Member Of Singapore’s First Cabinet Has Passed Away At 87
Wondering why flags on all government buildings flew at half mast on Thursday (7 Jun)?
They were marking the death of Mr Jek Yeun Thong, a founding member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and a member of Singapore’s first Cabinet.
Mr Jek passed away at the age of 87 on Sunday (3 Jun).
In the same league as Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Othman Wok, Mr Jek was one of Singapore’s 1st generation leaders.
Together, these men and women played a pivotal role in Singapore’s development.
Here are 12 facts about Mr Jek and his achievements:
1. Signed the Separation Agreement from Malaysia
Mr Jek was among the 10 ministers who signed the 1965 Independence of Singapore Agreement.
He signed the document as Labour Minister.
Other signatories include then-Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye and Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam.
2. Alumnus of Chinese High School
Mr Jek studied at Chinese High School, where he edited a newspaper and served as leader of the student union.
TCHS clock tower, 1950s
But Mr Jek was expelled from the school by the British government in 1950 and blacklisted for his role in a student unrest, which the British government deemed were anti-colonial activities.
As he was blacklisted, he could not go on to study in other schools.
3. Left-wing Sin Pao newspaper
Mr Jek joined the Chinese-language newspaper, Sin Pao in 1954.
Starting off as a bi-weekly paper, the broadsheet gradually grew in popularity and was published tri-weekly by 1957.
4. PAP member since the party was founded
He’s seen PAP since its fetal days, having joined the party in its founding year.
Mr Jek hit the ground running with the men in white, assisting the party during national elections in 1955 and 1959.
When the PAP finally came into power in 1959, Mr Jek became Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s political secretary. He held this position until 1963, when he contested – and won – a seat in Parliament.
5. Detained for left-wing sympathies
In August 1957, the Government detained Mr Jek under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (now known as the Internal Security Act) for attempted sedition.
He was released 8 months later, after which he is believed to have shed his left-wing ideology.
6. Drafted Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s first ever Chinese language campaign speech
I’ll leave Mr Lee Kuan Yew to speak for this one. These are his words:
The first and simplest speech I have ever made in Mandarin for general elections … was before the biggest crowd Singapore had ever seen, around 60,000… Then, when I could not speak Chinese, he [Jek] was crucial.
That speech was delivered during Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s first attempt in 1955 to run in the election in Tanjong Pagar. Mr Lee added,
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 only took 3 minutes to deliver.
7. Love affair with Queenstown
He was elected as legislative assemblyman for Queenstown in 1963, securing 53% of the valid vote.
He kept that post till 1988, serving as MP for the precinct for 25 long years.
Perhaps a testament to his popularity is the fact that Mr Jek’s seat was almost never contested after that initial poll.
The one time it was contested in 1972, Mr Jek ended up winning 81% of the vote.
Mr Jek giving a speech at the official opening of Queenstown Market, 1963
Mr Jek (with outstretched arm) carrying out a spot check in Queenstown during the Keep Singapore Clean campaign, 1968
8. Order of Nila Utama
Mr Jek receiving the Order of Nila Utama, 1990
Mr Jek was awarded the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1990.
Order of Nila Utama
The award comprises a ribbon and a badge.
The method of wearing the ribbon and badge differs according to the grades.
In Mr Jek’s case, he would have had to suspend the ribbon around his neck, and wear the badge on the left side of his outer clothing.
9. Chingay man
Mr Jek was the Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association from 1971 to 1977.
He proposed the idea of a Chingay Parade to Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Jek then led the PA to organise the first ever Chingay Parade on 4 February 1973.
The Chingay Parade is one of his most highly visible legacies, and there he is, watching it in 1976:
Can you spot him in the picture?
10. Employment Act because of him hor
The Employment Act tells us our contractual obligations and makes sure we don’t get exploited.
The man behind it?
You guessed right.
He was Labour Minister for 1963 to 1968.
The Employment Act of 1968 was passed during his tenure.
11. Nantah affair
Library and administrative building of Nantah University, 1956
In the early 1960s, degrees from Nanyang University (aka Nantah) were not officially recognised because of doubts over the university’s academic standards.
This made it difficult for graduates to find employment.
To make matters worse, Nantah founder Tan Lark Sye offered financial support to its graduates who ran on the Barisan Sosialis ticket in the 1963 elections.
Barisan Sosialis was an offshoot of the PAP that comprised members accused of being pro-communist.
However, Mr Jek thought it was important to not conflate Chinese education with communism.
As such, the Government agreed to review the university’s curriculum and following a reorganisation, began recognising Nantah degrees again.
Mr Jek’s involvement later helped the PAP fend off accusations that it was against Chinese education.
12. Wanted to leave without “taking away a single cloud”
The old man wanted a quiet departure.
He took inspiration from one of his most loved poems by Chinese poet Xu Zhimo.
The last stanza of the poem, “Taking Leave Of Cambridge Again” describes a very quiet farewell.
The last line reads,
I am not taking away a single cloud.