Opposition MP sought inquiry, Mr Lee accused him of smear attempt
By Tee Zhuo
It was March 3, 1982, and Parliament was in session. Barely minutes into the first item on the agenda, one of the legendary exchanges between the sole opposition MP J.B. Jeyaretnam and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was already under way.
The lawyer and MP for Anson had called for the appointment of a commission to look into the details surrounding the disappearance of Phey Yew Kok, the powerful unionist and People's Action Party (PAP) MP who had absconded after being charged with criminal breach of trust.
Mr Lee shot down the idea, saying any such inquiry would be prejudicial to the charges Phey was facing and that Mr Jeyaretnam's intention was "really to create a smear that there has been a cover-up".
The following are edited extracts from their exchange that day:
Mr Lee: "As long as there are reasonable prospects of bringing Phey to trial, nothing should be done which can be said to jeopardise the process of law.
"The Member for Anson is inviting me to investigate the facts, or to appoint a commission to investigate the facts, of a criminal case which is sub judice... However, not to be the Government's own legal officer, I asked for the opinion of the Attorney-General. In a written opinion, he has advised against the appointment of a commission of inquiry."
Mr Jeyaretnam: "As I understand it, it would be contempt of court to inquire into it while proceedings are pending before a criminal court, but the trial has not begun as yet.
"It is, in my view, always open to the prosecution to withdraw for the moment the charge against Mr Phey and that he be discharged not amounting to an acquittal and then an inquiry held, and when Mr Phey is apprehended and brought into this country he can be freshly put on trial on those charges. Would the Prime Minister like to consider that?"...
Mr Lee: "As I understand it, I am now being asked to suggest to the Attorney-General to go into an elaborate subterfuge.
"In other words, the Member for Anson, in putting his question which is really to create a smear that there has been a cover-up, knew that he was suggesting something improper and had come prepared for an answer that this was being thwarted because it is sub judice, and therefore he proposes that we withdraw the charge; warrant will lapse; commission of inquiry is held, Phey's trial in effect is held by the commission of inquiry; all the issues involved are prejudged; the commission reports, charges are then re-introduced; warrants for arrest are re-issued.
"Is that what is being seriously suggested that a government should require its Attorney-General to do because a Member of the Opposition wants to satisfy his curiosity?"...
Mr Jeyaretnam: "Mr Speaker, Sir, I was not attempting smears. I would ask the Prime Minister not to impute too readily motives to the Opposition Member. The terms of inquiry of the commission can be drafted in such a way as to exclude any inquiry as to the guilt or otherwise of Mr Phey. The inquiry can be directed as to how - I have set out some of the matters on which the inquiry can be conducted, and that is whether accounting and correct accounting and audit practices, procedures, had been followed and whether anybody else was aware of the manner in which these monies were being taken from the amounts held by these unions."...
Mr Lee: "What he really wants to know is whether there has been a cover-up, whether anybody has been let off. I am prepared to have such a commission without touching the evidence against Phey because such an inquiry will be a credit to the Government.
"It will show how thoroughly and impartially an investigation was conducted against a very senior and close associate of several ministers in the Government and of the President, and how it was relentlessly pursued until no evidence was left unturned and that he was not allowed to get away and abscond because the Government was afraid it would open up more horrendous skeletons in the cupboard. That is what I am offering, but without touching the evidence against Phey. Are you wanting that inquiry because I am quite happy to have it?"
Mr Jeyaretnam: "If the Prime Minister will let me know the terms of reference of this commission that he proposes to appoint, then I will answer him."
Mr Lee: "I am offering the Member a commission to investigate any alleged cover-up. He is alleging the cover-up. Write it out without touching on the facts relating to Phey Yew Kok's charges, and he will have his commission."
Mr Jeyaretnam would continue to highlight in Parliament the Government's failure to capture the PAP's black sheep, questioning ministers on Phey's whereabouts again and again over the next few years.
On March 16, 1983, he tried to push then Home Affairs Minister Chua Sian Chin to publicly reveal the country Phey was last known to be in, but Mr Chua said the information had to be kept confidential so as not to tip off the fugitive.
He asked again in 1984 about the progress in the hunt for Phey, and in 1986, he asked Minister of State for Home Affairs, Dr Lee Boon Yang, if the police had "given up all hope" of finding him. Dr Lee replied that the warrant of arrest was still in force.
In 1998, Mr Jeyaretnam posed the same question again in Parliament. And the answer from Minister of State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee this time was that the case was still alive.