WHEN Phey Yew Kok fled Singapore to escape prosecution in 1979, he was aged 45, a second- term MP and one of the three most powerful union leaders in the country.
Yesterday, at age 81, the man infamous as the fugitive who stayed on the run from the Singapore authorities longer than anyone else looked almost nondescript as he stood in the dock listening to the charges he faced in 1979 being read out to him again.
His unexpected return to Singapore took many veteran union leaders and retired MPs by surprise yesterday and brought back questions they had long wondered about.
Topping their list is: Why did he flee the country? One more question has been added to that list: Why has he returned now?
"His arrest and disappearance created a big buzz at that time," said retired National Trades Union Congress president John De Payva, 66, last night.
Added retired NTUC vice-president Cyrille Tan, 65: "Many people wondered what happened and why he absconded."
Retired journalist George Joseph, 65, who covered the labour beat for The Straits Times, recalled the shock across the country because Phey was a rising star in the People's Action Party (PAP) and a top union leader trusted by the political leadership.
"There was a sense of disbelief that it could happen to a PAP MP like him," said Mr Joseph.
Even Phey's former parliamentary colleagues could not fathom why he jumped bail after being charged with criminal breach of trust.
Mr Chan Chee Seng, 83, who was Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social Affairs when Phey absconded, said: "We were very close parliamentary colleagues and, to this day, I feel it was very silly of him to run away. He should have stayed to answer the charges against him. After so many years, he still has to face the consequences of what he did."
Mr Chandra Das, 76, who was chairman of NTUC FairPrice from 1993 to 2005, said Phey's re-arrest was astonishing news. "There was no inkling that it would happen," he said.
Mr Lee Khoon Choy, 91, who was Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office between 1978 and 1984, was equally surprised that Phey surrendered himself after so many years.
"I thought he won't be back after hiding so long in Thailand. I was told he had been in Thailand all these years. I cannot even recall the details of the charges against him now," said Mr Lee.
Mr Joseph feels the authorities may not be "baying for blood" now as Phey's alleged offences took place so long ago. "He has already paid a price in having to be away from his family for 35 years."
What people want to know now is "what happened to him in the past 35 years and what prompted him to return", he added.
Phey's return will solve one of of the most intriguing political mysteries in Singapore, on how such a high-profile figure was able to run away and evade the law for so long, said Mr Joseph.
When The Straits Times visited the homes of Phey's two sons last night, both declined to comment.
Mr David Phey Teck Ann, 52, is the chief operating officer of the Weekender Group, which publishes the weekly lifestyle paper Weekender.
When asked if he had seen his father since his return on Tuesday, he would only say: "I'm not able to have a conversation with you."
His older son, Mr Phey Teck Moh, 53, is listed as the director of investment and advisory company Xpanasia. He was previously Asia-Pacific corporate vice-president for Motorola Solutions, and president and chief executive of Pacific Internet before that.
He, too, would not comment.
Phey's trial will be watched closely by many, especially those seeking the long-awaited answers to their questions.
Said Mr Chan: "I am glad he is back finally to answer the charges against him and bring closure to the case after more than 30 years."
Additional reporting by Leong Weng Kam and Yeo Sam Jo