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Phey Yew Kok Affair no cover-up please, however awkward or embarrassing

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a statement this week about Phey Yew Kok’s return after 36 years on the run, he said he was hoping for a “closure to a long standing case”, and “will not allow any cover-up, even when it is awkward or embarrassing for the Government”.

The Straits Times 25 June 2015 report stated that Phey “has been on Interpol’s wanted list since [1979], longer than any other Singaporeans”. Lee Hsien Loong should now explain why nothing was done when his father, Lee Kuan Yew, knew as least since 2000 that Phey Yew Kok “was last heard of in Thailand, eking out a miserable existence as a fugitive, subject to blackmail by immigration and police authorities.” .

If you are a reader of the Straits Times, you may think Phey Yew Kok is just a disgraced trade union boss and MP who embezzled $84,000, and went into hiding for 36 years.

Yet if you read the blogs, they tell a very different story.


What you don’t read in the Straits Times

Inevitably, the older netizens recall Phey Yew Kok as a key prosecution witness in a trial in 1974 where two workers and I were convicted for alleged “rioting” at the premises of the Pioneer Industries Employees’ Union (PIEU). In the blogs, you will read about the demands for Phey Yew Kok to come clean about the frame-up. Also, the name of the Judge who presided over the 47-day trial, T.S. Sinnathuray, is constantly mentioned. My parting words to the Judge congratulating him for his future promotion to the High Court are now widely quoted.

I write this piece especially for the benefit of readers below the age of 50 so that they can appreciate the significance of Phey Yew Kok’s return, and the opportunities to put right the injustices of that period.

Tan Wah Piow in his youth

Tan Wah Piow in his youth

In 1974, I was the President of the University of Singapore Students’ Union; the two co-defendants in the trial were workers from American Marine factory and they were also members of the PAP-backed Pioneer Industries Employees’ Union (PIEU) based in Jurong. We were accused by Phey, the Secretary General of PIEU, of rioting. Our defence was that the ‘rioting’ was fabricated by Phey and his cohorts.

Political Control of the Trade Union and PAP hegemony

In the 1970s, Phey’s role, in the context of political dominance of the PAP, was to “tap the vast reservoir of workers not yet unionised or lost since the disintegration of the leftist unions… From being secretary in one of the airlines’ white-collar unions, his consummate wheeler-dealer skills took him to the Presidency of the NTUC, under Devan’s approving eye” (source: James Minchin “No man is an island”)

Lee Kuan Yew facing Phey Yew Kok

Lee Kuan Yew facing Phey Yew Kok

Devan Nair was Lee Kuan Yew’s close cohort during those early days after independence. “I needed him [Devan Nair] in Singapore to play a key role in maintaining industrial peace. Devan became the Secretary General of NTUC, and Phey was given the task to control the workers in Jurong as the Secretary-General of the PIEU. Although ostensibly “trade unionists”, they were an integral part of the PAP political hegemony, glorified as a “symbiotic relationship”. By that, it means you scratch the back of the PAP, and it would offer you protection and benefits.

In the mid-1970s the PAP government was facing widespread international criticisms and condemnations for human rights violations. In response, Devan Nair launched an attack on the critics of the PAP at the Triennial Delegates Conference of the NTUC. He claimed that those international critics were fed with “falsehoods by pro-communists enemies of Singapore, right here in our midst”. The falsehoods he cited were: Singapore is a one-party state; and that People in Singapore are arrested and detained in Singapore without trial for their political opinions.

Those untruth pedaled by Devan then would go unchallenged in Singapore because the political landscape in the 1970s was sterile, without a single opposition MP in Parliament. Opposition and genuine trade unionists were behind bars since 1963, a fact which was not spoken of publicly. That was before the advent of the internet, and the Straits Times then, was as docile as the paper is today.

While the trade union bosses were busy defending the PAP, Lee Kuan Yew was promising the workers, through the NTUC, PIEU and other unions ‘pie in the sky’. Lee Kuan Yew, in his message to the Union on the occasion of their Triennial conference in 1976, promised “fair play and fair shares make it worth everyone’s while to put in his share of effort for group survival and group prosperity.

40 years after that promise, we know that retired workers are still wondering where are the “fair shares” and “group properity” due to them. Back in 1974, we, the students from USSU, and the Polytechnic were challenging the entire fallacy.

The Student Movement

1974 was the year of recession and redundancies. The PIEU, we discovered, was not working for the interests of the workers they claimed to represent. In those politically bleak days, there were no NGOs. Our allies were a few dedicated but unpaid social workers, including Vincent Cheng, whose church-funded organization, the Jurong Industrial Mission, was forced to close because of pressures exerted on their trustees by the invisible hand of the State. Another informal ally of the students were members of the Young Christian Workers’ Movement and their Jurong-based Chaplain, the late Father Joseph Ho. Through them, and their contacts with workers, USSU found out about the plight of workers from the American Marine factory who were made redundant, and who were unable to obtain any help from by their trade union, the PIEU.

USSU’s Retrenchment Research Centre sprung into action, and gave moral support to the workers which eventually culminated in a confrontation between the workers and the PIEU. We sought the help of G Raman, a pro-bono lawyer for USSU, who advised that it was illegal for a company to pay workers with vouchers issued by the trade union supermarket.

This revelation was immediately relayed to the workers, and when they confronted Phey Yew Kok on this issue, it must have been a bombshell. Very soon after that, a plot was hatched, which ended with the infamous frame-up, and the 47-day trial of the two workers and I, and the deportation of student leaders from USSU.

Encounter with Phey Yew Kok

In the book “Frame-Up – A Singapore Court on Trial”, I gave my account of the court’s hearing, and background to events leading to my imprisonment.

A short extract is reproduced for the benefit of the readers.

A hundred odd workers turned up at the PIEU on the 23 October 1974. Some students, including myself, were also present. This meeting was to become the cause of the conflict between the PIEU, and the workers and students.



On another point regarding the American Marine management’s collision with the union to use purchase coupons for PIEU supermarkets as part payment of wages, I exposed Phey’s complicity in this illegal act. As I argued at the meeting, under Singapore’s labour law, the salary of workers is payable only in legal tender and not otherwise. It was therefore completely wrong for Phey to condone such practice. In trying to cover-up for Phey, the Solicitor General argued that workers had the option to accept or reject the coupons. Francis Khoo, counsel for the third accused, told the court that although the option to return the coupons was open to the workers, the date for the refund fell within the lay-off period.

Raman:      … The union may argue that it was motivated by good considerations, i.e. that of helping employers who were in financial difficulty. But are not workers entitled to be consulted on how their wages should be paid and when it is clearly set out in the law, any breach of law should never have been condoned.

These issues and the confrontation which ensued at the meeting infuriated Phey. 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 – referring to me as the most outspoken. This threat was later to be realised in the form of the riot frame-up as the defence argued. Phey denied making such a statement.

The defence argued that at the meeting, Phey assured the workers he would try to settle the issue within one week. The one week would end on 30 October. After the 23 October meeting, the workers confirmed with Phey their intention to meet him on the stipulated date – 30 October – at the PIEU. That gave Phey the opportunity to stage the fictitious riot on 30 October. In denying the defence allegations, the prosecution insisted that Phey did not make any such promise, and knew nothing about the meeting on 30 October.

Phey:          Another worker asked how soon could I let them know. I said as soon as the news came from the negotiations.

The truth about the 23 October meeting was crucial. For the defence, it was the source of Phey’s threat against me, and the actions of Phey at the meeting pointed to the high probability that he would stage a frame-up against his critics. To the prosecution, I was presented as a militant ‘stirring the people’…’behaving in a disorderly manner’ ‘shouting and scolding (Phey) and (Phey’s) IROs’ and to suggest that I would organise a riot seven days later. Ultimately, it was the evidence of one prosecution witness, Phey Yew Kok, and two other PIEU employees against five defence witnesses who testified on the 23 October meeting.

Although convicted by the Judge of the offence, we assert our innocence before and after the trial, and now 40 years later, because the riot was a total fabrication.

Who, or who else, were involved in the frame-up? I expect the files in the ISD vault to provide some pertinent evidence. When Devan Nair, who later fell out with Lee Kuan Yew after his elevation to the Presidency of Singapore, was asked during his exile about the frame-up, he gave a cryptic response. He said that at the time he was only following the events from the papers, and did not think much about it. However, on reflection, he said if there were a frame-up, it would go right to the top.

Will LHL honour his words?

Many netizens have expressed their hope that Phey’s return may eventually bring a closure to this frame-up saga. But how does one go about challenging a miscarriage of justice in the court when any attempt to do so would be slapped down with a threat of imprisonment or fines for scandalising the court? Amongst the developed common law country, Singapore is an exception as United Kingdom has already dumped that feudal practice into the dustbin of history.

The trial, which ran for 47-days, was well publicised both in Malaysia and Singapore. Comments made in the blogs in recent days are testimony to those who lived through those days, and saw the injustice of it all.

Even Lee Hsien Loong, who did not share such sentiments, should be able to recall his days in Cambridge when Malaysia and Singapore students’ society organised public talks about the repression in Singapore, and the frame-up was quoted as an example of repression under his father’s regime. If Lee Hsien Loong’s memory fails him, his Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam and wife Jane Itoggi should be able to relate to the Prime Minister how the trial and the frame-up had contributed to their respective political awakening during the 1970s.

Phey Yew Kok in a photo taken on 3 December 1979, days before he had the charges read to him in court on 10 December

Phey Yew Kok in a photo taken on 3 December 1979, days before he had the charges read to him in court on 10 December

Now that Phey Yew Kok has returned, it is an opportunity for the State to investigate the entire saga, including the illicit practice of the Trade Union in instigating payment of workers by vouchers in the 1970s. That illegal practice was exposed in 1974 by USSU before the 1979 exposure of Phey’s embezzlement of Union Funds. The matter of the illicit payment of wages by vouchers was widely publicised, but no attempt was made by the police to investigate this institutional crime committed by a PAP-back trade union.

The illegal practice at the PIEU necessarily involved large sums of money changing hands and opportunities for corruption. Those involved in the corrupt practice were motivated to stop the interference of USSU into their otherwise little known cosy business.

Phey Yew Kok’s attack against me in the criminal court in 1974 set the stage for the political persecution and suppression of the entire student movement in Singapore. The persecution of the student leaders that follow, including the deportation of other student leaders, and the banning of USSU, and suppression of the students at the Singapore Polytechynic and Nanyang University during the 1970s period suited the political ambitions of those in the PAP–Trade Union symbiotic relationship.

This was because our emergence as an effective political pressure group in 1974 was unprecedented in the then political desert, and caught Lee Kuan Yew unprepared. The persecution was subsequently extended by the use of ISA against G Raman and the late Francis Khoo, both defence lawyers for the workers. One of the allegation of facts against G Raman was the role he played as adviser to the students. Even a local journalist who wrote favourably about the student activism during the period for foreign newspapers was not spared, and similarly detained under ISA.

Now that the Prime Minister has made a public commitment of “no cover-up” however “awkward or embarrassing”, will he now order an independent investigation, not just over the $84,000 embezzlement, but the entire corrupt practice at the PIEU during the period as exposed by USSU in 1974?

This will require public access to all documents held at the trade unions, private and public records of Lee Kuan Yew, relevant ministerial and cabinet papers, University of Singapore Vice-Chancellor office papers, police, ISD, and any other secret agency records directly and indirectly associated with the USSU-American Marine-PIEU conflict.

For such an inquiry to be effective, immunity from prosecution should be granted to those giving evidence about their involvement in the entire saga, including the frame-up.

Such an inquiry will inevitably open up a can of worms. But that is historically necessary if Singapore were to reboot and redefine herself as a nation.

Do the leaders of the PAP possess the moral courage to look at themselves in the mirror and do the right thing?

Do they just wait for Lee Hsien Loong to honour his words?

Or do they need to be pushed?

Tan Wah Piow, currently a lawyer in London

Tan Wah Piow, currently a lawyer in London

Tan Wah Piow


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