Phey Yew Kok, once Singapore's most powerful unionist before absconding after being charged with criminal breach of trust, has been sentenced to five years in jail, finally bringing to a close a criminal trial which began in 1979.
Yesterday, the 81-year-old former National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) chairman and People's Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament, half-blind and hard of hearing, cut a frail figure in the dock as he pleaded guilty.
His lawyer later said Phey was well aware of his abuse of trust, which was something he was "very ashamed about and sorry".
Clad in a white T-shirt and brown trousers, Phey admitted to 12 of 34 charges, including 10 counts of criminal breach of trust involving $243,878. In all, he misappropriated more than $450,000 over a period of six years.
Deputy Presiding Judge Jennifer Marie said in her brief grounds of decision that instead of valuing and safeguarding the trust given to him, Phey saw fit to exploit it.
"The facts reveal that Phey, like a serial criminal, systematically and with deliberation over a period of six years, perpetrated these offences. He had no qualms in trying to evade detection and had the temerity to instigate his staff to fabricate false evidence," she said.
"His remorse, belatedly, does not displace the serious and aggravating nature of his offences and I attach little significance to this," said the judge, adding that his conduct deserved the "utmost censure of the Court".
It was front-page news when he was hauled to court to face charges in December 1979.
But the even bigger shock came when he failed to show up in court on Jan 7 the following year. He had fled Singapore on Dec 31, 1979, by taking a train to Kuala Lumpur, where he flew to Thailand. He remained a fugitive until his surrender at the Singapore Embassy in Bangkok on June 22 last year.
No other criminal has ever remained at large for as long as he has, said Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Kiat Pheng.
It was also revealed yesterday that as a fugitive, he could not stay in one place for long, and had to take up odd jobs, such as pig farming and hawking.
As his health got worse, it became harder for him to find a job. In those 35 years, Phey, who has three grown-up children and two granddaughters, never saw his family. According to his mitigation plea, he surrendered because he did not want to die in a foreign land, and wanted to make amends with his family.
None of his family members was present in court yesterday.
The bulk of the offences were committed when he helmed the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo) and the Pioneer Industries Employees' Union (PIEU).
As general secretary, he had de facto power and control over the running of the two unions and their finances. "Such was the accused's position that he was seen, as union members put it, as a union 'god'," said DPP Tan.
The prosecutor accused him of treating a joint Silo-PIEU staff fund as his own "private slush fund" and "repeatedly dipping his hand into the cookie jar for his own benefit".
Phey also invested funds from Silo and PIEU in Forward Supermarket, later renamed Save-Well Supermarket, without the approval of the Finance Minister.
To supply Save-Well with goods, he, together with three others, clandestinely siphoned $210,859 worth of goods from the Silo Multi-purpose Cooperative Society.
His co-accused had previously been given jail terms of between four and 12 months each.
He used his position as the MP for Boon Teck to launder the goods through the PAP Boon Teck Branch. As MP, he was also accused of misappropriating funds meant for an education centre for three- to five-year-olds in his constituency. When he was being investigated in 1979, he instigated Silo general treasurer Yoon Mei Yoke to fabricate false evidence in an attempt to exonerate himself.
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