Old Guard leader Jek Yeun Thong passes away
PUBLISHED ON 06 Jun 2018
Another of Singapore’s Old Guard leaders, Mr Jek Yeun Thong (pictured second from the left), passed away on 3 June 2018 (Sunday). He was 87.

Mr Jek will be remembered as a passionate activist, who did not shy away from a good fight when it came to Singapore’s interests.

Mr Jek joined the PAP in 1954. He was also a member of independent Singapore’s first Cabinet, and he helmed ministries like Labour, Culture, as well as Science and Technology. He was also among the ten who signed the Independence of Singapore Agreement1 on Aug 9, 1965.

In 1957, Mr Jek was appointed to the PAP’s Central Executive Committee as a political secretary. Later the same year, he was detained under the Internal Security Act by the Lim Yew Hock government, for attempted sedition. He was released in April 1958.

After the PAP’s election victory in May 1959, Mr Jek was appointed Political Secretary to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He held this position from 1959 to 1963. From 1959 to 1976, he held the posts of Assistant Treasurer and then Treasurer on the CEC of the PAP.

Mr Jek played a very important role in helping the PAP engage the Chinese ground in the 50s and 60s. Mr Lee Kuan Yew remembered being coached by Mr Jek, who also drafted Mr Lee’s first ever campaign speech in Mandarin.

“The first and simplest speech I have ever made in Mandarin for general elections ... it was before the biggest crowd Singapore had ever seen, around 60,000. Then, when I could not speak Chinese, he (Jek) was crucial," said Mr Lee.

Mr Jek stood in the Legislative Assembly general election in September 1963, and was elected as the legislative assemblyman for Queenstown. He held this seat until his retirement from politics in 1988. 

Following the PAP's victory in the 1963 general election, Mr Jek was appointed as the Minister for Labour, and one of his immediate tasks was to tackle the trade unions, which were dominated pro-communists. 

In the Employment Act passed in 1968, issues such as promotion, staff transfers and retrenchment exercise were under the purview of employers. Public holidays were also cut back, and working hours for white collar workers were increased to align with those of blue collar workers. In his parliamentary speech defending the policy, Mr Jek said “we are a pro-labour government and we want to make everything easy for the workers, but on the other hand, we must also protect the interests of the employers so that they are not unduly persecuted and do not start running away."

When the People's Defence Force (PDF) was formed in 1966, Mr Jek - along with fellow MP Fong Sip Chee - volunteered as a recruit. Mr Jek’s passion for Singapore was reflected in his speech to the International Labour Organisation in 1966.

"We seek to be friends with all, to establish cordial and fraternal relationships, particularly in the field of trade and industrial development. While our natural affinity is with countries in Afro-Asia...we also seek friendship with any country which can make a contribution to our security and which can assist us in our economic development." 

From 1968 to 1979, Mr Jek was Minister for Culture. He was also deputy chairman of the People's Association from 1971-1977, where he endorsed and supported the organising of photography contests, art exhibitions and calligraphy contests. He also initiated the Chingay Procession in 1973. From 1976 to 1980, Jek held the post of Minister for Science and Technology (concurrently with his Minister for Culture position until 1978). In 1977, he was appointed Singapore's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and the High Commissioner to Denmark in 1978. 

Mr Jek was awarded the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1990.

The other signatories of the Independent Singapore Declaration were Mr Lee Kuan Yew, former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye, former finance minister Goh Keng Swee, former law minister E. W. Barker, former culture minister S. Rajaratnam, former health minister Yong Nyuk Lin, former national development minister Lim Kim San, former education minister Ong Pang Boon, and former social affairs minister Othman Wok.