Jek Yeun Thong



Jek Yeun Thong (b. 1930, Singapore–) is a former politician who held the ministerial portfolios of labour, culture as well as science and technology.1 He is one of the first-generation leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP).

Education and early career
While studying at the Chinese High School, Jek was a student union leader and the editor of a wall newspaper. In 1950, Jek was expelled from the school by the British government and placed on a blacklist, which meant that he was could not register at another school. Four years later, Jek joined the Chinese newspaper Sin Pao, and also became a member of the PAP in its founding year.2


Jek first assisted the PAP in the 1955 election campaign, largely with the Chinese ground.3 Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew remembered being coached by Jek, who also drafted his first-ever campaign speech in Mandarin. “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,” said Lee.4

In August 1957, Jek was detained under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (today’s Internal Security Act) by the Lim Yew Hock government for attempted sedition.5 He was released in April 1958, and became the secretary to Mayor Ong Eng Guan at the City Council in January 1959. But Jek soon resigned from this post to help in the PAP’s campaign for the general election in May 1959. The PAP formed the government after winning the election and Jek was appointed as political secretary to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a position he held from 1959 to 1963.6

Role in Nantah Affair
In 1960, Jek and Lee Khoon Choy were appointed as government representatives on the Joint-Government-University Liaison Committee to reform Nanyang University (also known as 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.7

There was a political angle as well, with Nantah founder Tan Lark Sye offering financial support to its graduates who ran on the Barisan Sosialis ticket in the 1963 general election.8 The Barisan Sosialis was a political party comprising former PAP members who were accused of being pro-communist. In addition, the Nanyang University Graduate Guild openly aligned itself with the Barisan Sosialis, and the university was seen as supporting the Barisan.9

Jek and the PAP government’s position was that 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”.10 In 1965, after reviewing Nantah’s curriculum, a committee led by Professor Wang Gungwu produced a six-point agreement on the reorganisation of the university, 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, and the university was to be converted into a purely academic institution free of politics.11

Entering Parliament
In the 1961 Hong Lim by-election, Jek ran against Ong Eng Guan, but lost to the former mayor. Jek then stood in the general election in September 1963, and was elected as the member of Parliament (MP) for Queenstown. He would hold this seat until his retirement from politics in 1988.12


In 1963, Jek was appointed the minister for labour in the PAP government, and given the task of reforming the trade unions, which had been taken over by the communists.13 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 that Jek introduced was a controversial one that required Malaysians to apply for work permits in order to work in Singapore.14

Forging a Singaporean identity
Jek was a strong advocate of an emerging Singaporean identity. He outlined the newly independent nation’s 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”.15

He switched to the Ministry of Culture in 1968, and held the portfolio until 1979. In this role, Jek promoted Asian art and values as a “cultural ballast” against Western decadence.16 He was also deputy chairman of the People’s Association (1971–77), where he endorsed and supported the organising of photography contests, art exhibitions and calligraphy contests.17

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.18 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.19

From 1976 to 1980, Jek held the post of minister for science and technology (concurrently minister for culture until 1978).20 In 1977, he was appointed Singapore’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, and the high commissioner to Denmark in 1978.21

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 1988.22 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.23

In recognition of his time in political service, Jek was awarded the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1990.24



Author
Alvin Chua



References
1. Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 265. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 265. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, p. 137. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)
3. Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, p. 139. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)
4. Getting the very best. (1982, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, p. 138. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)
6. Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 265. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, p. 139. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)
7. Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, p. 147. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)
8. Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, p. 147. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE); Mr Tan Lark Sye’s death heralds the end of an era in Singapore. (1972, September 15). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, p. 147. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)
10. Siew, S. M., & Huang, J. L. (1999). The Chinese-educated political vanguards Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong. In P. E. Lam & K. Y. L. Tan (Eds.), Lee’s lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, pp. 146–147. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 LEE)
11. Important move at the Nantah special meeting. (1965, November 17). The Straits Times, p. 5; Nanyang University to have radical changes. (1965, September 13). The Straits Times, p. 9; What will be the future of Nantah? (1980, March 18). The Business Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 265. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
13. National Library Board & National Archives of Singapore. (2007). Singapore: The first ten years of independence, 1965–1975. Singapore: National Library Board; National Archives of Singapore, p. 245. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 SIN-[HIS])
14. Jek: Don’t interfere in our affairs…. (1966, February 8). The Straits Times, p. 14; This would end the dumping of the jobless: Jek. (1965, December 24). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Jek, Y. T. (1966, June 7). Speech by the Minister of Labour, Mr Jek Yeun Thong, at the 50th session of the International Labour Organisation Conference in Geneva, p. 5. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
16. How to resist evil lure of West. (1971, August 6). The Straits Times, p. 20; Jek: My ministry ready to help revive calligraphy. (1972, April 22) The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. National Library Board & National Archives of Singapore. (2007). Singapore: The first ten years of independence, 1965–1975. Singapore: National Library Board; National Archives of Singapore, p. 245. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 SIN-[HIS]); ‘A place for cultural activities too: Jek. (1977, August 6). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Champions of a new view of Chinese-ness. (1999, July 11). The Straits Times, p. 32; Mandarin misconceptions – and how to get rid of the stumbling block. (1973, May 1) The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Jek: Send long locks into the army. (1972, January 20). The Straits Times, p. 3; Minister: Our safeguard against hippism. (1971, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 7; How to resist evil lure of West. (1971, August 6). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. National Library Board & National Archives of Singapore. (2007). Singapore: The first ten years of independence, 1965–1975. Singapore: National Library Board; National Archives of Singapore, p. 245. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 SIN-[HIS]); Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 265. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
21. New post for Jek. (1978, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Jek will not stand in next election. (1988, August 14). The Straits Times, p.10, Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Jek's homecoming (1985, March 6) The Straits Times, p.10; Raja delivers a sermon on criticism (1985, March 7) The Straits Times, p. 11; Chiam's sincerity questioned (1985, March 8). The Business Times, p. 16; Non-constituency MPs are not second-class: Dhana. (1985, March 9). The Straits Times, p. 16; Surprised at what Queenstown MP said. (1985, March 19). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
24. Old guards in National Day honours list. (1990, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Library Board & National Archives of Singapore. (2007). Singapore: The first ten years of independence, 1965–1975. Singapore: National Library Board; National Archives of Singapore, p. 245. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 SIN-[HIS]); Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 265. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])



Further resources
Cheong, Y. S. (1971, May 4). Why Govt had to act. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


Culture should have mass base, says Jek. (1968, July 27). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Jek: How to keep the good life in S’pore. (1977, March 7). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Minister: Don’t let bigger nations bully you. (1966, April 18). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

S’poreans now going for local art, says Jek. (1973, May 26). The Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The trials of the NTUC: Jek. (1964, April 7). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Why life in modern city is riskier: Jek. (1976, October 19). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



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.

 

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