Ex-parliamentarian Chai Chong Yii dies at 87

Mr Chai Chong Yii served as Bukit Batok MP from 1972 to 1988. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Mr Chai Chong Yii, former Senior Minister of State for Education and the first MP for Bukit Batok, died in his sleep on Tuesday (May 3) at the age of 87.

Mr Chai served as Bukit Batok MP from 1972 to 1988 before he was succeeded by the late Dr Ong Chit Chung. He also served in various ministries including education and communications.

During his time at MOE, he was instrumental in launching the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school programme in 1979 to nurture students to be bilingual in English and Mandarin. He also contributed in the merger of Nanyang University (Nantah) and the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore in 1980.

Following his retirement from politics in 1988 to make way for new and younger leaders, he became Singapore's trade representative in Taipei for three years.

Mr Chai was born in China, the third child of a farming couple, in 1935. The threat of war forced his parents to flee to South-east Asia. Educated in Taiping and Penang, Malaysia, he was later one of the pioneer students of the newly established Nantah's commerce faculty.

In an essay penned in 2014 for We Also Served - Reflections Of Singapore's Former PAP MPs, Mr Chai said that as Nantah's degrees were not recognised by the Singapore government then, he enhanced his chances of being hired by taking professional accountancy examinations conducted by the Australian Society of Accountants in around 1959. He was also the first Nantah graduate recruited by Shell, where he handled accounting and auditing.

He worked for the Shell Group for five years, travelling to various parts of Malaya. He would also visit his fiancee, Ms Khor Phaik Tin, who was studying at the Teachers' College at Pantai Valley, Kuala Lumpur.

He then went on to work as a bursar of Nantah from 1965 to 1972 before he was invited to enter politics.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a post on his Facebook page on Wednesday (May 4), said that Mr Chai did much to promote bilingualism in Singapore.

Mr Chai joined the PAP in 1972 and served Bukit Batok for 16 years. 

Mr Lee wrote: “He saw it transform from a rural kampong area housing granite quarry labourers and re-settled farmers, into a modern township. He was much loved and respected by his residents, and served as MP for four consecutive terms.” 

He added that as Senior Minister of State for Education, Mr Chai played a crucial part in launching the SAP schools in 1979.

He also served in several ministries, including the then-Ministry of Culture and then-Ministry of Communications. 

Mr Chai Chong Yii plants a sapling to kick off the 'gotong royong' session in March 1974. PHOTO: ST FILE

After politics, Mr Chai was an auditor for the PAP until 1996, making sure the party accounts were in good order. He also served as Singapore’s Trade Representative to Taiwan from 1991 to 1994. 

After his retirement from politics, Mr Chai continued serving on the Bukit Batok citizens' consultative committee as its patron.

Mr Murali Pillai, MP of Bukit Batok, had known Mr Chai for several years before he himself entered politics.

He said Mr Chai nurtured a close-knit group of community leaders who worked with him to do so many things for the community, such as raising funds for the needy, building a community centre and even building a bridge in Bukit Batok to connect various kampungs in the 70s.

He said: "Personally, I am grateful to him for unhesitatingly agreeing to participate in sharing sessions with Bukit Batok students and residents on how life was in the past when Bukit Batok was a rural area even though his health was not very good in his later years."

Mr Pillai added: "One of his most endearing messages that resonated with me was the importance of working hard for the common good and not being lulled into taking soft options that may make our society weaker in the long run. We will miss him."

Mr Ho Kah Leong, 84, who was also a Nantah Science graduate and a former parliamentary colleague, told The Straits Times: "He was a friendly, approachable and patient man. I never saw him lose his temper once."

Mr Chai had also been honorary advisor to Chin Kang Huay Kuan at the time of his death. The clan association was founded by immigrants from the Jinjiang county of Fujian province, China, where he came from.

Mr Jimmy Teo, president of the association, said of Mr Chai: "He had been very supportive of our clan, and years ago, had advised us to adopt technology and attract youth talents to remain relevant. We have been following his advice to this day."

Mr Chai leaves behind his wife Madam Khor, three children and six grandchildren.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.