Tough union leader's rise and fall

Tough union leader's rise and fall
Phey Yew Kok on a door-to-door campaign in 1973 to publicise two new co-operative supermarkets to be built by Welcome. With him is former minister of state Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who was then an NTUC industrial relations officer.

Throughout the 1970s, when labour relations in an industrialising Singapore were marked by strife between jealous factions, Phey Yew Kok helped create a united front for workers, and strengthened the foundations of tripartism.

Then the MP from the People's Action Party (PAP) ran away after being charged with misappropriating union funds, forcing an overhaul of the way unions were run to ensure no one man would have so much control again.

After 35 years as a fugitive and, to the shock of many who knew and worked with him, Phey returned last week to face justice at the age of 81, surrendering himself at Singapore's embassy in Bangkok. The Sunday Times looks at his rise and fall, and the impact on the country.

Meteoric rise to power

Little is known about Phey's personal life. He was born in Johor, married a school teacher and had three children. He began working life as a teacher, but soon joined the now-defunct Malaysia-Singapore Airlines as an accounts clerk.

He rose through the ranks and, by 1966, was a planning officer in the airline's engineering department. That year, he took his first step into union work.

He was elected treasurer of the Singapore Air Transport-workers Union (Satu) and three years later was its president. But it was not until March 1970 that his union career really began to take off.

At that time, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), founded in 1961 by PAP stalwart C.V. Devan Nair to give workers a voice, set up the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo).

Its role was to win over industrial workers from left-wing unions. A man was needed to head the new outfit, and Phey was chosen.

With his Chinese education background and fluency in Hokkien and Teochew - the dialects of the working class - the NTUC hoped he would be able to rally the Chinese ground.

That April, he was elected NTUC president at the age of 35, the youngest to hold the post.

Before the year was up, Phey's power was considerably strengthened when he was made secretary- general of the Pioneer Industries Employees Union (PIEU), which was set up by NTUC to woo workers in the factories then sprouting up in Jurong.

So by the end of 1970, and in less than a year, Phey was heading not just the two largest unions then, but also the fledgling national labour movement.

Reining in bus workers

The union ground at that time was fractious. Media consultant George Joseph, 65, who covered the labour beat for The Straits Times in the 1970s, recalls the mood then.

"The manufacturing sector was growing and NTUC needed to win over workers," he said. "The situation was volatile, union leaders had to be tough and they had their own power bases."

Strikes and fights were not uncommon. Union leadership was personality-driven and Phey had several close shaves - and the scars to show for them.

For instance, a riot took place at the PIEU office in 1974 when a university student leader and workers fought with union officers over failed union talks.

In 1969 and 1970, Phey received death threats and was attacked twice. In the first assault, outside the Satu Building, he was stabbed in the thigh.

The second involved two youths who claimed to have been paid $400 to slash Phey with a razor outside his home. The attack left a three-inch scar on his right cheek - which NTUC and Satu eventually paid $3,000 to have removed in Japan.

A cabin hand and two cleaners with MSA were eventually found guilty of both assaults.

But none of this slowed the rising union star.


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