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Photos during the trial in 1974 of Tan Wah Piow (Left), Phey Yek Kok (Right).

Phey’s role was to keep Jurong unionists in check: Tan Wah Piow on frame-up

Tan Wah Piow Phey Yek Kok
Tan Wah Piow and Phey Yew Kok

Political exile Tan Wah Piow had consistently maintained that Phey Yew Kok had framed him and other unionists for the riots in the mid-1970s.

Phey has recently returned to Singapore after 35 years on the run, having turned himself in to be subject to charges of misuse of union funds during his term as the chief of NTUC.

In Escape From The Lion’s Paw, a compilation of articles from Singapore’s political exiles, Tan further detailed the circumstances that led to his incarceration under Phey. Tan had indicated that Phey was instrumental in bringing charges of rioting on him and other unionists, which eventually led to the quashing of his university’s student union.

The framing was apparently also a view held by Tan’s prison minders, and his chapter puts a different light on Phey’s assigned role in the NTUC.

The following are extracts from the chapter by Tan in Escape From The Lion’s Paw, which is also available for sale on TOC’s online store in both English and Chinese versions.

“That morning, 24 October 1975, was exactly eight months to the day of my conviction after a marathon 47-day trial. At the time of the rial, I was the President of the University of Singapore Students Union (USSU). Together with two workers from the American Marine factory, I was charged with causing a riot inside the premises of the government-controlled Pioneer Industries Employees’ Union (PIEU) based in Jurong. I have always maintained innocence, and likewise the two workers Ng Wah Leng and Yap Kim Hong. It was, we argued, a frame-up hatched by Phey Yew Kok, President of National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and Secretary-General of PIEU.”

“Throughout my stay at Queenstown, I enjoyed good relationship with the prison wardens. Due to the extensive coverage of my trial, which was unprecedented in Singapore, the prison wardens were sympathetic to me. They could see that the student movement was articulating issues dose to their hearts. and challenging the hegemony and omnipotence of the ruling PAP. As far as the wardens were concerned, I was a political prisoner dressed up as a convict. The key culprit who staged the “riot” to fabricate the charges against the two workers and myself was Phey Yew Kok, the party-anointed union baron, whose brief was to keep workers in the new Jurong industrial estate in check. Even before this rogue Phey Yew Kok met his downfall in 1979 as a corrupt trade union baron who embezzled workers’ funds, his reputation for ‘fixing up’ his opponents was already well known in many quarters in Singapore, including among the prison wardens. In “No Man is an Island,” James Minchin notes how several people he interviewed connected with the NTUC and the PIEU “claimed it was common knowledge that the charges laid against Tan had been trumped up.””

“In 1975, many of the founders of the ruling PAP such as Dr Lim Hock Siew, who had disagreed with Lee Kuan Yew, were still languishing in jail, detained without trial since 1963. The traditional opponents of the PAP from the predominantly Chinese-educated left were pushed into a corner and repressed to such an extent that those who were still active existed either in small political and cultural ghettos, or were forced underground. The left-wing Barisan Sosialis was no longer the political force it once was. There was no imposition in Parliament. and the few opposition parties including the Workers’ Party led by J B Jeyaretnam were struggling to be heard, let alone setting any alternative political agenda. The tentacles of the ruling party reached out to each and every community organisation especially through its network of Peoples’ Association branches and Residents’ Committees. Workers who did not get to enjoy their fair share of the expanding economic cake, and were suffering the effect of the world recession, were kept in check by the trade unions headed by Phey Yew Kok and Devan Nair.”

“We aimed to make available the facilities at the students’ union house to the workers as a meeting venue, as they were unable to use the facilities of their own unions. However, by setting up an independent workers’ base on campus, free from the control of the ruling party, we had unwittingly undermined all that the PAP was trying to achieve. When American Marine workers were unfairly retrenched in October 1974, the RRC (Retrenchment Research Centre) sprung into action. Workers were able to hold discussions in our union conference room. The students also joined the 100 workers from American Marine who gathered outside the PIEU to confront Phey Yew Kok. I was amongst those present, and it was there that Phey, the union boss and President of the NTUC declared that he would “put [me] in the right place.” It was, I believe, the campaign in support of the retrenched workers, and the challenge to the hegemony of the PAP-sponsored trade unions, that eventually determined the fate of USSU (University of Singapore Students’ Union), and mine as well.”