by Tan Wah Piow
FRAME-UP, as defined in the Oxford dictionary, “a situation in which false evidence is produced in order to make people think that an innocent person is guilty of a crime”.
The architect of the frame-up was Phey Yew Kok, MP who was described by his minions as “god in the labour movement”, but by others as a thug. He was the President of the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress), and Secretary-General of PIEU (Pioneer Industries Employees Union) and SILO (Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation). Phey Yew Kok could not have risen to his height in the 1970s as the most powerful mandarin speaking trade unionist without the endorsement of Lee Kuan Yew.
It was only in 2016 that Singaporeans were aware that Phey Yew Kok was stealing money from the multi-million dollar trade union movement since 1973. The fact that his criminality predated the frame-up in 1974 is crucial because it would explain the motivating force behind his wrath against me.
After being on the run for 35 years since 1979, he pleaded guilty in 2016 to several counts of criminal breach of trust. By accepting his guilty plea, trade union members, and the public were denied the right to know the details and extend of his criminality.
In Episode One, I described the events on the 23 October, of how American Marine workers laid-off for two weeks without pay eventually forced Phey Yew Kok to a meeting at the PIEU headquarters in Jurong.
Since the workers were unable to exercise democratic control over the PIEU, they had a legitimate expectation that Phey Yew Kok, as the Secretary-General should seek a solution to resolve their plight.
To appease the restless and desperate workers, Phey Yew Kok gave the assurance that he would try to resolve their problems within a week. From Phey’s perspective, he had bought himself seven days to deal with the challenge. The workers, anxious to hold Phey to his words, sent a registered letter addressed to Phey, confirming their intention to meet him on the 30 October.
Phey Yew Kok was equally anxious, but for a different set of reasons. On the night of the 23 October, he must be greatly troubled by my criticism of his trade-union- supermarket-coupons-in-place-of-wages scheme. I was the unfortunate intruder who inadvertently shone a spotlight on a burglar in the middle of a heist without my realising it.
Whether Phey had or intended to benefit from the supermarket-coupons- in-place-of-wages scheme, it was illegal all the same. If not for his benefit, why would the ‘god of the trade union movement’ devise an unlawful scheme that would expose the trade union to disrepute?
Unsurprisingly, the moment workers dispersed on the 23 October, Phey immediately secured the roll of film from the trade union photographer. Within days, the film was processed, and images of the outspoken workers were identified.
Phey Yew Kok remained on the union premises for a further 40 to 100 minutes after the workers dispersed. If he were not obsessed with protecting his criminal enterprise, he would have summoned a meeting of his Industrial Relations Officers to discuss the issues raised by the workers.
The workers had suggested two options open to PIEU, one was to seek compensation from the management for the lay-off, or the second option was for the PIEU to use the Union Welfare Fund to help those who were out of work. And there was also the issue of the illegality of the coupons for wages scheme.
Any reasonable trade unionist facing similar would have initiated an immediate meeting. Yet under cross-examination, the prosecution witnesses claimed that neither Phey nor anyone made any comment about the day’s events! Such answers were so far-fetched and incredible that one is entitled to conclude these individuals were covering-up something hideous.
Thanks to the bravery of two whistleblowers from Phey Yew Kok camp, part of the planning for the frame-up was exposed.
Phey Yew Kok called a secret meeting on the 26 October with the PIEU American Marine branch officers. The venue was at the premises of SILO (Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation) where Phey was also the Secretary General. Chu Ho Lai, the Branch Chairman, and Wou Sou Wah, a committee member were present.
At this secret meeting, Wou Sou Wah read out the registered letter from the workers expressing their intention to meet Phey on the 30 October.
Raman: Did Phey say anything about 30 October?
Wou: Yes. The Vice-Chairman of the Branch asked Mr Phey if we should come on 30 October. The reply was positive. The Vice-Chairman further asked him at what time. Phey said, 9 am.
Raman: Did Phey say he would be there on 30 October?
Wou: Phey said he would go – he said he was not afraid of them.
Wou Sou Wah also told the court that at the 26 October meeting, Phey made more comments on the students than on the workers.
Tan: What else did Phey say about the Singapore University students?
Wou: Phey said that the student with the beard or goatee comes from a very good family, a rich family, his father is very rich and that he has bought a car for him and he doesn’t understand the difficulties of workers. Phey said, “I’ll teach him properly that day.”
Wou Sou Wah, a family man in his forties, had no reason to lie in court. He had known Phey since 1971 and was in court every day as part of Phey’s “cheerleaders” team until he defected to the defence.
Chu Ho Lai, the other whistleblower corroborated Wou Sou Wah’s evidence.
Raman: Please tell us in your own words what took place at this meeting with
Mr. Phey. Chu: Phey said that he was very happy that we did not go to PIEU on 23 October. He also said that Singapore University students did not study properly but came to create trouble. Phey further said that there was a student with a goatee, that this student’s father was rich, that his father bought a big motor car for him, how could he understand the difficulties of workers?
How could he lead the workers? Subsequently, Phey said, “Don’t be afraid, I will teach him a lesson,” After a while he handed a letter to Wou Sou Wah, and on Phey’s instructions Wou read out the letter in Mandarin.
The man with a ‘goatee’ was Tan Wah Piow. The rests about a ‘rich father’ and ‘big car’ was a crude caricature of me invented by Phey Yew Kok to discredit me as someone who could not identify with ordinary workers.
Phey Yew Kok needed someone to execute his plan to “teach (the man with a goatee) a lesson” on the 30 October.
His Assistant General Secretary Lawrence Quek returned from Japan on the 27 October, just in time to be of help.
By the 30 October, Lawrence Quek was ready to fabricate “the riot”.
I was oblivious of all these scheming which preceded the the fateful 30 October 1974. They only came to light in court.
As President of USSU, and Chairman of the Retrenchment Research Centre, I was more than delighted with the outcome of the 23 October. The dictum, workers united will never be defeated, was momentarily proven right.
We managed to beat the system and broke the spell of fear and passivity cast on the entire island by the ruling party. With a just cause, coupled with the determination of the 100-strong workers and a supportive student body from the elite University of Singapore, we managed at least to force the ‘god of the labour movement’ to a dialogue, or so I thought.
In the days that followed, I briefed members of the Retrenchment Research Centre. Chia Yong Tai, one of the student leaders at USSU and my classmate at the School of Architecture, has a vivid memory of the discussions. If my political elation had blinded me from anticipating the dangers ahead., at least there was Yong Tai to counsel caution.
Yong Tai: When we heard about Phey’s threat to “fix” Tan Wah Piow, and the upcoming meeting on the 30 October, we were concerned for his safety. I was also worried about dragging USSU into these workers’ conflict with the trade union. We were unprepared for it. As a result, we decided that Tan Wah Piow, as President of USSU, should not be present on the 30 October. We delegated Chuah Chong Lai and Choo Foo Yoong to attend as observers on the 30.
I was the one who was adamant that Wah Piow should not attend. But after his appeal, we relented because he knew more about the American Marine workers plight than any of us. He could stay a distance away from the PIEU to be available for advice.
I was happy with the compromise.
On hindsight, if we had known what we now know of Phey Yew Kok’s on-going criminal enterprise, I would have taken his threats more seriously. By openly attacking Phey Yew Kok on the 23 October for his complicity in allowing American Marine to pay workers with trade union supermarket coupons, I might have unknowingly threatened to kill Phey Yew Kok’s goose that laid the golden eggs!
Oblivious of the danger ahead, I headed for the PIEU on the morning of 30 October, and so did the workers.
Morning of the 30 October at the PIEU
The PIEU headquarters occupied two ground floor flats and the corresponding first-floor flats of a housing block. To the right of the PIEU were Denticare, St. John’s Ambulance Association, Singapore Spastic Children’s Association and the Jurong Sports Club.
In front of this block of flats is a field dotted with several trees. The Jurong branch of the Bank of America was across the road. To the extreme right of the block was the Hawkers’ Centre. Behind the PIEU was a block of housing flats still under construction.
On this sunny morning of 30 October, as people settled down to their daily chores or glued themselves to the TV to watch the live telecast of the Mohammad Ali-Foreman fight, various interested parties converged on the PIEU.
The IROs of the PIEU were in before 9 am, Besides the American Marine workers, whose numbers swelled to 100 by 10am. Other than students from the RRC who remained in the vicinity of the PIEU headquarter, a reporter from the Straits Times, Jacob Daniel and at least one identified Internal Security Department agent Ng Yong Onn were present at the scene.
The presence of a reporter from the Straits Times was not anticipated by Lawrence Quek. His plot suffered a lousy start when Jacob Daniel accosted him at the PIEU office at 9am. Jacob Daniel introduced himself as a journalist from the Straits Times and requested for Lawrence Kwek.
Raman: When you asked for Mr Kwek, were you able to see him?
Daniel: No, I was not able to. One union official about 6-foot tall, big-sized, wearing glasses, told me that Lawrence Kwek had gone to the SILO premises.
This “6-foot tall, big-sized, wearing glasses” was, in fact, Lawrence Kwek. When Lawrence Kwek eventually came to his senses, he sent his minion, Edwin Netto, to look for Daniel Jacob. The latter by then was watching the ‘Mohammed Ali-Foreman Fight’ on TV at the neighbouring Spastic Children’s Home.
Before 9.30 am, Lawrence Kwek, instructed IRO, Robert Ng to pin up two notices outside the PIEU premises – one in English, the other in Mandarin. They read:
Dear Comrades – American Marine Branch,
Please be informed that union and management will meet at the labour ministry on 6 November 74 to solve the dispute on lay-off for the period from 19 October to 5 November 74. Members will be informed in due course. Thank you, yours fraternally,
Lawrence Kwek, Assistant General Secretary.
PIEU officials also decided to impose a strict regime to monitor the identity of people entering the union premises.
The 100-odd workers who were gathered outside the PIEU at 10 am were naturally disappointed as they had initially expected Phey to address them. As the second accused, Ng Wah Leng put it.
Ng: I was very dissatisfied after reading the notice. I returned to the crowd. I remember I talked to a few workers as to what was to be done. We intended to ask the Assistant General Secretary, Kwek Juan Bok, to come out to explain to us in detail regarding the lay-off, coupons and the retrenchment.
Another defence witness also described similar sentiments among the workers. Liew Siew Yong, a worker from American Marine, testified ‘Everybody resolutely wanted to see the union men inside’.
The evidence of defence witnesses Ng Wah Leng, Yap Kim Hong and Wou Sou Wah described the next course of action adopted by the workers. Wou Sou Wah, a branch committee member at American Marine confirmed that he went with Ng Ah Soi, at around 10.10am, to see Lawrence Kwek at the request of the workers.
Raman: Did you see Lawrence Kwek?
Raman: Did you speak to him?
Wou: Yes – Ng Ah Soi and I spoke to him. I told him first that the workers outside wanted him to solve the problems.
Raman: Did you tell him what these problems were?
Wou: Yes – I told him about the pay for the two weeks lay-off and the coupons.
Raman: What was Mr Kwek’s reply?
Wou: Mr Kwek said “Don’t care about them!”
Judge: Is that all?
Wou: We felt very bad because the workers wanted him to go out but he refused to do so
Judge: You have not told me about this refusal?
Wou: He sat at his table and waved a hand and said “Don’t care about them!”
Wou further testified that the workers were unhappy when they heard his report. They sent him back to see Lawrence Kwek again.
Raman: Did you do that?
Wou: Yes. I then went in again with the Vice-Chairman.
Wou again conveyed the workers’ request to Lawrence Kwek.
Raman: What did Mr Kwek reply?
Wou: Mr Kwek again said “Don’t care about them!” He remained quiet for a moment – after this he said, “Both of you go out. If the workers want to see me, they can come in to see me one by one but they have to produce their membership cards and their names and addresses will be taken down before they can come in.”
On both occasions, Lawrence Kwek was in his General Secretary’s Room which was not locked:
Wou: I knocked twice on the door before I opened the door.
When Wou Sou Wah and Ng Ah Soi returned to the field with the report of what transpired in the PIEU office:
Wou: The workers were very angry. There was this woo… woo sound. Following this the workers went to the door of the union premises.
Defence witness Liew Siew Yong said in her testimony that two workers, Botak (Tan Kok Heng) and Tze Siang, went up to the PIEU premises to talk to the union officials after they heard the report from Wou Sou Wah. The rest of the crowd surged forward to the PIEU front door where the two workers were having an exchange with union personnel. IRO Robert Ng and another unidentified person were at the door.
In the midst of the exchange at the front door of the PIEU, Robert Ng abruptly withdrew and slammed the door in the face of the workers.
Union officials led by Lawrence Quek went berserk
This commotion inside the PIEU was witnessed by two female workers who happened to be inside the Union premises. They gave evidence in court.
Two female workers from Eminent Fashion, a textile factory, who happened to visit the PIEU on official business on that fateful morning bore witness to the commotion inside the PIEU. The two girls, Seow Yuet Leng and Lai Ah Choon, entered the PIEU premises ‘a little past eleven’. At that time, the workers were still in the field. They had their meeting with IRO Robert Leow in A Department.
Six to seven minutes after the meeting started, they heard the front door being slammed… followed by knockings on the door. What the two girls witnessed soon after was the fabricated riot. Both of them testified as defence witnesses and gave this account.
Lai: I heard footsteps along the corridor behind me. They came from the direction of the Hall. Leow then went to the door. When he reached it, I heard more footsteps, this time moving towards the Hall. As soon as the sounds of footsteps were over, both Yuet Leng and I also got up and went out to the passageway. There was a big sized man standing at the door leading to the hall from the passageway. He was holding a telephone handset as if listening because he was putting it to his ear.
This big sized man was later identified as the Assistant General Secretary, Lawrence Kwek.
Lai: We walked past and after we got outside, we stood there in the Hall. When we were in the hall the big sized man also came into the hall from the passageway. As soon as he came into the hall, he began to speak in English. I didn’t know what he said. As soon as he finished talking, he punched the glass pane on the swing door.
Lai Ah Choon demonstrated the manner in which Lawrence Kwek delivered the punch. She said that Kwek was standing about two feet from the swing door with his right shoulder to the door. Seow Yuet Leng, was then standing very close by, about a foot to the left of Kwek, while she herself was to the left of Seow. Lai showed how Lawrence Kwek raised his right hand to shoulder height and swung, punching the glass of the swing door with his fist.
According to Lai’s account, Lawrence Kwek’s head was turned towards the swing door when he smashed the glass pane. After smashing the glass pane and breaking it, Lawrence Kwek looked at his hand and shook it a few times.
Lai: Then he spoke in Mandarin: ‘Overturn the tables and chairs’. As soon as he finished saying that he overturned a table.
Lai Ah Choon also demonstrated the manner in which Lawrence Kwek overturned the table.
Lai: The others in the Hall followed suit. They followed what he had done.
The tables and chairs were overturned in the direction opposite to where the staff were seated in the hall. Lai added that after the men in the hall finished overturning the furniture, they stood still.
‘Then Kwek waved his hand. They followed him and all of them went into the passageway.’ After the men went into the passageway, Lai Ah Choon heard a sound like pong. She said that it was as if glass was being kicked.
Raman: You told us that you heard someone kicking glass and that it sounded pong. How loud was this noise?
Lai: Quite loud.
Raman: Did you hear the crashing of the glass when you heard this pong?
Lai: No. My friend told me in Cantonese, “Even if you don’t run, I will run.”
Her friend, Seow Yuet Leng, then walked towards the front door and she followed. Lai said Seow opened the door and went out.
Lai said that she left the PIEU premises about three minutes after the overturning of the furniture. Seow Yuet Leng gave a detailed description of what she saw. In their testimonies, they confirm that none of the three defendants was inside the PIEU premises.
These two ladies were caught on camera leaving the premises by were Chuah Chong Lai, the observer from USSU.
Tan Wah Piow was across the road – Daniel Jacob of the Straits Times
At all material time, I was across the road in front of the Bank of America. I was observing the crowd that had then gathered in front of the PIEU. I did not at any moment step inside the PIEU.
Jacob Daniel told the court that he saw me across the road at around the time when he heard the commotion.
Daniel: I went around and saw a short stumpy man with a billy goat hair on his chin, across the road – I recognised him as Tan Wah Piow, President of USSU.
Raman: Where is this road you were referring to?
Daniel: It is opposite the premises, right across the front, across the field, across the monsoon drain of PIEU.
Daniel said that he saw me in ‘a fleeting glance’. He added, “Myself and other pressmen were talking about him.”
So by midday of the 30 October 1974, Phey Yew Kok with the help of Lawrence Kwek had manufactured THE FRAME-UP, “a situation in which false evidence is produced in order to make people think that an innocent person is guilty of a crime.” (Oxford Dictionary)