Lewis Lee.

Mr Lee, who never contested the polls despite his colleagues' urging, was a stalwart in the Jalan Besar and Toa Payoh branches and, after retiring at 65, at the PAP headquarters and the PAP Community Foundation.

Those who had worked with him praised his ready ear for younger colleagues. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said he had worked with Mr Lee at the PAP HQ during his first few years in politics. "I was always impressed by his commitment, his wisdom and his willingness to share his experiences and his knowledge with others, young people like me," he said after visiting the wake on Monday evening.

Also at the wake were former PAP colleagues like presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock and former senior parliamentary secretary Chan Chee Seng. Mr Chan paid tribute to his "great friend" who took him under his wing as a rookie MP and supported him as his election agent in Jalan Besar.

Aupe general secretary Ma Wei Cheng recalled Mr Lee telling young unionists like him inspiring stories of past issues that he had taken up personally and with the union. "He sacrificed so much that to some extent it affected his own career," said Mr Ma.

But even with his packed schedule, family remained central to Mr Lee. His grandson Jonathan Pflug, 32, said: "I understand that a lot of people think of my grandfather's legacy quite differently. But to me, my grandfather's legacy is the foundation of this family; the values and love he endowed us with. And that's how I choose to remember my Grandpa."

Dr Lee was with his father when he attended last month's Pioneer Generation party. He said his father exemplified the can-do spirit of the pioneers, dropping out of Raffles Institution at Secondary 2 because he needed to support his family after World War 2.

"Someone asked him at the party, why did you do what you did? My father said: 'During those times, if you were me, you would also have done the same thing.'"

Mr Lee leaves behind five children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

andreao@sph.com.sg

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