Singapore revisited (IV): Introducing Lee Kuan Yew

James Myburgh writes on the origins of the PAP as a radical left-wing opposition

The previous two articles (II and III) described the trajectory of Singapore’s giant neighbour Indonesia in the first eight years of independence from Dutch rule in 1949. In essence Indonesia had been governed after independence corruptly and inefficiently by a nationalist government of a socialist (but not communist) outlook.

The “emotional revolutionaries” under President Sukarno, goaded on by the Indonesian Communist Party, had exploited the resultant discontents to bring the national revolution to completion in 1957/8 through the expulsion of the Dutch “imperialists” and the seizure (and later nationalisation) of their assets, with devastating economic effects.

With this background in place, it is now possible to turn to Singapore itself. As noted in the introduction the puzzle that this series seeks to unravel is why the People’s Action Party (PAP) government under Lee Kuan Yew took such a different path in the early 1960s to so many other anti-colonial nationalist movements of that generation.

It broke from the dominant political and ideological trends of the era and yet not just achieved but surpassed the highest aspirations of post-colonial nationalism: it uplifted its people, eradicated the negative legacies of colonial rule, and established real equality (morally and materially) between itself and its former rulers.[1]

This week’s instalment deals with the political and ideological starting point of the PAP in the mid-1950s. It was not more moderate, or less socialist, or further away from the Communists than other nationalist movements of the era. Indeed, quite the opposite. It started out as a radical left-wing party in covert alliance with the Communist underground in Singapore.

Before dealing with the formation of the PAP in 1954 it is necessary to first sketch in some historical background about Singapore, and Lee Kuan Yew’s upbringing and early political outlook.[2] ___STEADY_PAYWALL___


Singapore was founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as a trading post for the East India Company in 1819 on a sparsely populated island at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula. In 1867 administration of the Straits Settlements – basically, Singapore and its two poorer cousins of Penang and Malacca – was transferred from the Company in Calcutta, India to the British Colonial Office. Direct colonial rule saw greater administrative efficiency, the establishment of a separate civil service, a reform of the judiciary, and a clampdown on corruption and nepotism – all of which provoked much resentment at the time.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the city’s trade rose dramatically following the opening of the Suez Canal and the supplanting of the Sunda Straits by the Straits of Malacca as the main waterway from Europe to the Far East. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the expansion of tin mines and then rubber plantations (rubber seeds having been brought over from Brazil by the British) in the Malay interior to meet the surge in demand for these raw materials from the rising canning and motor car industries in America and Europe. The small island of Pulau Bukom, just off the coast of the city, had also become by 1902 the main oil supply centre for the Far East. By this time, the port was the seventh largest in the world by tonnage.[3]

The city’s rapidly growing economy attracted immigrants from China, the Malay Peninsula, India, Indonesia and elsewhere. By 1921 Singapore had a population of 423 768, of whom 6 089 were Europeans (including Americans), 5 375 Eurasians, 57 913 Malays, 316 137 Chinese, Indians 32 294, and 5 960 “others”.[4]

Lee Kuan Yew was born into a well-off anglophile Chinese family in Singapore on 16 September 1923. Such was his grandfather’s admiration for the British that he was also given the name “Harry”. He spoke English with his parents, and Malay with his friends, but was not particularly interested in mastering Mandarin as a child. His father had been brought up as a rich man’s child, but the family fell on harder times during the depression. While his father was somewhat feckless his mother was a formidable woman.

As with many nationalist leaders of his generation he received a Western education. In 1935, having attended an English-language primary school, he won a place in the Raffles Institution, the premier English-language secondary school in Singapore which was modelled on the British public school system. Admission to the school was based on merit, and students from all races, classes and religions attended.

Instruction was in English and the textbooks for various key subjects were standard for all the colonies. “Many years later”, Lee writes in his autobiography, “whenever I met Commonwealth leaders from far-flung islands in the Caribbean or the Pacific, I discovered that they also had gone through the same drill with the same textbooks and could quote the same passages from Shakespeare.”[5] In 1940 he was the top student in Malaya and Singapore in the Senior Cambridge examinations. Unable to study in Europe because of World War Two he took a scholarship to study at Raffles College.

Up until the war “the white man’s supremacy” had gone largely unquestioned, Lee writes in his autobiography. The Englishman was the big boss, and those like him also big bosses. This was not particularly resented; it was just regarded as being part of the natural order of things; given that Britain commanded the greatest empire the world had ever seen. 8 000 British, along with 1 000 to 2 000 servicemen, maintained colonial rule over 6 to 7 million Asiatic people in the Straits Settlements and Malay States.

British rule came crashing down though with the Japanese invasion and occupation in 1942. 60 000 Japanese soldiers defeated 130 000 British, Indian, and Australian troops. “In 70 days of surprises, upsets and stupidities,” Lee writes, “British colonial society was shattered, and with it all the assumptions of the Englishman’s superiority.” As the Japanese invaded, the Asiatic people had looked to the whites for leadership and protection. Instead, they “had proved as frightened and at a loss at what to do as the Asiatics, if not more so.”

Stories circulated of how the whites in Malaya had scrambled to save their own skins, abandoning their colonial subjects to their fate. At the time Sir Arthur de La Mare was a British diplomatic prisoner in Japan. In his valedictory despatch to London in October 1970 as High Commissioner to Singapore he described the British surrender of the island to the Japanese as “not only an appalling military disaster but the most shameful disgrace in Britain’s imperial history”:

“It was only later that we heard of the irresolution, the incompetence and the bungling of those charged here with the duty of defending not merely Britain’s military interests, but her very name. One may or may not regret the passing of Empire but no loyal subject living in Singapore can forget that it was here that the hollowness of the imperial ethos was so cruelly and so shamefully exposed.”

The Chinese population of Singapore and Malaya were regarded as a hostile element by the Japanese occupiers. In order to pre-empt resistance, between 21st February and the 4th of March 1942 all adult Chinese males in Singapore under the age of 50 were summoned to various mass screening centres as part of Operation Sook Ching. Those suspected of being potential anti-Japanese elements were taken to remote areas of the island and machine gunned to death, with their bodies secretly disposed of. Estimates of the number of those killed run to the tens of thousands.

Lee Kuan Yew, along with several other future PAP leaders, narrowly escaped selection and extermination. The three and a half years of brutal Japanese occupation were the most important of his life, he writes, “I saw a whole social system crumble suddenly before an occupying army that was absolutely merciless. The Japanese demanded total obedience and got it from nearly all. They were hated by almost everyone, but everyone knew their power to do harm and so everyone adjusted.” With the surrender of Japan to the allies in August 1945, following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “the people were genuinely happy and welcomed the British back”.

During World War Two the Allies had helped arm the Communist guerrillas of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army which had taken a leading role in battling the Japanese occupation. In January 1946 the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, Admiral Mountbatten held a ceremony to decorate sixteen leading guerrilla leaders – among them the Secretary-General of the Malayan Communist Party, Chen Ping – with the 1939-45 Star and the Burma Star. The guerrillas were paid to hand in their weapons, and many did so, but the Communists held back significant amounts of weaponry.


In September 1946 Lee travelled to London on a returning troop ship to study law. He initially attended the London School of Economics (LSE) but, unhappy in London, he soon transferred across to study law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, in early 1947. Like many nationalists of his generation Lee was strongly drawn to socialist ideas. During his few months at the LSE, he was introduced to the general theory of socialism through the lectures of Harold Laski. “I believed the British lived well at the expense of their subjects. The ideas that Laski represented at that time were therefore attractive to students from the colonies. We all wanted our independence so that we could keep our wealth for ourselves.”

While agreeing with the Marxist belief in and aversion to the ‘exploitation of man by man’, he differed with the Leninist methods of the Communists, preferring the non-violent and step-by-step approach of the Fabians. By the time his fiancé (later wife) Kwa Geok Choo joined him in Cambridge in late 1947 he had “become deeply anti-British, particularly of the colonial regime in Malaya and Singapore, which I was determined to end.” He wrote:

“One year in London and Cambridge had crystallised in me changes that had started with the Japanese capture of Singapore in 1942. I had now seen the British in their own country and I questioned their ability to govern these territories for the good of the locals. Those on the spot were not interested in the advancement of their colonies, but only in the top jobs and the high pay these could give them; at the national level they were primarily concerned with acquiring the foreign exchange that the exports of Malayan rubber and tin could earn in US dollars, to support an ailing pound sterling.”

This anti-British sentiment on a political level had been partly sparked, he later reflected, by the degrading personal examples of overt colour prejudice he had experienced at the hands of the British working classes, “the bus conductors and conductresses, the salesgirls and waitresses in the shops and restaurants, and the landladies in Hampstead I encountered in my search for digs. Several times I had gone to houses listed in ‘rooms vacant’ notices near Swiss Cottage tube station, only to be told, once they saw that I was Chinese, that the rooms had already been taken.”

The British people he met “at the upper end of the social scale” were “cultured, polite and helpful, if a little reserved”. But there was still covert class and colour discrimination in circumstances where the outcomes really mattered, such as when it came to competition for places on the university and college sports teams at Cambridge.

Nonetheless, there were other aspects of British society at the time that he greatly admired. The Labour government’s peaceful implementation of socialist policies following the war, through the institution of parliamentary democracy, was an inspiration.

Lee and Kwa took the final Cambridge law examinations in May 1949 where they both made Firsts – Lee winning the only star for Distinction on the final Law Tripos II honours list - and were called to the London Bar in June 1950 after passing the bar finals.

Lee (at one remove in Cambridge) and other Raffles College contemporaries and alumni then studying in England – prominent among them Toh Chin Chye and Kenneth Byrne – were active in the Malayan Forum in London, a multi-racial group whose object “was to build up political consciousness and press for an independent Malaya that would include Singapore. The Forum had been started by Goh Keng Swee, who had been its first chairman.

Although avowedly anti-colonial it was committed to non-violence to distinguish itself from the Malayan Communist Party. By the late 1940s India, Burma and Ceylon had all gained their independence. With the British Empire in retreat most members of the Forum were “confident that we, too, could get our independence. We sensed that the British people and their leaders had lost the will to keep their subject peoples down.”

On 1st August 1950 Lee and Kwa arrived back in Singapore. Lee then took up a pupillage with John Laycock of the firm of Laycock & Ong. When he was called to the Singapore Bar in late 1951 Lee dropped the first name of Harry and from now on used only his Chinese name, with his surname (Lee) placed before his personal name (Kuan Yew). “Lee Kuan Yew become my public persona, what I stood for and saw myself as – a left-wing nationalist – and that is how I appeared in newspaper reports of my cases in court.”

In the early 1950s Lee built up a reputation for himself as a highly effective legal representative and spokesman for the trade unions, then challenging various unpopular policies of Singapore’s colonial administration, the favouring of British expatriate officers being a particular bone of contention. In 1952 Kenneth Byrne and Goh Keng Swee, both of whom had returned to their positions in the civil service after their studies in England, had founded the Council of Joint Action to campaign for equal treatment between local officers and British expatriate officers.

As Lee relates in his autobiography, “My friends and I were now convinced that in the unions we would find the mass base and, by extension, the political muscle we had been seeking when discussing our plans for action during all those beery nights spent pub-crawling in London after meetings at Malaya Hall. We had found the way to mobilise mass support.” His growing reputation would also lead to an introduction to the front organisations of the banned Malayan Communist Party.


In the late 1940s Malaya and Singapore had a combined population of about 5 800 000 people, of whom 2 200 000 were Malays, 2 600 000 Chinese, and 600 000 Indians. The Malay Federation was a federation of nine states (along with Penang and Malacca), each under a Malay ruler, but with executive authority exercised in most matters by the Federation government under the High Commissioner. Executive authority in Singapore, with its predominantly Chinese population, was exercised by the Governor.[6]

The goal of the Malayan Communist Party, led by its Secretary-General Chin Peng, was the seizure of power and the establishment of a ‘People’s Democratic Republic’ of Malaya, encompassing the Malay Federation and Singapore. In 1948 “Communist gangs” had initiated armed struggle against the British in Malaya. The first objective of the communists, according to a British government assessment at the start of the insurgency, was “to produce the maximum industrial unrest and disruption of economic life of the country, with a view amongst other things to destroying the Government’s authority.” This had initially been done through fomenting labour disputes, but by mid-1948 the tactics had shifted to a policy of “picking off” the European and Asian managerial staff of outlying rubber estates and tin mines.[7]

In response the British authorities declared a state of emergency across Malaya on 18th June 1948 – allowing for indefinite detention without trial – and extended this to Singapore on the 24th of June. On the 23rd of July the Malayan Communist Party and three allied groups were banned by the authorities.[8] In the initial stages of the insurgency the communists had been confident that their 3 500 to 5 000 strong fighting force, the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-British Army, could wrest control of the country in a matter of months, but they were forced to revise their strategy by the strong British military response. Their approach had shifted by the following year towards a “long range strategy of attrition both of the country’s economy and the Government’s authority, through a campaign of continued but less intense military action, and greater political work towards gaining public support and recruiting new members.”[9]

By the early 1950s the British authorities had stabilised the security situation in the Malay Federation. The MCP, though it had Malay and Indian frontmen, was a predominantly (90%) Chinese organisation. While the great mass of the Chinese population had decided to sit on the fence, educated Chinese youth frustrated by the lack of opportunity in Malaya and inspired by the rise of Red China to world power status were increasingly drawn to communist ideals. The MCP had failed though to win over the Malays, who made up half the population and together with Europeans staffed the government administration and security forces, and this was one of the main reasons why the insurgency had foundered.

On the back foot militarily the MCP had, in 1951, decided to withdraw its fighters into the jungle to preserve what was left of their fighting strength. There was a change of tactics to that of the “United Front” and “peaceful constitutional struggle”. The MCP did not however abjure the use of armed force, or disarm itself, and small armed MCP units retained the capacity of carrying out executions – whether of policemen, informers, or potential witnesses – through the 1950s. Through the “United Front” strategy the Party sought to set up secret cells of Party members in the trade unions, rural organisations, and “amongst school masters and older pupils” in Chinese schools which would seek to indoctrinate the youth.[10]


The British concern through the 1950s was to lead the Malay Federation to independence, and Singapore to self-government – partly to prevent the Communists from using anti-colonial resentment as a tool of mobilisation and recruitment – but not to do so, so hastily as to create conditions of disorder which would allow for a communist takeover of power. Singapore also remained key at this time to the British Empire’s defence strategy in the Far East. A New York Times article described the city as “South-east Asia’s greatest commercial and shipping centre” and as Britain’s “key naval and military base for the whole Far East, a vital outpost for the defence of Australia and New Zealand and a major source of strength for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.”[11]

In 1954 a commission headed by Sir George Rendel proposed that limited self-government be introduced to Singapore. 25 seats out of 32 seats in the Legislative Council would now be elected, and the electorate would be expanded through automatic voter registration of the Singapore-born, increasing the number of eligible voters from 75 000 to 300 000. The British would retain powers over defence and security and the right to veto legislation.

One of the major hidden fault lines running through local Singaporean society at the time was between the English-educated and the Chinese-educated. Ethnically, the population of Singapore was three-quarters Chinese. This group was split into two parts, however. The minority, to which Lee belonged, were descendants of early immigrants. They conversed in Baba Malay and sent their children to local English-language schools.

The children of the more recent immigrants went to Chinese schools, where they learnt Mandarin not English. For the Chinese educated, Lee writes in his autobiography, “contact with the British authorities was minimal, they led a separate existence, and they were no more assimilated after the war than they had been before it. Their loyalty was to China, not Britain.” In Singapore there were few opportunities for young and ambitious members of this grouping to progress within the system given that the official life of the colony was restricted to the English-educated. The initial successes of the Chinese Communist Party after winning power in 1949 had led to a merging of nationalist pride in a resurgent China with communist ideology and virulent anti-white sentiment.

Lee’s growing reputation as a left-wing lawyer willing to effectively challenge the colonial authorities, without overstepping the law, led to an approach by members of the Chinese middle schools, appealing against their convictions for rioting. Lee would be hugely impressed by the young political activists he encountered from this milieu.

“It was a world full of vitality, of so many activists, all like jumping beans, of so many young idealists, unselfish, ready to sacrifice everything for a better society. I was deeply impressed by their seemingly total dedication to the cause of revolution, their single-minded determination to overturn the colonial government in order to establish a new world of equality and fairness.”

According to the Rendel Commission’s estimates (see Table 1) the population of Singapore stood at 1,121 million. 282 101 persons now qualified to vote, of whom only 30% were literate in English. The English educated Chinese made up 16,1% of those qualified to vote in 1954. By contrast the Chinese-educated would now make up about 40% of the electorate.


Total population

Numbers of those qualified to vote not literate in English

Numbers of those qualified to vote literate in English

Numbers qualified to vote



% total


% of electorate


% of electorate


% total


15 800




10 400


10 400



11 100




7 400


7 400



859 200


111 200


45 400


156 601



136 900


44 200


6 000


50 200



87 200


40 300


11 500


51 800



10 500


2 900


2 800


5 700



1 120 700


198 600


83 500


282 101


Ahead of the elections following on from the Rendel commission report’s recommendations, Lee and his English-speaking group decided to form the People’s Action Party (PAP). Lee approached two young Chinese-educated trade unionists – Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan of the Singapore Bus Worker’s Union – for the backing of their movement, which he received.

Ideologically the MCP regarded the PAP as the most “progressive” and “anti-colonial” party.[12] Tactically, Lee and his grouping provided cover, leaders able to operate in a predominantly English-speaking legislative environment, and it meant that the PAP met the threshold of political acceptability for the British. For Lee and his group of young Chinese-speaking radicals brought with them access to the Chinese-speaking community and an organisational base in their unions.

The PAP was launched at a public meeting attended by a thousand people in November 1954. Dr Toh Chin Chye, by now a lecturer at the University of Malaya, became pro-tem chairman, Lee Kuan Yew Secretary General, and Ong Eng Guan, an accountant and Melbourne university graduate fluent in Malay, English and Chinese, Treasurer. Fong Swee Suan was elected to the party’s (completely multi-racial) central committee.

In his address to the meeting Lee called for the lifting of emergency regulations (a key demand of the communists), rejected the current Singapore constitution, attacked members of the rival Progressive and Labour parties in virulent terms (as “frightened and servile people”), and called for the immediate establishment of an independent Malayan state comprising the territories of the Federation of Malay and the colony of Singapore. Among the goals of the PAP, Lee stated, was to abolish the unjust inequalities of wealth and opportunity inherent in the present system.[13]

The manifesto of the PAP complained that the “colonial machinery” remained intact despite constitutional changes as did the “colonial economy” in which “about 70 per cent of commercial investment are in British hands, securing for Britain a predominant economic control in Malaya’s rubber and tin industries, in trade, banking and industry.” It avoided a direct call for nationalisation or other socialist economic policies, focusing instead on its immediate political demands.[14]

On nomination day on 28 February 1955 the PAP put up candidates for five seats for the elections to be held on 2nd April. It thus deliberately limited itself to playing an opposition rule in the soon-to-be elected legislative assembly. Lim Chin Siong stood in the Bukit Timah constituency, the left-wing trade unionist Devan Nair in Farrer Park, a 60-year-old contractor Goh Chew Chua in Punggol-Tampines, and Lee himself in Tanjong Pagar. Ahmad Ibrahim, a Malay, contested the constituency of Sembawang as an independent, as Malay and Indian naval dockworkers had the decisive vote here and they might have been put off by the PAP’s radical reputation.[15] Fong Swee Suan, and a couple of other mooted candidates, did not meet the qualification requirements to stand.

Singapore’s Chief Secretary William Good later recalled touring the constituency of Bukit Timah, where Lim Chin Siong was standing as the PAP candidate. There was a bad atmosphere there, “a very tense, strained underlying hatred. I was unhappy. Hard-faced young Chinese who didn’t seem to have any sense of humour.” It was obvious that the MCP was running the show. The Special Branch had “no doubt whatsoever that the Malayan Communist Party had decided to support the People’s Action Party in those elections… but whether Chin Siong, Kuan Yew or Ibrahim were members of the Party, we didn’t know.”[16]

According to a later government report, based upon Special Branch intelligence, "the full power of the underground Communist organisation in Singapore” was used to mobilise support for the PAP in the April 1955 election, “and to rally all who were sympathetic or potential converts. Selected persons were manoeuvred into key positions, and the P.A.P. was firmly linked with the trade unions in which the Communists were establishing themselves. Communist sympathisers previously engaged in secret Communist plotting were instructed to sever all connection with the underground organisation, to destroy all incriminating secret documents, and to concentrate on overt and perfectly legitimate political work.[17]

The main target of the PAP were Singapore’s “white overlords” with “the colonial rule of the British over Malaya” described by Lee in his electoral manifesto as “the basic cause of a great number of social and economic evils of this country.”[18] For the Chinese-speaking population the protection of Chinese-culture and the Chinese-language schools was a huge political issue, and one that the communists played on assiduously. A major problem for Lee during the campaign was an inability to speak Mandarin or any of the Chinese-dialects. He partly offset this disability by sending his children to Chinese-language schools and set about trying to learn Mandarin. By contrast, Lim Chin Siong was a highly effective public speaker in Hokkien, the main Chinese dialect spoken in the city.

In the elections the left-wing Labour Front led by David Marshall won ten out of the 25 elected seats and proceeded to form a minority government in coalition with some smaller parties. Marshall became Chief Minister. The reformist and pro-British Progressive Party, previously the majority party in council, won only four seats, their moderation and incrementalism being out of step with the political mood of the time. Lee, Lim, Goh Chew Chua and Ibrahim all won their constituencies with Devan Nair the only PAP candidate not to win his.

Shortly after the election Lee told an Australian journalist, to the consternation of many English-speakers: “Any man in Singapore who wants to carry the Chinese-speaking people with him cannot afford to be anti-communist. The Chinese are very proud of China. If I had to choose between colonialism and communism, I would vote for communism and so would the great majority.” He added that while Socialists and Communists shared the same ultimate objective the former believed in evolutionary methods while the latter believed in revolution. “He said he himself was opposed to revolution.”[19] This was a theme that Lee returned to on other occasions. He stated that Singapore was part of world revolution – the greatest in the history of mankind – aimed at the establishment of an egalitarian society:

“I believe the process towards such a society is inevitable. We can reach it by one of two ways. We either have it by peaceful evolution or we have it by violent revolution. The only difference between a democratic Left-wing Socialist and a Communist is this: The Communist believes that it is impossible to have peaceful evolution and that force is necessary to crush vested interests who will prevent a workers' revolution. The Socialist believes it is possible to have peaceful evolution.”

Over the following several years the PAP would always describe itself as “non-Communist” and never as anti-Communist.


There are revealing and illuminating parallels between the tactics of the MCP and that of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the 1950s. A 1963 Singapore government intelligence report described the Malayan Communist Party of the mid-1950s as being in that stage of development described by the Chinese Communist Party as the ‘minimum programme’.

‘Anti-imperialism’ is the keynote of this stage. The United Front, described by the Malayan Communists themselves as “not an organisation but a sort of struggle strategy”, is the principal instrument of the minimum programme. Their aim at this stage is to establish a ‘new democratic’ government under which the Communists concede that limited forms of capitalism will continue to be permitted. The ultimate goal, however, of the ‘maximum programme’ remains unaltered: namely the Communist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

The Communist underground in Singapore had, under the instructions of the MCP’s Central Committee, adopted a United Front strategy from 1955 onwards. “Their leaders, trained as underground [MCP] cadres in numerous cells within the Chinese schools, are well versed in the United Front tactics of adopting the guise of a ‘democratic and socialist’ anti-colonialist opposition.” The plan was to infiltrate the PAP and then use it as the main instrument through which the United Front would “capture political power in Singapore”. The penetration of the trade union movement was also a particular goal.

The SACP meanwhile had secretly reconstituted itself in the early 1950s after the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) had dissolved itself in 1950, just ahead of its legal banning. It now reorganised itself along strict conspiratorial lines. Membership was organised in cells of three and four people. Strict principles of democratic centralism were applied, with the Central Committee having the final say on issues in between national conferences. It was a “cardinal rule” that no member could divulge information about their own Party membership, or that of others, or any other information about the Party, without permission.[20]

Through the 1950s the main direction of the Party’s activities was in building a “united front of national liberation” – against Verwoerdism and national oppression – through the trade unions, and mass democratic organisations of the “Congress Alliance”. Through its presence in the organisations of the Congress Alliance the Party was able to identify key leaders for recruitment. This could only be done though with permission from the Central Committee. Party members also formed a secret “fraction or caucus” in each of the united front organisations they penetrated, which would remain under the ultimate direction of the Party.

The Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955 – drafted mainly by Rusty Bernstein with Ben Turok playing a lesser role – was an expression of the ‘minimum programme’ of the Party. It was “identical in all its main provisions to the demands set forth in the immediate programme of the SACP adopted in 1953,” the Party would later observe.

Although the Charter demanded the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land, the claim was made that some elements of capitalism would nonetheless still be permitted. By breaking up and democratising monopolies, Nelson Mandela wrote in a 1956 essay for Liberation (edited by Michael Harmel), fresh fields would be opened up “for the development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the Non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own in their own name and right mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.” One reason why members of the communist movement were still able to obfuscate their ultimate goals like this was that China, under CCP rule, was not yet a fully socialist country. Harmel noted in a 1957 essay for Liberation that in that country “private capitalism is not prohibited; indeed, within certain well-defined limits it is encouraged.”

The operation of this conspiratorial underground of some 500 members allowed the SACP to exert an extraordinary degree of influence over the mass movement. As the Party noted in a July 1960 report to Moscow, “Our party is small in terms of membership. But its influence in the Congress movement is considerable. All important positions and direction in the Congress and in other organisations are occupied by members of our Party. In the African National Congress, this is particularly the case.”


The PAP in the mid-1950s was thus in a similar relationship with the MCP underground, as the ANC was with the SACP. Both the MCP and SACP were pursuing “minimum programmes” at the time and seeking to infiltrate (further) the PAP and the ANC, respectively. Their focus was on popular causes, enjoying widespread support among the oppressed, with far less popular ultimate goals of the Party (the “maximum programme” of a transition to full socialism under a dictatorship) being kept obscure.

In their idealism, their commitment to an egalitarian society, and their willingness to sacrifice everything for their cause, the communists – in both countries – were by far the most impressive political activists of their generation. Their mode of operation was highly insidious though, reliant as it was on disguising their own true political affiliations and intentions from those they were in coalition with.

The party membership of the communist operatives within United Front organisations, and the operation of Party caucuses within them, were closely guarded secrets. The paradox was that the greater the commitment of a United Front operative to the communist cause, the less likely they would ever be to disclose their party membership, or the party membership of others. Disclosing such information meant not just personal disgrace and ostracism by one’s fellow comrades, it was also regarded as a capital offence by both the MCP and SACP.

The difference between the two situations was that in South Africa it was the African nationalist ANC which was the organisation which brought the mass support to the Congress Alliance. By contrast it was the MCP which delivered the mass support of the Chinese-educated in Singapore to the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew himself, though ethnically Chinese, could not even speak to the masses in a language or dialect they could understand.

Understanding why the PAP, of all anti-colonial nationalist movements, would ultimately prove so effective in government requires tracing the particularly protracted and precarious path taken by Singapore to full independence between 1955 and 1965.

The PAP in opposition is the subject of the following article in this series (see here).


[1] The description of these aspirations is drawn from Colin Legum “Pan Africanism, The Communists and The West: An address to a joint-meeting of the Royal African Society and the Royal Commonwealth Society on March 5, 1964”, African Affairs, vol. 63, no. 252, July 1964, p. 192.

[2] This narrative is based largely upon Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions. Kindle Edition.

[3]This account of Singapore’s early history is derived from CM Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore 1819-2005, (NUS Press: Singapore, 2009).

[4] “Straits Population”, Malaya Tribune, 28 May 1921, Page 5 (see here).

[5] Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions. Kindle Edition.

[6] “The Situation in Malaya: Cabinet Memorandum by the Secretary of State for the Colonies”, CP (48) 171, 1st July 1948 (see here).

[7] “SECRET: The Situation in Malaya”, Memorandum by the Secretary of the State for the Colonies, 1 July 1948 (see here – PDF).

[8] New York Times, 24 July 1948.

[9] Central Intelligence Agency, “Current Situation in Malaya”, 17 November 1949 (see here – PDF).

[10]Malaya: Review of the Situation”, Memorandum by the Secretary of the State for the Colonies, 6th April 1955 (see here – PDF).

[11] Peggy Durdin, “Singapore Needs a Miracle”, New York Times, 9 October 1955.

[12] “It is still MCP policy to use PAP – Paper”, The Straits Times 24 August 1957 (see here).

[13] “’Freedom Now – New Party”, The Straits Times, 22 November 1954, Page 1 (see here).

[14] John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success, Times Books International: Singapore, 1984, pg. 88.

[15] Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions. Kindle Edition. as an independent.

[16] John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success, pg. 88

[17] Government White Paper, 23 August 1957 quoted by Labour Front Minister for Education. Mr Chew Swee Kee, in debate in Legislative Assembly, Hansard, 12 September 1957 (see here).

[18] Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions. Kindle Edition

[19] “PAP boss speaks out”, The Straits Times, 5 May 1955, Page 1. Also quoted in the first volume of Lee’s autobiography.

[20] Michael Harmel, “Some notes on the Communist Party in South Africa”, November 1960.