Nathan surprised when Phey was charged

Nathan surprised when Phey was charged
Former president S R Nathan (left) during an interview at his residence on 25 June 2015.

Former president S R Nathan, who talent-spotted Phey Yew Kok and brought him into the national labour movement's fold in the 1960s, said yesterday he was surprised and disappointed by how things had turned out for the former MP and unionist.

Recalling events in 1979, he said he found out Phey was charged with misusing union funds of more than $100,000 by watching television news on the night of Dec 10, 1979.

"I just wondered, what prompted him to do it? It surprised me that somebody like him could have committed such an offence," said Mr Nathan, 90.

He noted that Phey was then chairman of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) as well as chief of two omnibus unions: Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo) and Pioneer Industries Employees' Union (Pieu). He was stripped of all three positions after he jumped bail on Dec 31, 1979, and fled the country.

Then on Monday, after 35 years, the fugitive turned himself in at the Singapore Embassy in Bangkok and was taken back here the following day to face charges of criminal breach of trust - an unexpected turn to an equally unexpected saga.

Had Mr Nathan not talent-spotted him in 1963, Phey might not have risen so quickly in the labour movement.

Back then, Mr Nathan was director of the NTUC's Labour Research Unit.

He recalled: "The first time I met him, he was a representative of the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines Union. He came with a Eurasian lady who was the head of it. They had some dispute. He was quiet. She did all the talking."

But something about the soft-spoken Phey caught his attention, and Mr Nathan chose to have him seconded to the NTUC as an industrial relations officer (IRO).

"It was just a gut feeling that when he's made up his mind, he can do it," said Mr Nathan, adding that he saw Phey display these leadership qualities and people skills in his time at NTUC.

Phey was part of a new team of Mandarin-speaking IROs tasked with recruiting members from Jurong's new factories, to thwart efforts by pro-communists who were trying to do the same.

He did well, but chose to leave after a year because some in the NTUC viewed him as a competitor, Mr Nathan said.

Later, when the late NTUC co-founder Devan Nair wanted someone to strengthen the NTUC's presence in Jurong industrial estate, Mr Nathan thought of Phey. "The NTUC leadership had many persons of Indian origin. And they couldn't reach them," he said, referring to the workers who were mostly Chinese. "I told Devan that he (Phey) might be the best, because he was in fact, the best."

Mr Nair agreed and Mr Nathan asked Phey to return to the NTUC. Phey agreed and did very well in the labour movement.

"Jurong was difficult. The left wing was really strong and he went in to try and organise workers to join him. He and his band of helpers worked really hard. He got the ground completely on his side," Mr Nathan said.

Under Phey, membership in Silo and Pieu swelled. Silo, for instance, went from 5,300 members in 1970 to 60,000 by 1979.

After Mr Nathan left the NTUC for the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 1965, he watched Phey's rise and fall from a distance.

Asked if he had one question for the now 81-year-old Phey, he replied: "Why did you do it?"

This article was first published on June 26, 2015.
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