Singapore People's Action Party
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
In November 1954, the People's Action Party ( PAP--see Glossary) was inaugurated at a gathering of 1,500 people in Victoria Memorial Hall. The party was formed by a group of British-educated, middle- class Chinese who had returned to Singapore in the early 1950s after studying in Britain. Led by twenty-five-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, as secretary general, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, and S. Rajaratnam, the party sought to attract a following among the mostly poor and non-English-speaking masses. Lee had served as a legal adviser to a number of trade unions and, by 1952, had earned a reputation for his successful defense of the rights of workers. He also helped defend Chinese students arrested during the 1954 student demonstrations protesting national service. Lee, a fourth- generation Singaporean, was educated at Raffles Institution and Cambridge University, where he took a double first (first-class honors in two subjects) in law. Through his work with the unions and student groups, Lee had made many contacts with anticolonialists, noncommunists and communists alike.
Present at the inauguration of the PAP were a number of noted communists and procommunists, including Fong Swee Suan and Devan Nair, who both joined the new party. Also present were Malayan political leaders Tunku Abdul Rahman, president of UMNO, and Sir Tan Cheng Lock, president of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). The PAP proposed to campaign for repeal of the Emergency regulations, union with Malaya, a common Malayan citizenship, Malayanization of the civil service, and free compulsory education. Ending colonialism, however, was the first priority of Lee and the PAP leadership, although they concluded this could be accomplished only with support from the Chinese-educated public and the communist-controlled trade unions. The PAP, calculating that a united front with the communists was necessary to end colonialism, declared itself noncommunist, neither pro- nor anticommunist, preferring to put off until after independence any showdown with the communists.
Meanwhile, two other political parties prepared to contest the upcoming election. The Progressive Party, whose leaders had earned a reputation as the "Queen's Chinese" for their procolonial positions and conservative economic policies, had little appeal for the masses of working-class Chinese who were newly enfranchised to vote in the 1955 election. Automatic registration of voters had increased the electorate from 76,000 in 1951 to more than 300,000. Shortly before the elections, wealthy and influential members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce formed the new Democratic Party, which championed the causes of improved Chinese education, establishment of Chinese as an official language, and liberal citizenship terms for the China-born. Although these issues appealed to Singapore's China-born lower classes, this same group was disenchanted with the party's conservative economic platform, which closely resembled that of the Progressive Party.
Election fever gripped Singapore during the month-long campaign, and the results of the April 2 contest sent shock waves as far as Britain, where it had been expected that the Progressive Party would win handily. Surprising even itself, the Labour Front won ten of the twenty-five seats and formed a coalition government with the UMNO-MCA Alliance, which won three seats. Three ex-officio members and two nominated members joined with the coalition, forming a group of seventeen in the thirty-two-member assembly. The Progressives won only four seats and the Democratic Party just two, in a clear rejection of colonial rule and procolonial politics. The PAP won three of the four seats it had contested, including a seat in one of Singapore's poorest sections won by Lee Kuan Yew and one seat won by Lim Chin Siong. Lim had the backing of organized labor and led the procommunist wing of the party while Lee led the noncommunist wing.
The Labour Front government, with David Marshall as Singapore's first chief minister, faced serious problems from the start. The communists launched a campaign of strikes and student unrest in an attempt to destabilize the government. Only about one-third of the 275 strikes called in 1955 were for better wages and working conditions; the remainder were sympathy strikes or strikes to protest imprisonment of labor union officials. Riots broke out on May 12 when police attempted to break up an illegal picket line formed by striking bus workers and Chinese school students. Four people were killed and thirty-one injured in that single incident, which became known as "Black Thursday." Although the government arrested some students, Marshall eventually backed down and agreed to the registration of the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students' Union because he was in sympathy with the students' grievances against the colonial education system. In registering their union, the students agreed to the condition that the union keep out of politics; the communist leaders of the union, however, had no intention of keeping the agreement.
Along with problems with labor and students, Marshall faced constant conflict with the colonial government over his determination not to be a figurehead controlled by the governor. When the governor, Sir Robert Black, refused to allow Marshall to appoint four assistant ministers, Marshall threatened to resign unless Singapore was given immediate self-government under a new constitution. The Colonial Office agreed to hold constitutional talks, which came to be known as Merdeka (freedom in Malay) talks, in London in April 1956. Marshall led to the talks a thirteen-man delegation comprising members of all the legislative parties and including Lee and Lim Chin Siong. The British offered to grant Singapore full internal self-government but wanted to retain control over foreign affairs and internal security. They proposed a Defence and Internal Security Council, with three delegates each from Britain and Singapore, to be chaired by the British high commissioner in Singagore, who would have the casting ballot (the deciding vote in case of a tie). Marshall had promised he would resign if he failed to obtain internal self-government, and the talks broke down over the issue of the casting ballot. The delegation returned to Singapore, and Marshall resigned in June and was succeeded by the deputy chief minister, Lim Yew Hock.
By July the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Students' Union had begun planning a campaign of agitation against the government. The Lim Yew Hock government moved first, however, dissolving seven communist-front organizations, including the student union, and closing two Chinese middle schools. This touched off a protest sit- in at Chinese high schools organized by Lim Chin Siong that ended in five days of rioting in which thirteen people were killed. Troops were brought in from Johore to end the disturbance, and more than 900 people were arrested, including Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, and Devan Nair. The British approved of the Singapore government's tough action toward the agitators, and when Lim Yew Hock led a delegation to London for a second round of constitutional talks in March 1957, the Colonial Office proposed a compromise on the internal security issue. The Singapore delegation accepted a proposal whereby the Internal Security Council would comprise three Singaporeans, three Britons, and one delegate from what was soon to be the independent Federation of Malaya, who would hold the casting ballot. The Singapore delegation returned to a hero's welcome; the Legislative Assembly accepted the proposals, and a delegation was scheduled to go to London in 1958 for a third and final round of talks on the new constitution.
Although the moderates led by Lee Kuan Yew retained control of the PAP Central Executive Committee, by 1956 the procommunists held sway over the membership and many of the mass organizations and PAP branches. At the annual general meeting in August 1957, the procommunists won six of the twelve seats on the committee. Lee Kuan Yew and the other moderates refused to take office in order to avoid becoming front men for the leftists. On August 21, the Lim Yew Hock government reacted to the situation by arresting thirty- five communists, including five of the new members of the PAP Central Executive Committee, some PAP branch officials, and labor and student leaders. Lee and the moderates were able to regain control of the party and, the following November, amended the party's constitution to consolidate moderate control by limiting voting for the central executive committee to the full cadres (full members), who were literate Singapore citizens over the age of twenty-one who had been approved as cadres by the central executive committee.
Meanwhile, the Lim Yew Hock government continued to make further progress on issues related to Singapore's self-government. A Citizenship Ordinance passed in 1957 provided Singapore citizenship for all born in Singapore or the Federation of Malaya and for British citizens of two years' residence; naturalization was offered to those who had resided in Singapore for ten years and would swear loyalty to the government. The Legislative Assembly voted to complete Malayanization of the civil service within four years beginning in 1957. The Education Ordinance passed in 1957 gave parity to the four main languages, English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. By 1958 the Ministry of Education had opened nearly 100 new elementary schools, 11 new secondary schools, and a polytechnic school and set up training courses for Malay and Tamil teachers.
Lim Yew Hock led the Singapore delegation to the third round of constitutional talks in April 1958. The talks resulted in an agreement on a constitution for a State of Singapore with full powers of internal government. Britain retained control over foreign affairs and external defense, with internal security left in the hands of the Internal Security Council. Only in the case of dire emergency could Britain suspend the constitution and assume power. In August 1958, the British Parliament changed the status of Singapore from a colony to a state, and elections for the fifty- one-member Legislative Assembly were scheduled for May 1959. Voting was made compulsory for all adult Singapore citizens, but the British refused to allow persons with records of subversive activity to stand for election. Ten parties contested the election, but none was as well organized as the PAP, which under Lee Kuan Yew ran a vigorous campaign with huge weekly rallies. Campaigning on a platform of honest efficient government, social and economic reform, and union with the Federation of Malaya, the PAP scored a stunning victory by winning forty-three of the fifty-one seats. The badly divided and scandal-ridden Labour Front had reorganized as the Singapore People's Alliance, which won four seats, including one for Lim Yew Hock. The remaining seats were won by three UMNO- MCA Alliance candidates and one independent. Marshall's Workers' Party failed to win any seats.
Both foreign and local businesses feared that the PAP victory signaled Singapore's slide toward communism, and many moved their headquarters to Kuala Lumpur. Lee indeed refused to take office until the eight procommunist PAP detainees arrested in 1956 and 1957 were released, and he appointed several of them, including Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, and Devan Nair, to government posts. Lee's closest advisors, however, were moderates Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, and S. Rajaratnam.
The first task of the new PAP government was to instill a sense of unity and loyalty in Singapore's diverse ethnic populace. A new national flag, crest, and anthem were introduced, and the new Ministry of Culture organized open-air cultural concerts and other events designed to bring the three main ethnic groups together. Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English were all made official languages, but, with its eye on a future merger with Malaya, the government made Malay the national language. Considered the indigenous people and yet the most disadvantaged, Malays were provided with free primary and secondary education.
After national unity, the second most important task facing the new government was that of transforming Singapore from an entrepôt economy dependent on the Malayan commodity trade with no tradition of manufacturing to an industrialized society. A four-year development plan, launched under Minister of Finance Goh Keng Swee in 1961, provided foreign and local investors with such incentives as low taxation rates for export-oriented manufactures, tax holidays for pioneer industries, and temporary protective tariffs against imports. The plan set aside a large area of swamp wasteland as an industrial estate in the Jurong area and emphasized labor- intensive industries, such as textiles. The overhaul of Singapore's economy was urgently needed in order to combat unemployment and pay for badly needed social services. One of the most serious problems was the lack of adequate housing. In 1960 the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was set up to deal with the problems of slum clearance and resettlement. Under the direction of the banker and industrialist Lim Kim San, the HDB constructed more than 20,000 housing units in its first three years. By 1963 government expenditures on education had risen to S$10 million from S$600,000 in 1960.
Despite the signs of economic progress, the PAP leaders believed that Singapore's survival depended on merger with Malaysia. "Major changes in our economy are only possible if Singapore and the Federation are integrated as one economy," remarked Goh Keng Swee in 1960. "Nobody in his senses believes that Singapore alone, in isolation, can be independent," stated an official government publication that same year. The procommunists within the party, however, opposed merger because they saw little chance of establishing a procommunist government in Singapore as long as Kuala Lumpur controlled internal security in the new state. Meanwhile, the leaders of the conservative UMNO government in Kuala Lumpur, led by Tengku Abdul Rahman, were becoming increasingly resistant to any merger with Singapore under the PAP, which they considered to be extremely left wing.
Moreover, Malayan leaders feared merger with Singapore because it would result in a Chinese majority in the new state. When a fiercely contested Singapore by-election in April 1961 threatened to bring down the Lee Kuan Yew government, however, Tengku Abdul Rahman was forced to consider the possibility that the PAP might be replaced with a procommunist government, a "Cuba across the causeway."
Accordingly, on May 27, 1961, in a speech in Kuala Lumpur to the Foreign Correspondents' Association, Tengku Abdul Rahman made a surprise proposal of an association of states that would include the Federation of Malaya, the British Borneo territories, and Singapore. In this proposed Malaysia, the Malay population of Sarawak and North Borneo (now Sabah) would offset numerically the Singapore Chinese, and the problem of a possible "Cuba across the causeway" would be solved.
The proposal, however, led almost immediately to a split between the moderate and procommunist forces within the PAP. In July Lee demanded and received a vote of confidence on the issue of merger from the Legislative Assembly. Following the vote, Lee expelled sixteen rebel PAP assemblymen from the party along with more than twenty local officials of PAP. In August the rebel PAP assemblymen formed a new opposition party, the Barisan Sosialis (The Socialist Front--see Glossary) with Lim Chin Siong as secretary general. The new party had considerable support among PAP local officials as well as at the grass-roots level. Of the fifty- one branch committees, thirty-five defected to Barisan, which also controlled two-thirds of organized labor.
The battle lines were clearly drawn when Lee Kuan Yew announced a referendum on the question of merger to be held in September 1962. Lee launched a campaign of thirty-six radio broadcasts in three languages to gain support for the merger, which was opposed by the Barisan Sosialis as a "sell-out." Of the three merger plans offered on the referendum, the PAP plan received 70 percent of the votes, the two other plans less than 2 percent each, and 26 percent of the ballots were left blank.
Having failed to stop the merger at home, the Barisan Sosialis turned its efforts abroad, joining with left-wing opposition parties in Malaya, Sarawak, Brunei, and Indonesia. These parties were opposed to the concept of Malaysia as a "neocolonialist plot," whereby the British would retain power in the region. President Sukarno of Indonesia, who had entertained dreams of the eventual establishment of an Indonesia Raya (Greater Indonesia) comprising Indonesia, Borneo, and Malaya, also opposed the merger; and in January 1963 he announced a policy of Confrontation (Konfrontasi-- see Glossary) against the proposed new state. The Philippines, having revived an old claim to Sabah, also opposed the formation of Malaysia. The foreign ministers of Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines met in June 1963 in an attempt to work out some solution. Malaya agreed to allow the United Nations (UN) to survey the people of Sabah and Sarawak on the issue, although it refused to be bound by the outcome. Brunei opted not to join Malaysia because it was unable to reach agreement with Kuala Lumpur on the questions of federal taxation of Brunei's oil revenue and of the sultan of Brunei's relation to the other Malay sultans.
Data as of December 1989
NOTE: The information regarding Singapore on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Singapore People's Action Party information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Singapore People's Action Party should be addressed to the Library of Congress.