Jek Yeun Thong
Jek Yeun Thong (b. 1930, Singapore–d. 2018, Singapore) was a former politician who held the ministerial portfolios of labour, culture, and science and technology.1 He was 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, he was expelled from the school by the British government and placed on a blacklist, which meant that he could not register at another school. Four years later, he joined the Chinese newspaper Sin Pao and also became a member of the PAP in its founding year.2
Jek 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 drafted his first-ever campaign speech in Mandarin. Lee said in a 1982 speech, “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.”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, because of doubts over the university’s academic standards. Hence 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 were 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
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, Jek introduced a controversial policy 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 became the minister for culture in 1968, a portfolio he held until 1978. 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, and 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 Jek 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 his political service, Jek was awarded the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1990.24
1. Tommy Koh et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 280. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]), 265 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); “Singapore Pioneer Minister and PAP Old Guard Jek Yeun Thong Dies Age 88,” Straits Times, 6 June 2018.
2. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 265; Sai Siew Min and Huang Jianli, “The Chinese-educated Political Vanguards: Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong,” in Lee’s Lieutnants: Singapore’s Old Guard, ed. Peng Er Lam and Kevin Y. L. Tan (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 137. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 LEE)
3. Sai and Huang, “Chinese-educated Political Vanguards,” 139.
4. “Getting the Very Best,” Straits Times, 15 March 1982, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Sai and Huang, “Chinese-educated Political Vanguards,” 138.
6. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 265; Sai and Huang, “Chinese-educated Political Vanguards,” 139.
7. Sai and Huang, “Chinese-educated Political Vanguards,” 147.
8. Sai and Huang, “Chinese-educated Political Vanguards,” 147; “Mr Tan Lark Sye’s death heralds the end of an era in Singapore,” New Nation, 15 September 1972, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Sai and Huang, “Chinese-educated Political Vanguards,” 147.
10. Sai and Huang, “Chinese-educated Political Vanguards,” 146–47.
11. “Important Move at the Nantah Special Meeting,” Straits Times, 17 November 1965, 5; “Nanyang University to have Radical Changes,” Straits Times, 13 September 1965, 9; What Will Be the Future of Nantah?” Business Times, 18 March 1980, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 265.
13. National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore, Singapore: The First Ten Years of Independence, 1965–1975 (Singapore: National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore, 2007), 245. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 SIN-[HIS])
14. “Jek: Don’t Interfere in Our Affairs…,” Straits Times, 8 February 1966, 14; “This Would End the Dumping of the Jobless: Jek,” Straits Times, 24 December 1965, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Jek Yeun Thong, “Speech by the Minister of Labour, Mr Jek Yeun Thong, at the 50th session of the International Labour Organisation Conference in Geneva,” 7 June 1966, transcript, Ministry of Culture, 5. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. PressR19660608b)
16. “How to Resist Evil Lure of West,” Straits Times, 6 August 1971, 20; “Jek: My Ministry Ready to Help Revive Calligraphy,” Straits Times, 22 April 1972, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
17. National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore, First Ten Years of Independence, 245; “A Place for Cultural Activities Too: Jek,” Straits Times, 6 August 1977, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Champions of a New View of Chinese-ness,” Straits Times, 11 July 1999, 32; “Mandarin Misconceptions – And How to Get Rid of the Stumbling Block,” Straits Times, 1 May 1973, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Jek: Send Long Locks into the Army,” Straits Times, 20 January 1972, 3; Minister: Our Safeguard against Hippism,” Straits Times, 2 August 1971, 7; “How to Resist Evil Lure of West.” (From NewspaperSG)
20. National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore, First Ten Years of Independence, 245; Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 265.
21. “New Post for Jek,” Straits Times, 14 March 1978, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Jek Will Not Stand in Next Election,” Straits Times, 14 August 1988, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Jek's Homecoming,” Straits Times, 6 March 1985, 10; “Raja Delivers a Sermon on Criticism,” Straits Times, 7 March 1985, 11; “Chiam's Sincerity Questioned,” Business Times, 8 March 1985, 16; “Non-constituency MPs Are Not Second-class: Dhana,” Straits Times, 9 March 1985, 16; “Surprised at what Queenstown MP said,” Straits Times, 19 March 1985, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Old Guards in National Day Honours List,” Straits Times, 9 August 1990, 1 (From NewspaperSG); National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore, First Ten Years of Independence, 245; Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 265.
Cheong Yip Seng, “Why Govt Had to Act,” Straits Times, 4 May 1971, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Culture Should Have Mass Base, says Jek,” Straits Times, 27 July 1968, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
“Jek: How to Keep the Good Life in S’pore,” Straits Times, 7 March 1977, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
“Minister: Don’t Let Bigger Nations Bully You,” Straits Times, 18 April 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
“S’poreans Now Going for Local Art, Says Jek,” Straits Times, 26 May 1973, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
“The Trials of the NTUC: Jek,” Straits Times, 7 April 1964, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
“Why Life in Modern City is Riskier: Jek,” Straits Times, 19 October 1976, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
“PAP Old Guard Minister Jek Yeun Thong Dies, Aged 87,” Straits Times, 6 June 2018. (From Newslink via NLB’s eResources website)
The information in this article is valid as at August 2021 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.