Thursday, 7 June 2018

PAP Old Guard minister Jek Yeun Thong dies, aged 87

The Straits Times, 7 Jun 2018

A chapter of Singapore's history came closer to an end on Sunday, when one of only two surviving members of the People's Action Party Old Guard leaders died.

Mr Jek Yeun Thong, 87, died peacefully in his sleep at home, with his family around him, his son Jek Kian Yee, 55, told The Straits Times yesterday.

He also said that in accordance with his father's wishes, the family had a private wake and funeral, which was held on Tuesday.

As a mark of respect, and in recognition of his contributions to Singapore, the state flag on all government buildings will be flown at half-mast today, June 7, the Prime Minister's Office said yesterday.

Mr Jek was among the 10 men who put their names on the Independence of Singapore Agreement on Aug 9, 1965, when Singapore left Malaysia and became independent.

The remaining member of the group is former education minister Ong Pang Boon, 89.

President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday led the tributes paid to the Mr Jek, who had held ministerial portfolios in labour, culture, and science and technology, as well as served as high commissioner to the United Kingdom and ambassador to Denmark.

He made many contributions in his 25 years of public service - from mobilising the Chinese ground to upholding a multi-racial Singapore and advocating a Singaporean identity.

Jek Yeun Thong: 1930-2018

Old Guard leader mobilised Chinese-speaking ground
He played key role in rallying support for a non-communist, multiracial Singapore
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jun 2018

When Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke in Mandarin for the first time at a political rally in 1955, it was Mr Jek Yeun Thong who wrote the one-page speech.

Mr Jek, then the chief reporter at Chinese broadsheet Sin Pao, had also spent time going through the speech with Mr Lee, coaching him on the pronunciation of the words.

He would later play an important role in helping the People's Action Party (PAP) mobilise the Chinese-speaking ground to support the party's vision of a non-communist, multiracial Singapore.

On Sunday, the former minister, one of the PAP Old Guard leaders, died in his Bukit Timah home. He was 87. Mr Jek leaves behind his wife, Madam Huang Kek Chee, 84, sons Jek Kian Jin, 59, and Jek Kian Yee, 55, and five grandchildren.

Son Kian Yee said his father had been quite frail since his last public event at Singapore's SG50 National Day Parade celebration in 2015.

"Old age was catching up with him and (he had) various illnesses. He passed away peacefully in his sleep, and the family was with him till the end," he told The Straits Times yesterday.

He added that the family, heeding Mr Jek's wishes, held a private wake, and the funeral was on Tuesday.

The younger Mr Jek said his father had wanted a low-profile and quiet departure, like the farewell described in one of his favourite poems, Taking Leave Of Cambridge Again, by Chinese poet Xu Zhimo.

The last stanza describes a quiet, inconspicuous farewell, “悄悄的我走了,正如我悄悄的来;我挥一挥衣袖,不带走一片云彩”.

Said the son: "This encapsulates his philosophy, which he had often spoken to us about... He came quietly and wanted to go quietly."

In a condolence letter to Mrs Jek, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted his contributions and said his death was a "deep loss to the nation".

From his teenage years, Mr Jek had been politically aware. He was a student union leader and editor of a wall newspaper, which is put up on walls, when studying at The Chinese High School.

But in 1950, he was expelled from school for anti-colonial activities. He was blacklisted by the Special Branch, and could not continue his studies in any school in Singapore.

In 1954, he joined the two organisations that got him into politics: Left-leaning Chinese newspaper Sin Pao and the PAP.

Although he had left-wing sympathies and was detained in 1957, he later backed the non-communist camp, and helped the PAP write speeches and pamphlets in Chinese to reach out to the Chinese ground.

Recounting his first Mandarin rally speech in Bandar Street Square, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew credited Mr Jek with playing a crucial role: "A friendly Sin Pao reporter called Jek Yeun Thong drafted two paragraphs for me, and then spent several hours coaching me to read a speech that took only three minutes to deliver. But the crowd was with me, and they cheered me for the effort."

In 1959, after the legislative assembly election, the PAP came into power and Mr Jek became Mr Lee Kuan Yew's political secretary.

Two years later, he contested and lost in his first election, the Hong Lim by-election. He won in Queenstown in 1963, holding the seat until 1988, when he retired.

Due to his Chinese-speaking background - he was fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese - Mr Jek sat on a 1960 panel tasked to reform the then Nanyang University, or Nantah.

Its degrees were not officially recognised because of doubts about academic standards. It affected the students' employment opportunities and frustrated them.

The issue flared up in the 1963 election, and Mr Jek's involvement in the negotiations helped to fend off accusations that the PAP was against Chinese education, said Lee's Lieutenants, a book on Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the Old Guard.

As Culture Minister from 1968 to 1978, he championed Chinese education, speaking out against the use of hanyu pinyin and the adoption of simplified Chinese characters.

He also stoutly supported a multi-racial society, often speaking of the vital role of Singapore culture in bridging different communities. In 1971, he prescribed it as a cure to guard against "hippism", and "insulate our people against soft living and social pollution".

He pushed through the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act in 1974. He stressed that its sole aim is "to safeguard our national interest and well-being of our citizens by preventing our newspapers from being used as instruments for subversion".

The Act's provisions include issuance of management shares with greater voting rights and the public listing of major newspapers so that they do not come under the control of a single person or family.

As Labour Minister from 1963 to 1968, he was responsible for the 1968 Employment Act, which gives employers more power on staff transfer and retrenchment. It laid the groundwork for better labour relations, paving the way for industrialisation.

He was Minister for Science and Technology from 1976 to 1980, when he left the Cabinet. Eight years later, he retired from politics.

In 1990, Mr Jek, a first-generation leader, received one of the most prestigious national awards: the Order of the Nila Utama (Second Class).

PM Lee: Jek Yeun Thong made notable contributions, showed strong sense of dedication to Singapore
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor and Seow Bei YiThe Straits Times, 7 Jun 2018

In July 1961, the pro-communist faction in the People's Action Party (PAP) split from the non-communists to form Barisan Sosialis.

But Mr Jek Yeun Thong, a key member of the PAP Old Guard, stood firmly with the party's non-communist leadership.

He went on to help mobilise the Chinese-speaking ground to support the PAP's vision of a non-communist, multiracial Singapore.

"This was one of his biggest political contributions," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a condolence letter to Mrs Jek Yeun Thong yesterday. It comes a day after Mr Jek's funeral on Tuesday.

Mr Jek, 87, died at home on Sunday, and in keeping with his wishes, his family held a private wake and funeral.

PM Lee, in his letter, paid tribute to Mr Jek, who served in Singapore's first Cabinet and was one of the 10 ministers who signed the Separation Agreement in 1965.

"Throughout his years in public service, Mr Jek made notable contributions, and demonstrated a strong sense of dedication to the nation," he said.

Mr Jek was Labour Minister and held other ministerial portfolios from 1963 to 1980. He remained an MP until 1988, and was conferred the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1990.

PM Lee recounted how Mr Jek came to know founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the 1950s - a period when the Communist United Front dominated the labour and student unions, and the PAP had many communists in its ranks.

PM Lee noted that Mr Jek had left-wing sympathies and was arrested briefly in 1957, but came around to the non-communist side and was appointed political secretary to Mr Lee in 1959.

He was elected in the 1963 election, and made Labour Minister.

"He was instrumental in building trust with the Chinese-speaking unions and helping the National Trades Union Congress wrest control of them from the Communist United Front," PM Lee said.

He added that Mr Jek also helped draft and win support for the 1968 Employment Act - a key milestone in building harmonious labour relations which paved the way for Singapore to attract investments and industrialise in the 1970s.

In her condolence letter to Mrs Jek, President Halimah Yacob said that as Labour Minister from 1963 to 1968, Mr Jek had the foresight to build "the foundation in Singapore's foreign policy of seeking friends with all like-minded countries to facilitate our trade and industrial development".

President Halimah also recounted that Mr Jek spoke so passionately at the International Labour Organisation Conference in Geneva in 1966 that many in the audience began to take notice of the fledgling nation of Singapore.

In his seminal speech, Mr Jek had spoken about the importance of "setting a correct climate of labour relations", she said.

PM Lee said that as Minister for Culture from 1968 to 1979, Mr Jek raised the profile of cultural activities. "He believed that art transcended barriers of race, language and culture, and that traditional art could keep Singaporeans grounded at a time when the country was quickly modernising."

He also noted that as the People's Association deputy chairman, Mr Jek actively promoted photography competitions, art exhibitions and calligraphy contests - activities that strengthened grassroots communities.

"Mr Jek's passing is a deep loss to the nation," PM Lee said.

Tributes pour in from past and present PAP leaders
By Seow Bei YiThe Straits Times, 7 Jun 2018

Singapore held its first Chingay Parade in February 1973 under the guidance of Old Guard minister Jek Yeun Thong.

Then the deputy chairman of the People's Association (PA), Mr Jek helped to raise the profile of cultural activities here, the PA said yesterday.

Mr Jek, 87, died at home on Sunday. A key member of the People's Action Party (PAP), he held various portfolios, including those of Minister for Labour and Minister for Culture.

Recounting his contributions in a Facebook post, the PA said the Chingay Parade has since grown to become a national celebration of multiracial harmony.

It said many community arts programmes which saw active mass participation were started during his tenure as deputy chairman.

PAP politicians past and present paid tribute to him yesterday following news of his death.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said Mr Jek, whom he met at national and PAP events, was "always very gracious".

He recounted greeting Mr Jek at the PAP's 60th anniversary event in Victoria Concert Hall in 2014.

"I noticed his shirt was damp. It was raining and he had got wet when he arrived. But he didn't say anything, and sat through the event. He said he didn't want to trouble anyone."

Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said he remembers founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying that Mr Jek was among early PAP members who fought fearlessly for the party during the "tumultuous, hectic and frantic years".

He added in his Facebook post: "As a backbencher in Parliament in his later years, he was concerned that the fruits of progress be shared by many, and often raised the issue of wealth distribution."

Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu said Mr Jek had "advocated an emerging Singaporean identity, especially through the arts and culture".

His contributions laid a strong foundation for the vibrant arts and culture scene here, she added.

Others who called Mr Jek's death a loss to the nation include Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Mr Jek was appointed high commissioner to the United Kingdom in 1977, and in 1978, ambassador to Denmark. Former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan, who was foreign minister in the 1980s, said: "(Mr Jek) was an astute and perceptive observer of political currents and undercurrents, and I found his reports useful to understand the UK."

Former MP Ho Kah Leong described Mr Jek as a Chinese gentleman who championed the Chinese language and culture. He recalled Mr Jek being among MPs who would converse in Mandarin, not English. "He was very friendly to people, very approachable. Never put on airs. Spoke to you gently."

Additional reporting by Hariz Baharudin and Yasmine Yahya

No comments:

Post a Comment