WhatsApp on the Weekend: 92-year-old Eric Cheong Yuen Chee who was MP for Toa Payoh for 20 years

10/09/2022

At 92, Mr Eric Cheong Yuen Chee is quite sprightly for his age – he still drives around himself to run errands, attend meetings and yes, he still hits the gym at least three times a week.

But aside from being an almost-centenarian, Mr Cheong is also quite known for being the former MP for Toa Payoh from 1968 to 1988.

You could say that Mr Cheong accumulated quite a range of experiences even before he became a Member of Parliament. 

After graduating from Raffles Institution in 1949, his first job was at a local branch of a French bank before he moved to a trading house. For a time during the Japanese Occupation, Mr Cheong even worked as a labourer in a Japanese-controlled leather tannery.   

His time at the trading house – where he was employed as a well-paid clerk – opened his eyes to the inequality suffered by manual labourers such as the forehands, labourers, and mechanics. 

In an interview with the National Archives of Singapore, he once said: 

“I was able to gauge the general dissatisfaction on poor wages and poor terms and conditions of service. I was one of the few who received regular annual increments but not the rest. In fact, I should be satisfied because the rise I get was okay. But I didn’t think that way.”

Mr Cheong in 1968 at the Victoria School nomination centre. Image via NAS. 
Mr Cheong taking the oath of allegiance at the first meeting of Singapore Parliament in Parliament House in 1968. Image via NAS.  

For around two decades, Mr Cheong served in various capacities in different unions to fight for the rights of his fellow workers, making his way up to becoming a union leader. From there, becoming a labour MP was merely an “extension of work”.

Courtesy of Mr Eric Cheong
Courtesy of Mr Eric Cheong. 

As a union leader who commanded respect from union members, Mr Cheong said that becoming a labour MP meant that it would be easier to promote labour legislation that would ultimately benefit workers. 

In all, he spent two decades serving Toa Payoh residents as their Member of Parliament. Here’s our short catch-up session over WhatsApp with the man:

Why do union members call each other brothers and sisters?

For unions to call members Brothers and Sisters is traditional. Perhaps this comes from the Malay form of salutation, Saudara, Saudari.

Do you agree that today’s unions are toothless?

Today we have a successful tripartite system. Disputes are settled before they deteriorate. This may give rise to the “toothless” notion. In the past, unions had to take on difficult employers.

Why did you decide to enter politics at such a young age?

I joined politics because this was an extension of my union works.

What motivated you to continue serving as MP for TPY?

I served in TP for 20 years only because in 1972 TP was split into 4 Constituencies. TP, Kuo Chuan, Kim Keat and Boon Teck.

Every Constituency profile is different. The one-size-fits-all concept cannot be applied. Today voters are better educated. Some want to “engage” with their MPs.

Anything particularly memorable moments when you were MP for TPY?

During my time many MPs had their education disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. I passed Std 7 but failed Std 8 – Trigonometry. Std 7 is equivalent to Sec. 2

Teaching new Office-Holders and MPs who were better educated was rather embarrassing for me.

In the 1972 GE, Phey Yew Kok (Boon Teck) got  68 per cent + of the Popular Votes which was a “feather in his  cap”

DAP = Delivered As Promised.😃😄