Jek Yeun Thong

Jek Yeun Thong (b. 1930, Singapore) is a former politician who helmed the labour, culture, and science and technology portfolios at various times. He was part of the People's Action Party's old guard of politicians.

Education and early career
While studying at Chinese High School, Jek was the leader of a student union and editor of a wall newspaper. He was also involved with the Anti-British League and a student communist cell, although he would later drift away from this end of the political spectrum.

In 1950, Jek was expelled from Chinese High by the British government, and placed on a blacklist which meant that he was not able to register at another school. Four years later, Jek joined the Chinese newspaper Sin Pao, and also joined as a member of the People's Action Party (PAP) in its founding year. 
Jek assisted the PAP in the 1955 Legislative Assembly general election, largely with the Chinese ground.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew remembered being coached by and having his first ever campaign speech in Mandarin drafted by Jek. "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 Lee.
In 1957, Jek was appointed to the party's Central Executive Committee (CEC) as a political secretary. But later that year, he was detained under the Internal Security Act by the Lim Yew Hock government for attempted sedition. He was released in April 1958, and became Secretary to Mayor Ong Eng Guan at the City Council. Jek resigned from this post to help in the PAP's campaign for the general elections in May 1959. The party came into government after the elections and Jek was appointed Political Secretary to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a position he held from 1959 to 1963. From 1959 to 1976, he held the posts of Assistant Treasurer and then Treasurer on the CEC of the PAP.

Role in Nantah Affair

In 1960, Jek and Lee Khoon Choy were appointed as the government representatives on the Joint-Government-University Liaison Committee to reform Nanyang University (alias Nantah). Since 1959, Nantah degrees had not been officially recognised, as doubts over the university's academic standards held sway, and its graduates had problems finding employment. 

There was a political angle as well, with Nantah founder Tan Lark Sye offering financial support to its graduates in the 1963 general elections. The majority of Nantah graduates ran on the Barisan Sosialis platform, and the university was seen as supporting the Barisan. 
Jek and the government's opening position was that in line with the PAP's vision of a multicultural Singapore, the Chinese-educated identity must not be associated with Communist or chauvinistic influences. The government offered recognition of Nantah degrees and aid if there were "safeguards as to the maintenance of proper academic standards and the proper accounting of public monies". A committee led by Professor Wang Gungwu began its review of Nantah's curriculum. The committee produced a six-point agreement on the reorganisation of the university in 1964, the key points being that Chinese was to be retained as Nantah's medium of instruction, the government was to recognise Nantah degrees upon successful reform, the university was to be converted into a purely academic institution free of politics.

Entering politics
In the 1961 Hong Lim by-election, Jek ran against Ong Eng Guan but lost to the former mayor. Jek then stood in the Legislative Assembly general election in September 1963, and was elected as the legislative assemblyman for the Queenstown constituency. He held this seat until his retirement from politics in 1988. Following the PAP's victory in the 1963 general election, 
Jek was appointed as the minister for labour, tasked with reforming the trade unions which had been taken over by the pro-communists. Two years later, when Singapore separated from Malaysia, he was one of the cabinet ministers who signed the Separation Agreement.

As the minister for labour, one of the policies which Jek introduced was a controversial one which required Malaysians to apply for work permits in order to work in Singapore. 
Labour reform continued when the Employment Act passed in 1968 put matters of promotion, staff transfers and retrenchment exercise within the control of employers. The past decade had been a time of frequent labour disputes with the more militant unions often calling for strikes over such issues, and the Government knew that the nation could not afford to be crippled by industrial action. Under the Act, public holidays were also cut back and working hours for "white collar" workers were increased to align with those of "blue collar" workers. 

Jek outlined in a speech to Parliament: "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, Jek - along with fellow MP Fong Sip Chee - volunteered as a recruit.
Forging a Singaporean Identity
Jek was a strong advocate of an emerging Singaporean identity, and outlined the newly independent nations foreign policy outlook in a 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 whose leaders have successfully arrived for independence against colonialism and who now seek to establish a new social order and a more just and prosperous society than the ones they have inherited, we also seek friendship with any country which can make a contribution to our security and which can assist us in our economic development." 

He switched to the Culture Ministry in 1968, and held the position of Minister for Culture until 1979. In this role, Jek promoted Asian art and values as a "cultural ballast" against Western decadence. He was also deputy chairman of the People's Association (1971-1977), where he endorsed and supported the organising of photography contests, art exhibitions and calligraphy contests.

In the 1970s, Jek addressed what he saw as the declining standards of Mandarin in Singapore. He called the use of hanyu pinyin and the adaptation of simplified Chinese a castration of the best in Chinese culture. He also took issue with local television stations appearing to prioritise Western art over Asian art-forms, as well as young people adopting Western hippie culture.

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. 

Faced with the tide of party renewal, Jek was dropped from the Cabinet along with fellow Old Guard politicians Lim Kim San and Toh Chin Chye in 1980 but he remained as an MP until 1988. As a backbencher in Parliament, Jek raised the issue of wealth distribution, claiming that the lives of low-income groups in Singapore had not improved for the past 25 years. He was also a critic of the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme.

The transition to a new generation of leaders in PAP had eased by the 1990s and in recognition of his time in political service, Jek was awarded the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1990.


Alvin Chua

Jek, Y. T. (2006). In Singapore: The Encyclopedia (p. 265). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet/National Heritage Board.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])

Jek: PA to broaden youth groups base [Microfilm: NL7930]. (1974, April 4). The Straits Times, p.21.

Lim, B. T. (1963, October 3) Nantah reshuffle must in fight for recognition [Microfilm: NL12150]. The Straits Times, p.20.

Minister: Our safeguard against hippism [Microfilm: NL6777]. (1971, August 2). The Straits Times, p.7.

New post for Jek [Microfilm: NL9593]. (1978, March 14). The Straits Times, p.15.

Old Guards in National Day honours list (1990, August 9). The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 28, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated Political Vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In Lam, P. E. & 
Tan, K. Y. L. (Ed.), Lees Lieutenants: Singapores Old Guard (pp. 132-168). St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
(Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)

Singapore: The first ten years of independence, 1965-1975 (pp. 29, 120, 245)
. (2007). Singapore: National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5705 SIN)

Urgent Bill to safeguard funds of Spore unions [Microfilm: NL12152]. (1963, December 12). The Straits Times, p.4.

Further Readings
A place for cultural activities too: Jek [Microfilm: NL9322]. (1977, August 6). The Straits Times, p.8.

Cheong, Y. S. (1971, May 4) Why Govt had to act [Microfilm: NL6749]. The Straits Times, p.1.

Culture should have mass base, says Jek [Microfilm: NL5511]. (1968, July 27). The Straits Times, p.11.

How to resist evil lure of West [Microfilm: NL6777]. (1971, August 6). The Straits Times, p.20.

Jek: How to keep the good life in Spore [Microfilm: NL8995]. (1977, March 7). The Straits Times, p.7.

Jek: Send long locks into the army [Microfilm: NL6965]. (1972, January 20). The Straits Times, p.3.

Mandarin misconceptions and how to get rid of that stumbling block [Microfilm: NL6965]. (1973, May 1). The Straits Times, p.10.

Minister: Dont let bigger nations bully you [Microfilm: NL12180]. (1966, April 18). The Straits Times, p.4.

Sporeans now going for local art, says Jek [Microfilm: NL7467]. (1973, May 26). The Straits Times, p.29.

The trials of the NTUC: Jek [Microfilm: NL12156]. (1964, April 7). The Straits Times, p.6.

Why life in modern city is riskier: Jek [Microfilm: NL8813]. (1976, October 19). The Straits Times, p.13. 

The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources.  It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Jek, Yeun Thong, 1930-
Cabinet officers--Singapore--Biography
Law and government>>Public administration>>Ministries of state
Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders

All Rights Reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2009.