Jek Yeun Thong made notable contributions, showed strong sense of dedication to Singapore, says PM Lee

Mr Jek Yeun Thong died at home on June 3, 2018.
Mr Jek Yeun Thong died at home on June 3, 2018. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - In July 1961, the pro-communist faction in the People's Action Party (PAP) split from the non-communists to form Barisan Sosialis.

But Mr Jek Yeun Thong, a key member of the PAP Old Guard, stood firmly with the party's non-communist leadership.

He went on to help mobilise the Chinese-speaking ground to support the PAP's vision of a non-communist, multiracial Singapore.

"This was one of his biggest political contributions," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a condolence letter to Mrs Jek Yeun Thong on Wednesday (June 6).

Mr Jek, 87, died at home on Sunday (June 3), the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement on Wednesday. His family held a private wake and the funeral took place on Tuesday.

In his letter, PM Lee paid tribute to Mr Jek, who served in Singapore's first Cabinet and was one of the 10 ministers who signed the Separation Agreement in 1965.

"Throughout his years in public service, Mr Jek made notable contributions, and demonstrated a strong sense of dedication to the nation," he said.

 
 

Mr Jek had served in various capacities, including as Minister for Labour as well as in other ministerial portfolios from 1963 to 1980. He was also High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and concurrently Ambassador to Denmark, and remained a Member of Parliament until 1988. Mr Jek was conferred the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1990, to recognise his contributions to Singapore.

PM Lee recounted how Mr Jek came to know founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the 1950s, after the PAP was formed.

Mr Jek helped Mr Lee Kuan Yew with his first Chinese speech when he first stood for election in Tanjong Pagar in 1955.

PM Lee quoted a passage from Mr Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs: "A friendly Sin Pao reporter called Jek Yeun Thong drafted two paragraphs for me, and then spent several hours coaching me to read a speech that took only three minutes to deliver. But the crowd was with me, and they cheered me for the effort."

PM Lee noted that the Communist United Front dominated the labour and student unions during that period, and the PAP itself had many communists among its members.

"Mr Jek himself had left-wing sympathies and was arrested briefly in 1957, but came around to the non-communist side," said PM Lee.

He was subsequently appointed political secretary to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1959, and fielded as the PAP candidate in the Hong Lim by-election in April 1961. He lost to Mr Ong Eng Guan.

Mr Jek was elected to the Legislative Assembly in the 1963 general election, and was immediately made Minister for Labour.

"He was instrumental in building trust with the Chinese-speaking unions and helping the National Trades Union Congress wrest control of them from the Communist United Front," PM Lee said.

He added that Mr Jek also helped draft and win support for the 1968 Employment Act - a key milestone in building harmonious labour relations in Singapore which paved the way for the country to attract investments and industrialise in the 1970s.

As Minister for Culture from 1968 to 1979, Mr Jek raised the profile of cultural activities in Singapore, said PM Lee.

"He believed that art transcended barriers of race, language and culture, and that traditional art could keep Singaporeans grounded at a time when the country was quickly modernising."

PM Lee also noted that as deputy chairman of the People's Association, Mr Jek actively promoted photography competitions, art exhibitions and calligraphy contests - activities that helped to expand the common space and strengthen grassroots communities.

When PM Lee entered politics in 1984, Mr Jek was still in politics, as MP for Queenstown.

"He was friendly and generous to us young MPs, a whole generation younger than him," said the Prime Minister, adding that Mr Jek continued to stay in touch with old comrades after his retirement.

He said he was always glad to see Mr Jek at reunions and gatherings, and was particularly happy that Mr Jek could attend the PAP's 60th anniversary celebration at Victoria Concert Hall in 2014 and the SG50 National Day Parade in 2015.

"Mr Jek's passing is a deep loss to the nation," PM Lee said, adding that all state flags will be flown at half-mast on Thursday (June 7) to honour Mr Jek's memory and as a mark of respect.