Tan Wah Piow (Source: Singapore National Archives)

by Tan Wah Piow

In June 1974, American Marine, a pleasure craft manufacturer based in the Jurong Industrial Estate of Singapore retrenched 100 workers from its workforce of 1000. The company had been operating on a three-day week for a month before the management decided to lay off its entire workforce for two weeks from 19 October to 5 November 1974. There was no security net for these workers.

The management announced the lay off to the workforce just 5 minutes before the end of the day without any prior warning. The workers who were supposed to be represented by the PIEU (Pioneer Industries Employees Union) felt let down by them. The American Marine workers turned to USSU (University of Singapore Students’ Union) for help as we had already done our leg work in Jurong to familiarize ourselves with the workers’ conditions. 

I was President of USSU and also chairman of the Retrenchment Research Centre. My colleagues and I were newly elected officials of the student body. We won on a progressive manifesto to make the student union relevant to society, and to use our privilege position to serve the people as Singapore. We were mindful that Singapore was a political desert without a single opposition MP since 1968.

The American Marine workers decided to take their plight to the PIEU on the 23 October. The purpose was to demand effective representation from their union. We knew that the PIEU was part of the Establishment. Its Secretary-General Phey Yew Kok was an MP from the ruling PAP, as well as the President of the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress). Behind them was Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister. Demanding collective rights in such circumstances was bold, and the workers needed support and solidarity. As a student union, our presence would provide the necessary moral support to the workers. Hence 23 October was the day chosen to meet at the PIEU.

The PIEU occupied two units of the ground and first floor of a block of public housing flats in Taman Jurong. There was sufficient open space outside for the workers and students to mingle. Some workers managed to enter the building to request a meeting with Phey to discuss their plight.

As expected, organized workers exercising their rightful collective power frightened those in the Establishment. Edwin Netto, the Industrial Relations Officer whose job was to represent the workers from American Marine, was out of his depths. He would only speak to two workers, and the other minions used threats of wanting to see the identification of the workers to scare the rest.

“Phey Yew Kok – not available” was all Edwin Netto was able to parrot. He even refused permission to use the PIEU phone to call Phey Yew Kok. 

How did the workers conduct themselves? This emerged during the trial/G Raman was the defence lawyer for one of the defendants cross-examined the Industrial Relations Officer.

Raman: Would you agree with me that when the workers were on the premises that day they were orderly and well behaved?

Netto: I would not say they were orderly and well behaved. They were irritating.

Raman: How were they quite irritating?

Netto: In the afternoon, they were occupying my desk. 

Raman: Besides occupying your desk, did they do anything which you say was irritating?

Netto: They passed some comments in Chinese, which I did not understand.

Raman: How do you find a comment which you do not understand as irritating?

Netto: I would have expected them to talk to me in English.

Raman: They sinned against you by not speaking to you in English?

Netto: Yes.

It took eight and a half hours of waiting before Phey Yew Kok eventually appeared. That happened because one of the workers, nickname “Botak” took the initiative to call Phey Yew Kok to insist that he should appear. By the way, Botak later had to run for his life when the police came for him.

What transpired during those eight hours? I tried to find out from Edwin Netto at court during cross-examination.

Tan: (asking Edwin Netto) Did they tell you why they were there?

Solicitor General: Presumably…

Tan: Please don’t interrupt, Solicitor General!

Judge: You keep quiet, Mr Tan!

Netto: They asked me why the company had laid them off. They wanted to know whether they were to get paid for those two weeks. They wanted to know whether the factory would be re-opened after two weeks.

By the time Phey appeared, it was getting dark, but a meeting did take place with Phey standing outside, and the workers and students on the lawn.

As expected, Phey Yew Kok was keen to capture the photographs of the workers and students. We too had our cameraman and tape-recorded the proceedings as well.

When Phey addressed the meeting, it was evident that he knew little about the plight of the American Marine workers. As soon as the meeting began, one of the IRO Lee Bak Hong was furiously clicking his camera. That invited a barrage of protests from the workers.

Madam Yap Kim Hong, a co-defendant and worker from American Marine said in her evidence:

Yap: Some workers stood up and spoke. At this time there were flashes from a camera flash-gun. Whenever there was a worker standing up, a photo would be taken… When I stood up, the photographer photographed me.

At the meeting, I voiced my objection to the use of the camera because it would intimidate workers and discourage them from speaking out. Phey Yew Kok arrogantly ignored this. During the trial, I cross-examined Phey.

Tan: Mr Phey, was there any occasion whereby the workers at the meeting unanimously voted against the taking of photographs?

Phey: No vote taken.

Tan: Will you consider the show of hands ‘voting’? Was there a show of hands?

Phey: No. No show of hands for vote. There was show of hands in objection.

I showed the court that in one of the prosecution photos, at least four workers were hiding their faces, and at least ten others in the various photographs who tried hard to conceal their identity.

Judge: Maybe one or two are camera-shy. Others are probably wiping their faces… Some, people listen better with their heads lowered.

Judge Sinnathuray was either someone from a different planet or had chosen not to acknowledge the fact that people in Singaporeans lived in fear of political persecution.

The Solicitor General who prosecuted the case, offered another theory that workers lowered their heads to avoid the glare of the spotlight outside the PIEU premises. 

During the trial, Phey Yew Kok admitted that he delivered the film to the studio. He further claimed that the photographs were intended for the PIEU Labour News?

I pointed out to the Judge that many people photographed on the 23 October fell victim to political misfortunes.

  • Choo Foo Yoong, a student activist from USSU, who stood beside me at the meeting, was deported to Malaysia on the day my trial started.
  • Lau Su Ying, a factory worker, appeared in six of the photos. She was arrested and removed to Malaysia.
  • Tan Kok Heng, alias Botak, the worker who spoke to Netto and tried to contact Phey that afternoon was on a ‘wanted list’ as one of the alleged ‘rioters’. He escaped persecution. He appeared in three of the photos.
  • A male worker who appeared in five photos was subsequently arrested by the police. He was photographed speaking out at the meeting.
  • Male Worker appeared in four photos. Arrested and removed to Malaysia.
  • Male Worker ‘man in flowery shirt’ appeared in at least five photos. Arrested and deported to Malaysia.
  • Male Worker was photographed while addressing the meeting. He was later named as one of the alleged rioters. He escaped arrest.

Miss Yap Kim Hong so described the demeanour of Phey Yew Kok in her evidence:

Yap: Phey hurriedly entered the premises and called upon workers to come out and he said in a hectoring tone ‘All of you, sit down on the grass!’ Phey himself stood up and said loudly, ‘Which one of you is this Tan? If you are a man of good pedigree, step out!

The term ‘of good pedigree’ was the interpretation of the court’s interpreter, which in Mandarin was ‘有种的‘. 

Phey Yew Kok’s competence as a trade union leader was challenged in court by Francis Khoo, the defence lawyer for Ng Wah Leng.

Khoo: I put it to you that the third accused said: ‘What I want to tell you is to request the union to solve our problems. We worked so long in our factory, and suddenly the factory stopped production without pay. Now we request that we get our pay for the two weeks layoff. How are we to live? We are workers. Everything is expensive now. How are we to live for these two weeks? What are we to eat? Some of us have families, and responsibilities are great. Our purpose in coming is that you solve this problem as soon as possible.’

At the meeting, I exposed Phey’s complicity in the illegal act of arranging with American Marine to use PIEU supermarkets coupons as part payment of workers’ wages.

Unable to control his wrath, Phey blurted out in front of the crowd that he would investigate my identity and ‘put you in the right place. In court, Phey denied making such a statement.

I offered to exhibit a tape-recording of the meeting to rebut Phey’s denial.

Sinnathuray of course, would do everything to please Phey Yew Kok. He rejected my tape recording evidence.

G Raman in his submission on behalf of the Yap Kim Hong said:

“It is quite unfortunate that the tape recording was not allowed in as an exhibit as otherwise-we would have had the exact mood and the tenor of the crowd at the meeting. Also Phey’s own attitude.”

The meeting on the 23 ended with Phey assurance that he would try to settle the issue within one week. The one week would end on 30 October.

It did not occur to me that my fate would be sealed within seven days.

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