Wednesday 12 March 2014

Pioneer unionist and PAP founding member Lee Gek Seng dies

Unionist Lee Gek Seng described as self-sacrificial and generous mentor
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

MR LEE Gek Seng, a pioneering unionist and a founding member of the People's Action Party, died last Saturday from heart failure, said family members. He was 87.

Mr Lee was among the PAP's 14 convenors when the party was officially inaugurated on Nov 21, 1954, and one of 11 men on the party's first pro-tem committee.

Yesterday, politicians, unionists, community leaders and family paid tribute to a man they described as humble, self-sacrificial and a generous mentor.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited the wake at Mount Vernon Sanctuary late last night, spending close to an hour speaking to the family and looking at old photos of Mr Lee.

He also noted in a Facebook post Mr Lee's many contributions, including serving as PAP deputy secretary-general and as a community leader in Jalan Besar and Toa Payoh.

PM Lee said he had just met Mr Lee at last month's Pioneer Generation party at the Istana. "He came in a wheelchair, but was clearly very happy to be there. Now he has left us."

In a condolence letter to Mr Lee's elder son, Lionel, NTUC president Diana Chia and secretary-general Lim Swee Say praised Mr Lee for the instrumental role he played in setting up the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers in 1947 and later, in forming the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE).

It was formed from a merger of Mr Lee's former union and the Union of Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff.

He then went on to serve as general secretary of the postal and telecommunications branch of AUPE for 20 years and remained an AUPE trustee after he retired.

In their letter, Mr Lim and Ms Chia said Mr Lee had staved off promotion at Singapore Telecoms for more than 20 years so that he could continue being a unionist to represent and fight for workers. Mr Lim said Mr Lee "laid a very strong foundation" in expanding the public sector into a core pillar of the labour movement and building up AUPE to the No. 1 union in NTUC's public sector arm.

Mr Lee's younger son, Lewis, 55, recalled that as a fiery young unionist, his father first met Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the lawyer engaged to represent the union, in 1952 after his father led a postal and telecoms workers' strike.

Dr Lewis Lee said his father "was a trade unionist at heart and a political activist as a consequence".

On why he chose to join the PAP in those early years, Mr Lee Gek Seng said in a 1999 party publication: "Politics was out on the streets. I looked around and saw that the PAP, even though it was left-wing, was genuinely interested in serving the people and would fight for them. So, I threw my lot with the PAP."

Mr Lee, who never contested in the polls despite his colleagues' urging, was a stalwart in the Jalan Besar and Toa Payoh branches and, after retiring at 65, at the PAP headquarters and the PAP Community Foundation.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said he had worked with Mr Lee at the PAP HQ during his first few years in politics.

"I was always impressed by his commitment, his wisdom and his willingness to share his experiences and his knowledge with others, young people like me," he said.

Also at the wake yesterday were former PAP colleagues such as presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock and former senior parliamentary secretary Chan Chee Seng. Mr Chan paid tribute to his "great friend", who took him under his wing as a rookie MP and supported him as his election agent in Jalan Besar.

Dr Lee said his father always made time for his family, recalling excursions to the open-air cinema and long walks for kaya toast breakfasts.

He was with his father when he attended last month's Pioneer Generation party. To Dr Lee, his father exemplified the can-do spirit of the pioneers, dropping out of Raffles Institution at Secondary 2 because he needed to support his family after World War II.

"Someone asked him at the party, why did you do what you did? My father said, 'During those times, if you were me, you would also have done the same thing.'"

Mr Lee leaves behind five children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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