Singapore Revisited (VI): The PAP's entry into power
James Myburgh |
07 June 2021
James Myburgh writes on Lee Kuan Yew’s precarious first few years in office
The previous article in this series described Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party’s time in political opposition in Singapore between 1955 and 1959. In this period the English-educated non-Communist wing of the party, and the mostly Chinese-educated pro-Communists, had been in an increasingly uneasy alliance.
In 1955 the Malayan Communist Party (MCP)-controlled United Front had ridden a popular wave of pro-Communist and anti-British sentiment among the Chinese-educated masses in Singapore to foment revolt and expand their power. A British-directed security clampdown the following year had seen many of the United Front leaders detained, including several leading pro-Communist PAP politicians.
Although this had blunted the momentum of the United Front it was at the cost of politically discrediting Chief Minister Lim Hew Yock’s government. From this point onwards the PAP would increasingly be seen as Singapore’s government in waiting, as it enjoyed the support of the Chinese-educated masses.
Within the PAP itself the lines were drawn between the non-Communists and pro-Communists. An effort by the pro-Communist “second team” to take effective control of the PAP had failed after Lee Kuan Yew called their bluff by refusing to stay on as leader, and Lim Hew Yock had had them detained as well.
After this point the non-Communists put in place rules that entrenched their position at the top of the party and allowed them to select their preferred candidates and officials. At the branch level however, pro-Communists remained a powerful force.
Despite the growing tensions between the two sides, the MCP underground still needed the PAP to prevail in the 1959 elections over any of the more right-wing political parties contending for power.
In the elections to be held on 30th May 1959 the People’s Action Party’s main opponents were to be the Singapore People’s Alliance (SPA) – a coalition of the Labour Front and Liberal Socialists formed by Lim Yew Hock in November 1958. The PAP effectively torpedoed the SPA and its campaign by revealing in February that the Labour Front had been channelled $800 000 by the Americans over the previous two years. This forced the immediate resignation of Minister Chew Swee Kee, who had been the bag man on the deal, and the establishment of a commission of inquiry.
The inquiry which held public hearings through the course of the campaign further damningly revealed that a substantial amount of the funds had been diverted for private not party purposes. Lee commented that the final report, issued shortly before election day, “only confirmed what voters already knew – that Lim Yew Hock’s government was corrupt, and worse, that it was now in the pay of the Americans.”
The Liberal Socialists ended up walking out of the SPA coalition ahead of the elections. Part of the Labour Front also refused to join the SPA. On nomination day at the end of April the PAP fielded candidates for all 51 constituencies, the SPA 39, the Liberal Socialists 32, UMNO eight and the Labour Front three. The PAP but forward an ethnically balanced slate of 34 Chinese candidates, 10 Malays, six Indians and one Eurasian.
Lee’s speeches were not designed to be reassuring to business and the middle classes. He was quoted in one report as saying at a rally that his party “[could] be tough if they [British firms] try to be funny. If they happen to be good for us, they stay.” The PAP’s concern was, it wanted to be understood, with the people’s interests, not those of British firms. On another occasion during the campaign Lee said that any editor, leader writer, sub-editor or reporter who tried to sour or strain relations between the Federation and Singapore after the elections would “go in [to jail] for subversion” under the Public Security Ordinance. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The PAP won 281 891 of the 521 207 valid votes cast (54,1%), with its support largely coming from the Chinese-speaking population. In terms of rules implemented ahead of the election voting was compulsory and there was a 90% turnout. The combination of a constituency-based electoral system and a divided opposition allowed the PAP to win 43 out of 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly (an 84,3% majority). The SPA won four of the eight seats not won by PAP, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) three, and an independent one. In 30 constituencies the PAP candidates secured an outright majority. Ong Eng Guan was returned with 77% of the vote in his constituency of Hong Lim, Lee with 71% in Tanjong Pagar. Following the announcement of the results Lee stated, “the people’s verdict is clear and decisive. Nothing more can be added to it. It is a victory of right over wrong, clean over dirty, righteousness over evil.”
As he had promised Lee insisted that eight imprisoned PAP leaders were released before a PAP government took office. On their release the former detainees read out the previously agreed-to statement. They stated categorically that they were “democratic socialists, and that we subscribe without reservations to the theory and practice of democratic socialism on which the PAP is based.” Both the ends they sought and the means they employed, they said, must be based firmly on “the institutions of political democracy”.
“We believe that revolution by consent and peaceful persuasion is immensely superior to, and infinitely more practicable, at least in Malayan circumstances, than revolution by violence which, in our country, can only lead to the horrors of inter-racial strife. It was not the might of British arms which defeated the armed revolt led by the MCP, but the failure of the MCP to establish itself as a nationally based movement. And thereby hangs a lesson which Malayan socialists will ignore at their own peril.”
On 5th of June 1959, at the age of 35, Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as Prime Minister of the self-governing territory of Singapore. The new cabinet was completely multi-racial and non-Communist. Ong Eng Guan became minister of national development, Dr Toh Chin Chey deputy prime minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee Minister of Finance. The party’s organising secretary Ong Pang Boon became minister of home affairs, Kenneth Byrne minister of labour and law, S Rajaratnam the minister of culture, Yong Nyuk Lin minister of education and Ahmad bin Ibrahim minister of health.
At the party’s victory rally, and then at the swearing of the new government, the PAP’s 43 newly elected MPs dressed in casual white shirts and trousers. This was, according to Lee, to “symbolise clean government – there would be none of the corruption that had been rife in the past in Singapore and existed in many other new countries”.
The maladministration of the Labour Front government, along with the increases in pay and benefits the PAP and its affiliated unions had fought for and won over the previous several years, meant that Singapore’s finances were in a dire state by 1959. In response to this the new government froze new appointments and cut the pay of ministers as well as the allowances of the higher levels of the civil service (6 000 of 14 000 officers were affected).
These cuts were also meant to signal to the Chinese-speaking population that the ‘English-educated’ would be willing to sacrifice for the common good, and to the unions that the days of making ever greater demands were over. By the end of the year the budget had been balanced. Although the cuts in allowances were reversed in 1961 this caused enduring resentment among the English-educated.
Soon after coming to office the PAP government opened the civil service to those who had not received English educations. In a speech to the Legislative Assembly on 21 July 1959 Lee noted that, as promised, “the civil service is now open for competition to all streams of education – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil educated – and we will take from all the streams, the best of them all.”
Another of Lee’s early actions was to encourage all government offices to install air-conditioning, without which it was not possible to work efficiently in the heat and humidity of Singapore. The government built a hundred community centres, set up an arbitration court on the Australian model, and required that strikes had to be approved by secret ballot. The government also launched a programme to get every child into school and in twelve months the intake of students had doubled (by having morning and afternoon sessions).
Taking a leaf from the Communists the government launched several clean-up campaigns, which mobilised the entire population including ministers themselves, and an “anti-yellow culture” campaign which targeted Chinese-secret society gangsters, pornography, striptease shows, and decadent Western pop culture.
One British official noted that Lee always looked several years ahead. During the election he laid down several markers for his coming administration, so that they could not later be accused of having betrayed their promises. One of these was that he would retain the Public Security Ordinance, which allowed for detention without trial, until merger with Malaya. It was renewed, in amended form in October 1959. Another was that the British bases – in which 45 000 Singaporeans of mostly Indian ancestry were employed – would be retained for another 20 years.
Shortly before the day of the election he announced too that the future political battle would be between the PAP and the MCP.
“In this fight the ultimate contestants will be the PAP and the MCP – the PAP for a democratic, non-Communist, Socialist Malaya, and the MCP for a Soviet Republic of Malaya. It is a battle that cannot be won by just bayonets and bullets. It is a battle of ideals and ideas. And the side that recruits more ability and talent will be the side that wins.” The PAP would not adopt the behaviour of Mr David Marshall or that of Lim Yew Hock in combating the Communists.
Mr Marshall was “vacillating, pushed from pillar to post and retreating in the face of each demonstration.” Lim Yew Hock had used that “stick and the gun” as his answer till finally the GOC, Singapore Base District, and his helicopters took over. “The PAP government will not fall into either of these errors.” “We shall not be intimidated or brow-beaten nor will we use repression as the means of Government. We shall govern, with the will and support of the people, firmly, wisely and justly.”
Lee Kuan Yew and his close colleagues viewed the political apathy and complacency of the English-educated, and particular of the Civil Service, as a problem. In August 1959, the PAP government opened a Civil Service Political Study Centre to politically educate top-ranking civil servants about their Communist adversaries and the deep social and economic problems which the Communists were using to mobilise against the existing order and foment revolution. In his speech at the opening of the centre he explained what was at stake, should his government fail:
“It is in our interest to show that under the system of ‘one man one vote’, there can be an honest and efficient government which works through an efficient administration in the interests of the people. If we do not do our best, then we have only ourselves to blame when the people lose faith, not just in you, the public service, and in us, the democratic political leadership, but also in the democratic system of which you and I are working parts. And when they lose faith, then they will look for alternative forms of government. And let us never forget that the Communists are only too ready to offer the people more drastic alternatives in social revolution than the democratic system of government.”
In the initial months of the new government an uneasy peace prevailed between the new government and the pro-Communists. The new government sought to hit the ground running while the released detainees, some of whom were given jobs as political secretaries in the new government, sought to rebuild the pro-Communist base in the union movement.
The PAP government’s crisis was precipitated by developments within the non-Communist camp – Minister of National Development Ong Eng Guan had populist and patronage-based policies in his first months in office, and Lee had acted to clip his wings. A British despatch, reviewing the PAP government’s first six months in office, described Ong as “The outstanding political figure in the Cabinet” noting that he commanded “the mass support of the Chinese speaking population”:
“Today Mr Ong Eng Guan’s prestige has undoubtedly fallen. His hasty and unsound measures as a Minister have embarrassed his colleagues and discredited him. He has had to retract dramatic increases in the assessment of business properties because they were illegal, and it is common knowledge that he has been relieved of most of the old City Council responsibilities because of the damage he was doing.”
Ong then rebelled against the leadership of the PAP whom he accused of going soft on colonialism and betraying the revolution. A Hong Lim branch meeting on Saturday 18th June 1960, chaired by Ong, put forward 16 resolutions to the party leadership. These called inter alia for the party to reaffirm its faith in the 1954 revolutionary party manifesto and its firm stand on the anti-colonial constitution; asked it to launch fresh talks with the UK to revise the constitution; demanded the release all detainees and the removal of any remaining expatriate officials; criticised the deregistration of certain trade unions; and called for the party to revise the methods by which it selected its cadres.
Many of these were seen as feeding into the agenda of the pro-Communists and were a direct challenge to the party leadership. As an editorial in The Straits Times noted, these “in substance challenged party and government policy, and did so as unpleasantly and dangerously as possible.” On 21st June 1960 the PAP leadership resolved to press charges against Ong for attacking the collective leadership of the party. He was asked to show just cause why he should not be expelled from the party. The PAP also suspended the Hong Lim branch committee. Ong refused to back down however and held a mass meeting in his constituency in mid-July, attended by an estimated 10 000 people, which endorsed the 16 resolutions. In his lecture to the gathering – titled “How to fight colonialism” – Ong accused the “ruling clique” of having “compromised with colonialism.”
At the end of the month the PAP central executive committee decided to expel Ong and two other Assemblymen, SV Lingam, the member for Aljunied, and Ng Teng Kian, the member for Ponggol. The three now moved on the opposition benches in the Legislative Assembly, reducing the PAP’s majority to 40. (Lingam would move back into the PAP fold later).
Ong now launched virulent attacks on the PAP leadership in the Assembly. He complained that three British officials – George Thomson, Alan Blades and Val Meadows – remained in “control of key positions in the machinery of state” and that this belied Lee’s claim not to be pro-colonialist. The people of Singapore, Ong added, “know that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Finance represent colonial interests and that they have betrayed the revolution.”  Over the following months Ong made progressively wilder claims in the Legislative Assembly. In response the Assembly launched an inquiry and Ong resigned on 29 December 1960 to pre-empt his suspension. A judicial inquiry early the next year examined Ong’s allegations and proceeded to find against him.
The PAP threw everything into the resultant by-election to be held on the 29th of April 1961, in which Ong stood again, with Lee personally canvassing across the constituency. But, as he put it in his autobiography, the “ground was cold”. The voters were polite but not responsive. Ong had done a lot for his constituents and his personal popularity had not been dented by the adverse findings of the judicial inquiry or Lee Kuan Yew’s attacks on his personal life.
Although the unions had publicly come out in support of the party leadership Lim Chin Siong had quietly put the word out that pro-Communists should also not support the PAP. The result was that the PAP candidate, Jek Yeun Thong, was crushingly defeated, receiving only 2 820 (26,7%) votes to Ong Eng Guan’s 7 747 (73.3%).
On 11 May 1961 Lee again held another secret meeting with Fang Chuang Pi (“the Plen”), the underground leader of the Communists in Singapore. Lee was essentially put on notice that the Communists wanted the PAP to lift restrictions on their freedom of operation and press for the abolition of the Internal Security Council at the next round of constitutional talks due in 1963. In his response Lee was non-committal.
The programme of the PAP had always been to achieve full independence through merger with Malaya. This was for three basic reasons. The leadership of the party were first-and-foremost Malayan patriots – and had worked hard to inculcate Malay consciousness on coming to power; Singapore was not regarded as a viable state on its own, being part of the same geographical and economic area as the Malay Federation; and, tactically, Lee knew that an independent Singapore (without the British acting as a security backstop) was likely to soon go Communist.
In a speech to the legislative assembly on the 8th August 1960 Lee Kuan Yew had stated that his government was not going to promise independence for Singapore for the immediate future, as the Communists were demanding. It was “a fraud on the people to claim that Singapore can be independent alone, not only because it is not viable, but because it can be so easily captured and destroyed. Have they forgotten that some 80,000 British troops had to surrender in Singapore 10 days after the Japanese captured Singapore's water supply situated in Johore? Do they believe that an island with 1½ million souls but with no natural resources, can be independent?”
The Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was reluctant to countenance any talk of merger however, partly because it would upset the ethnic balance in the Malaya Federation, and partly because he distrusted the very left-wing PAP. His government had even obstructed efforts to form a common market between the two territories. However, the British had repeatedly warned him not to imagine that they “could retain control of Singapore for ever; once we had to withdraw Singapore would go Communist, the Communist Powers would move in, and Malaya would find a Cuba on her doorstep.”
The Tunku eventually began coming around to this view, after much lobbying by Lee Kuan Yew, and indicated, in a speech in late May 1961, that he may be amenable to a closer relationship with Singapore provided the three British dependencies of North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak were included as well.
The electoral weakness of the PAP leadership, revealed in the Hong Lim by-election, combined with the Tunku’s opening of the door to Singapore’s merger with the anti-Communist Malay Federation, now brought the conflict between the PAP leadership and the pro-Communists to a head. Shortly before the Hong-Lim by-election Bahruddin bin Mohamed Ariff, the PAP’s assemblyman for the constituency of Anson, died of a heart attack. The by-election was to be held on the 15th of July 1961, with nomination day on the 10th of June.
In a joint press statement issued on 2nd June 1961, pro-Communist PAP leaders Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Sydney Woodhull, Dominic Puthucheary, TT Bani, and Jamit Singh – six of the 10-member secretariat of the Trade Unions Congress – signalled that they would support the PAP in the coming by-election if it supported changes to the constitution to remove residual British powers and abolish the Internal Security Council. “All sections of the present constitution which run counter to the rights of a full self-government must be revoked forthwith. A popularly elected government must exercise all the rights over matters of internal security.” The following week 42 trade unions issued a statement in support of this position.
Lee refused to toe the line. On nomination day the PAP fielded a Malay, Mahmud bin Awany, as their candidate. Although he was President of the Trade Union Congress this was a choice which did not suit the pro-Communists. In response they threw their weight behind David Marshall, standing as the Workers Party candidate, who soon came out in support of immediate independence. On the day before the by-election was due to be held eight PAP assemblymen also came out in support of the Lim Chin Siong position. In his response Lee called on Lim, Woodhull, and Fong to resign as political secretaries. He accused the men, along with the eight Assemblymen, of trying to coerce the PAP leadership into accepting their line or they would “overthrow the leadership in order to capture the party and use it for their purposes.”
In another stinging defeat for the PAP leadership, Marshall won the by-election with 3 598 votes (43.3%) to Awang’s 3 052 (36,8%) and the SPA candidate’s 1,482 (17.84%). PAP support had dropped precipitously from the 5 167 votes (60.7%) they had won in the 1959 elections.
This result was a demonstration of the influence of the pro-Communists both over PAP as a party and the electorate. It was also a huge blow to the PAP leadership. Lee tendered his resignation to the PAP’s Central Executive Committee, but this was rejected. Having expelled the populist Ong, and with the pro-Communists now against them, it now appeared as if the bottom was dropping out of PAP’s popular support.
In the mid-1950s being seen as “anti-Communist” was electoral suicide among the Chinese-speaking masses on the island. Had the popular mood been the same in 1961 as it was in 1955 that may well have been the end of the PAP.
Up until the mid-1950s the Communists in China had an incredible record of success. They had, as Dennis Bloodworth observed in an October 1959 article on the tenth anniversary of their final triumph over the Kuomintang, “unified China, strengthened it, cleansed it of age-old corruption. They worked determinedly to protect the rice-bowl of the peasant and to improve his lot. Medical services were increased every year, and great works successfully undertaken to limit floods and famine, to provide better communications and housing. Agricultural production soared and a new China, capable of making anything from a thermos flask to a diesel locomotive emerged. A once disunited state, prey of all the plunderers from America and Europe and Japan, began to earn the respect of the world as a great, new and rising force.”
These initial achievements had, as noted in the previous article, led to nationalist pride among the younger members of the Chinese-speaking population of Singapore, and widespread pro-Peking sentiment. A Malayan Communist Party-controlled United Front could also appeal to a much wider circle of sympathisers than just the working classes and frustrated educated youth. This was not just because the Front’s focus was on a ‘minimum programme’ of anti-imperialism but because the Communists in China themselves had not yet switched over to their ‘maximum programme’.
After the Communists came to power in 1949 Chinese capitalists were listed as one of the ‘four friendly classes’ along with workers, peasants and the petty bourgeoisie. Thus, while foreign capitalists and rural landlords had been dispossessed following the Communist seizure of power in 1949, private ownership of most business enterprises was permitted up until the end of 1955.
The usefulness to Chinese Communist Party of its own United Front – used to maintain the illusion of political plurality – was rapidly receding, and the Party began laying ever greater emphasis on the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat through the ‘anti-rightest campaign’ that ran from 1957 to 1959. In 1956 it was also announced that capitalists would now be “educated” and “persuaded” to “remould” themselves until they became a “section of socialist workers”.
Even here the government moved in incremental fashion and avoided outright confiscations of factories and shops. Instead ‘state-private enterprises’ were set up with the owners being promised a fixed interest payment of 5 per cent up per annum until 1962 on its assessment of the value of their businesses. Many owners were kept on as managers.
In 1958, however, the Communist government in China embarked up on the Great Leap Forward towards full Communism. This involved most infamously the collectivisation of agriculture, a policy which would soon result in tens of millions of deaths. But it also saw the seizure of house property by the state, the absorption into co-operatives of the remaining traders and handicraftsmen, and the extinguishing of the capitalist class in China.
In an article published in The Straits Times in August 1958 the Reuters correspondent in Peking, Jack Gee, described the process of how capitalists were now being “remoulded” into workers in Peking four years ahead of schedule.
“Shopkeepers and industrialists, many of them wearing shabby Western clothes retrieved from pre-liberation wardrobes, held rallies in all the big cities to pledge their loyalty to the regime. To underline their eagerness to ‘hand over our hearts to Communism’, delegations even presented blood-red papier-mâché models of hearts to Communist officials.
At one meeting I watched 4 000 capitalists trudge through the rain sodden streets of Peking, carrying large portraits of Chairman Mao and self-consciously waving tiny red flags. Newspapers joined in with denunciations of ‘dirty capitalist thoughts’ and the capitalists themselves vied with each other in writing wall posters which catalogued their mistaken bourgeois ideals. Thousands offered to hand back their interest payments to the state.
In Peking 1 000 of them were ‘permitted’ to perform manual tasks in factories they had once owned. The newspaper Peking Daily reported: ‘Most of the capitalists work hard behind their lathes and benches. They learn submissively from the workers’. Singled out for special praise was Ten Tsung-ting who ironed more items of underwear in a day than any of the workers in the garment factory which was once his own.”
News of the disastrous economic effects of Mao’s implementation of full communism in China also soon leaked out, and this eroded the prestige of Red China. As Bloodworth noted in his article, people had begun to “hear about the formation of the people’s communes in China, and the hardships and sacrifices the Chinese masses were forced to endure. This year they learned that despite this repellent regimentation, China’s economy was a muddle, her production statistics false, and, according to thousands of refugees who fled from the mainland, her people were worse off than ever.” All this, he observed, had resulted in the waning of enthusiasm in the Far East for China’s great communist experiment.
These developments in China would help dispel any illusions among Chinese-speaking capitalists, traders, and shopkeepers in Singapore as to their fate should an MCP-controlled United Front ever take power on the island. They were also a reminder to the English-educated, if any were needed, of the ultimate consequences should the Communists eventually seize power.
The final political showdown between the non-Communists and the pro-Communists within the PAP is the subject of the next article in this series.
 Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Marshall Cavendish Editions. Kindle Edition.
 “We can be tough, PAP warns British firms”, The Straits Times, 30 April 1959, Page 7 (see here). At another event Lee said it was “in the interests of the rich to vote the PAP into power. He said this would mean a peaceful and constitutional change in the social structure of the country. The rich, he explained, would thus be able to continue enjoying their wealth for about another 20 years, though they might have to pay higher duties, taxes, and assessments. If they did not vote the PAP into power but continue to oppose social changes. He feared that in five years there would be a great outbreak of violence and they would lose all their wealth. (“Call on the rich to vote PAP into power”, The Straits Times, 3 May 1959, Page 5 (see here).
 “'We'll put you in' threat by Lee”, The Straits Times, 19 May 1959, Page 1 (see here).
 1959 Parliamentary election results, Elections Department Singapore (see here);“The P.A.P. Landslide”, The Straits Times Monday, June 1, 1959 (see here).
 “2.45 am-PAP romps home with landslide victory”, The Straits Times, 31 May 1959, Page 1 (see here).
 “The freed leaders: We travel the same road as the party”, The Straits Times, 5 June 1959, Page 1 (see here).
 “Lee's Cabinet: This is it” The Straits Times, 6 June 1959, Page 1 (see here).
 Despatch from Lord Selkirk, UK commissioner to Singapore, to Mr Ian Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies, “Political developments in Singapore since June 1959, CO 1030/1149, nos 68–71 19 May 1961.