Ex-MP charged after decades on the run

Ex-MP charged after decades on the run

For almost 36 years after he was charged with criminal breach of trust, former Member of Parliament and one of Singapore's most powerful unionists, Phey Yew Kok, had been on the run. But no more.

On Monday, he gave himself up at the Singapore Embassy in Bangkok. And yesterday, at the age of 81, a white-haired Phey again found himself in a Singapore court.

He was read the six charges he first heard on Dec 10, 1979, involving $100,000 of union funds, before jumping bail by taking a train to Kuala Lumpur and evading attempts to track him down.

The former chairman of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) faces four counts of criminal breach of trust as a servant involving $82,520, and two of investing $17,745 of union funds in a private supermarket.

Those who knew and worked with him told The Straits Times they could not fathom why he chose to abscond, and were equally puzzled at the decision to turn himself in.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a statement that he hopes this will "bring closure to a longstanding case involving a person who was holding public office as an MP and a senior union leader".

In a Facebook post yesterday, PM Lee also said the attempts to bring Phey to justice showed Singapore's zero tolerance for corruption. "When we discover wrongdoing, we do not hesitate to act," he wrote. "We will not allow any cover-up, even when it is awkward or embarrassing for the Government."

The former primary school teacher saw a phenomenal rise after becoming an industrial relations officer with NTUC in 1964.

In 1970, he was appointed to head NTUC, as well as the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo) and the Pioneer Industries Employees' Union (Pieu). In 1972, he was elected as MP for Boon Teck, and retained the seat in the next election.

But soon after taking on the role of NTUC chairman in May 1979, he became the subject of investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).

As Silo general secretary, he was accused of misappropriating a $40,000 and a $25,000 cheque at the union headquarters at Sports House, Rutland Road, on Feb 24, 1975.

He was general secretary of Pieu as well when he allegedly misappropriated $15,000 from the staff fund of Silo and Pieu on Jan 21, 1976.

Between May 3 and July 6, 1976 he was entrusted with money in the executive council allowance fund of the unions when he allegedly misappropriated $2,520.

After the charges were read to him yesterday, an interpreter told the court Phey is hard of hearing. He wanted to know whether money in the fifth and sixth charges was deposited into his own account or with the supermarket.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Kiat Pheng informed the court the money was not deposited into Phey's personal account.

He sought an adjournment of four weeks and asked that Phey be remanded at Changi Prison.

Phey was clad in a white shirt with blue vertical lines, and khaki trousers. He said loudly: "Your Honour, can excuse me? I speak a bit louder because my hearing is very bad.

"Your Honour, those charges, if my memory still does not fail me, I don't think the money was transferred to my personal account.

"As a young trade unionist at that time, I was very anxious...to strengthen the labour movement."

District Judge Eddy Tham interjected and told him there was no need to go into the details of those charges. He said the matter would be investigated and there might be additional charges to be tendered.

He fixed the case for a pre-trial conference on July 23.


5 things to know about the case

1. Who is Phey Yew Kok? Phey was Member of Parliament for the Boon Teck Constituency from 1972 to 1980. In 1970, he was appointed president of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

He was also elected as the general secretary of the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo) and became general secretary of the Pioneer Industries Employees' Union (Pieu) in the same year.

He became NTUC's chairman on May 25, 1979.

2. What is the case about? In mid-1979, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau investigated Phey for malpractices in Pieu and Silo.

On Dec 10, 1979, he was charged in court on four counts of criminal breach of trust under the Penal Code, Cap. 103.

There were also two charges against him under the Trade Unions Act, Cap. 129, for investing trade union money in Forward Supermarket. Forward Supermarket was not among the list of approved companies which a registered trade union may invest in.

Phey pleaded not guilty to all six charges. He was released on bail of $100,000 with two sureties. The case was then fixed for mention on Jan 7, 1980.

He failed to appear in court and a warrant for his arrest was immediately issued against him. Interpol headquarters was alerted and an Interpol Red Notice was issued for his arrest. The Singapore Immigration Department also cancelled his passports.

3. Were others involved in the case? Other than Phey, 10 people were charged for their involvement in the crimes. Nine were convicted, while one was acquitted.

4. How much money was involved? At a Parliament session on March 12, 1984, acting minister for labour S. Jayakumar said that the total amount of money lost by the unions and union-related enterprises - namely Silo, Pieu and NTUC Travel Services -- between 1975 and 1979 was $704,173.93. Of the amount, $557,864.76 was recovered.

5. Was there any information on his whereabouts? Investigations later revealed that Phey had left Singapore for Kuala Lumpur by train on Dec 31, 1979, and proceeded to Bangkok, where he disappeared.

Over the years, police and the bureau have been engaging their foreign counterparts, such as the Thai authorities, for intelligence and assistance to help locate and bring back Phey.

Even though Singapore had no extradition treaty with the Thai authorities, they had helped to raid premises where they suspected Phey to be.

But he remained at large.

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