First Step Towards Independence
Full Self Government
Before the Japanese Occupation, the British government in Singapore was respected and feared. Everybody, including the British themselves, thought that the British would be able to protect Singapore from attacks by other countries, and that the British would rule Singapore forever.
The Japanese Occupation, however, made people begin to think very differently. The British surrendered very quickly to the Japanese. Overnight, British soldiers became prisoners-of-war. In contrast to the picture of health and fitness that they presented before the War, they were now reduced to skin-and-bones, arousing not fear but pity from the local people.
After the War, many local people felt that since the British had been the masters of Singapore for well over a hundred years and yet had failed to protect it, the British should therefore leave Singapore.
At first, the British did not want to give up their control over Singapore. This was because they knew that Singapore would still be useful as a free port for British goods and as a military base. However, some people in Singapore were determined to fight for self-government and democracy, and had formed political parties to achieve this. Outside Singapore, many countries which had been colonies before World War II were on the way to governing themselves too. The influence of such external events increased the local people's desire to govern themselves. In the face of the people's demands, the British began to make some changes.
In 1948, the British took the first step towards democracy for Singapore. They allowed six non-official members in the Legislative Council to be elected by the people. Since there were to be six elected seats in the Legislative Council, an election had to be held.
The election was warmly welcomed by the Singapore Progressive Party (S.P.P.) led by C. C. Tan. Formed in 1947, it was made up of English-educated members. Many of them were well-to-do people, such as lawyers and other men with university education. In the 1948 election, the Singapore Progressive Party won three of the six elected seats in the Legislative Council. The other three seats were won by Independents (men who were not affiliated to any political party).
Although the 1948 election was a step towards democracy, it was only a small step. The British allowed only certain people to vote, mainly those who had been born in Singapore. This meant that over 200,000 people, who were over the age of 21 and who had been born outside of Singapore, did not have the right to vote. Furthermore, the British did not make voting compulsory for those who could vote. As a result, only a small number of people turned up to vote.
As the main party in the Legislative Council, the S.P.P. worked closely with the British to make certain changes. For example, it got the British government to agree to treat local civil servants in the same way as European civil servants. The top posts, however, remained in British hands. The S.P.P. was not in a hurry to press the British for more. It believed in working for self-government at a slow and steady pace because it thought that the majority of the people were not interested in self-government.
Other men, however, thought differently. They pushed the British government to move more quickly towards self-government for Singapore. Two important political parties were formed in 1954. One was the Singapore Labour Front (S.L.F.), led by David Marshall, a lawyer. The other was the People's Action Party (P.A.P.), led by Lee Kuan Yew, also a lawyer.
Marshall was a very eloquent and gifted speaker. With a sharp tongue and a powerful flow of words, he lashed out at the unfair treatment of Asians under the British government. He criticised the S.P.P. for not doing enough to help Singapore achieve self-government.
With his outgoing and colourful personality, Marshall did some rather unusual things to whip up the support from the people. For example, he sometimes borrowed a van with a loudspeaker, and drove it to a tall tree at Empress Place. He went there during the lunch hour because many office workers would be eating there. Under the tree, Marshall made speeched criticising the British. And he made sure he spoke loudly enough to be heard by the British at the Cricket Club nearby.
Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the P.A.P.m was also a great public speaker. He was able to choose his words to suit his audience and to put difficult idea across in a simple manner so that even ordinary people could understand him. Lee was also able to get a team of highly intelligent, able and honest men to work in the P.A.P. with him.
The Singapore Labour Front and the People's Action Party fought for better working conditions and better pay for workers, and pay increases for local civil servants. They also demanded immediate self-government for Singapore.
The British realised that they would have to make more changes. In 1954, they decided to give Singapore limited self-government. This meant that certain less important areas of government would be controlled by local representatives. The British agreed to have a local chief minister, six local ministers and three British ministers in the government. The six local ministers would control less important areas of government, such as Health and Housing. The three British ministers would control more important areas such as the country's finances, foreign affairs and defence.
The Legislative Council would be replaced by a Legislative Assembly. There would be more elected members than appointed members. Despite these changes, the British Governor remained as powerful as before, because he could veto any law passed by the Legislative Assembly. Although the British did give the local people more power this time round, they were still not prepared to give up all their powers.
The 1955 election was an exciting event. The various parties worked hard to arouse the public's interest in the election. They made house-to-house visits, distributed pamphlets and newspapers, organised rallies and gave speeches. They discussed how the people could improve the government and get rid of British rule. They succeeded in making the ordinary people interested in putting an end to British colonial rule.
On election day, about 125,000 people turned up to vote. This was many times the number which had voted earlier. But there were still over 200,000 people who could not vote.
On the night of 2 April 1955, 5,000 people gathered at Empress Place to hear the election results. The crowd cheered and roared when the results were out. The S.P.P., which the British had expected to win, was defeated. The political party which won the most seats was David Marshall's Singapore Labour Front.
Since the Singapore Labour Front had won the most seats, its leader David Marshall was asked by the Governor to form a government. David Marshall then became the Chief Minister, while six other local representatives became Ministers. Three senior British officials were also Ministers.
As Chief Minister, David Marshall was still under the control of the Governor. The Governor and his officials did not treat him with proper respect. They refused to provide him with a proper office he threatened to set up his office under his favourite tree at Empress Place.
Marshall asked for more powers for his government, but the Governor refused. Marshall then felt that limited self-government was insufficient. He wanted full self-government. This would mean that local representatives would control all matters except defence and foreign affairs.
In 1956, Marshall led a group of men to London to ask the British government for full self-government. Before the talks began, he declared that he would resign from his position if the talks failed. As it happened, the talks failed, and Marshall stepped down as Chief Minister.
Although David Marshall was Chief Minister for only slightly more than a year, he is to this day remembered for his efforts to achieve self-government. His speeched helped stir up the people's feelings against the British, while his courage in challenging the British strengthened the people's determination to end British rule. He improved the working conditions of the workers and introduced certain important ideas which were carried out later, such as equal treatment of all schools and the importance of learning two languages in school.
Lim Yew Hock, the second most important leader of the Singapore Labour Front, became the next Chief Minister. He had been a clerk and a trade union leader who had wide support among English-speaking office workers. He had also served in the Legislative Council.
In 1956, the communist and pro-communist leaders in trade unions and Chinese middle schools were very active. They stirred up strikes and riots. With the help of British troops and the local police, Lim Yew Hock had many of them arrested and put in prison. The British were pleased with him, as he was able to suppress the strikes and riots.
In 1957, Lim Yew Hock led another group to London to ask for full self-government. This time, he was successful. On his return, Lim Yew Hock announced that Singapore would have full self-government after an election which was to be held in 1959.
Full self-government meant that the British would control only the police, the armed forces and foreign relations. All other matters of government would be controlled by local representatives.
Furthermore, the Legislative Assembly would consist entirely of elected members, and all the Ministers would be local representatives. The government would be headed by a Prime Minister who would be Singaporean.
Singapore would then be known as the State of Singapore, with its own flag (the Singapore flag) and its own national anthem ("Majulah Singapura"). A Head of State (the Yang di-Pertuan Negara) would replace the British Governor.
In 1957, a law concerning Singapore citizenship was passed. This law made it easier for people who were not born in Singapore to become citizens. It increased the number of Singapore citizens and doubled the number of voters in the 1959 election. To make sure that people actually took part in the process of choosing a government, voting was made compulsory.
Many political parties took part in the 1959 election. They used all means to reach out to the people, such as the radio, the newspapers, pamphlets, door-to-door visits, rallies, and vehicles equipped with loudspeakers. It was an exciting event for the people. Large crowds went to the election rallies to listen to the party leaders. This showed the people's great interest in the important question of who should govern Singapore.
The P.A.P. won the most seats in the Legislative Assembly. The P.A.P. victory was generally expected. This was because the party was well-organised, and had the support of most of the voters. It had a large pool of voluntary helpers from the trade unions and Chinese schools. In contrast, the other parties were disunited and often quarrelled among themselves. Furthermore, the P.A.P. had a sound plan on how to solve the problems of Singapore.
As the P.A.P. had a big majority in the Legislative Assembly, it formed the new government and Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the P.A.P., became the first Prime Minister of the State of Singapore. The P.A.P. government was the first fully democratic government of Singapore. A few months later, Yusoff Ishak became the Head of State.
On the evening of 3 June 1959, a huge crowd gathered at the Padang in front of the City Hall. The crowd was there to cheer the day when Singapore would no longer be completely ruled by the British. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared to the 50,000 people assembled on the Padang,
With that, the P.A.P. government went on to fight for independence, and to tackle the pressing problems of unemployment, housing and education.