SINGAPORE: After 35 years on the run, former Member of Parliament (MP) and chairman of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Phey Yew Kok has finally received his punishment – 60 months in jail.
Phey pleaded guilty on Friday (Jan 22) to 12 charges, including 10 counts of criminal breach of trust offences involving S$243,877.60, one count of abetting by instigation the fabrication of false evidence and another for jumping bail in 1980. Another 22 charges were taken into consideration in sentencing him.
The 81-year-old is now completely blind in his right eye and is starting to lose sight in his left eye due to cataracts. He is also hard of hearing and despite the assistance of a hearing aid, struggled to keep up with court proceedings.
UNION "GOD" DEEPLY BETRAYED THE PEOPLE: PROSECUTION
As General Secretary of two unions, the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (SILO) and the Pioneer Industries Employees Union (PIEU), Phey had “full management of the two unions and their finances”, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Tan Kiat Pheng told the court.
Such was Phey’s “power and control” over the unions that he was known as a “union god” by union members.
But he “deeply betrayed” this “position of unquestioned authority” as General Secretary by misappropriating a total of S$404,294.95 from SILO and PIEU, and misused S$17,745 of the unions’ funds by investing the sum without approval. In the 1970s, these sums were “astronomical”, DCP Tan said.
Phey used about S$85,000 to pay for properties at Lorong Ong Lye and Kensington Park Road in 1974 and 1973 respectively.
SILO and PIEU also had a joint staff fund set up by Phey, to provide staff incentives for employees of both unions. But Phey “treated this account as his own private slush fund, repeatedly dipping his hand into the cookie jar” for his own benefit, the prosecution said. He took about S$43,000 from this fund.
As MP for Boon Teck Constituency, Phey also misappropriated S$9,203.63 meant for the Boon Teck Education Centre, a childcare centre for children whose parents were union members.
In urging the court to send Phey to jail for at least 60 months over his six-year embezzlement spree, the prosecution noted that the case involves the largest amount of union funds misappropriated in Singapore’s history by no less than “one of the most important and influential men” in Singapore’s labour movement.
The prosecution also cited “insidious measures” taken by Phey to evade detection of his offences, including creating fictitious invoices and records, and instigating his staff to fabricate evidence in his support once he came under the suspicion of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
Phey’s 35-year abscondment is “unprecedented in its length”, the prosecution said, making the case “the most egregious instance” in the history of Singapore.
PHEY LED A "MISERABLE LIFE" AS A FUGITIVE: DEFENCE
Phey’s lawyer Chelva Rajah SC told the court his client did not benefit financially from some transactions, including the unauthorised investment and transfer of some funds. He had invested the funds “only to further the trade unions’ objective of increasing benefits for union members”, Mr Rajah said.
Mr Rajah also told the court that there has been some partial restitution of monies lost by SILO, citing a 1984 suit against Phey in which his wife settled and paid SILO back S$85,000, including S$15,000 in interest.
The lawyer also called for the court to note Phey’s significant contributions to the labour movement in Singapore in the 1970s, during which Phey “worked tirelessly to improve the lives of blue-collar workers”, Mr Rajah said.
Turning to Phey’s life as a fugitive, Mr Rajah said: “(Phey) led a miserable life alone in a foreign land … There was nothing romantic or happy about his life during that period."
Phey had to move constantly because he did not have an identity card or passport, and took up several odd jobs to support himself, including working as a pig farmer, hawker and cleaner. He had no security, safety and income, and worried constantly about being arrested.
"He surrendered because Singapore is his home and he wishes to spend his last days with his family instead of dying alone in a foreign land," Mr Rajah said, adding that Phey regrets absconding and being away during his children’s formative years. His children now have their own families, and Phey has two granddaughters whom he has never met.
Phey is "very ashamed and sorry" for what he has done, said Mr Rajah. "What he has done is let down the union movement, something which he was wholeheartedly committed to – 19 years of his life from 1960 to 1979 – in building up."
He urged the court not to impose a jail term of more than 65 months. "He does not deny that the offences were done in a way that was designed to hide and make it difficult for authorities to find out about them. All this Phey accepts is wrong and should never have been done."
In sentencing Phey to 60 months’ jail, Deputy Presiding Judge Jennifer Marie said that Phey had used his “almost complete authority" in the two unions to exploit "immense trust" in him. Over a period of six years, Phey “systematically and with deliberation” perpetrated these offences like a serial criminal, Judge Marie said.
“His remorse, belatedly, does not displace the serious nature of his offences”.
ABOUT THE CASE
Phey was first charged in December 1979 with four counts of criminal breach of trust involving more than S$80,000, and other offences under the Trades Union Act involving more than S$17,500.
He was released on bail of S$100,000, but never showed up for his next court appearance in January 1980. He spent the next three decades a fugitive.
Investigations revealed Phey had fled to Kuala Lumpur by train on New Year’s Eve in 1979 and continued on to Bangkok, where he disappeared and managed to stay out of reach of the authorities, despite an INTERPOL Red Notice being issued against him.
In June last year, Phey surrendered himself at the Singapore Embassy in Bangkok. He was escorted back to Singapore by CPIB officers to face the six charges outstanding against him on Jun 24.
A month later, he was slapped with another 28 charges, mostly involving more criminal breach of trust offences he had allegedly committed over six years, between April 1973 and June 1979.
Phey is accused of misappropriating funds belonging to multiple unions and companies, such as the International Metalworkers Federation and the Boon Teck Education Centre belonging to the People’s Action Party. He was the MP for the Boon Teck Constituency for eight years from 1972 to 1980.
He is also accused of dipping into the staff funds of SILO and PIEU, trade unions in which Phey held the appointment of General Secretary.