Friday, August 12, 2011

The many “firsts” in Singapore general elections in the turbulent years 1955-1968

Almost unthinkable before 7 May 2011 (GE 2011), that possibility became real on 19 May, 12 days after the polling day, as the key state man himself left the meeting room and called it a day. The day marked the last Cabinet meeting that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, 87, would attend. It was nearly 52 years after he chaired his first cabinet meeting with strong will and determination to break away from the British government.

(The last cabinet meeting 10 days after GE 2011 for MM Lee in his near 52 years political career. 2011) 

(The new cabinet sworn in on 21 May 2011)

Lee Kuan Yew was painfully aware that the Japanese as well as the British, as foreigners, had no right to govern his people. He therefore resolved to make Singapore independent and free from foreign rule. He described the impact of the Japanese occupation on his future:

I did not enter politics. The Japanese brought politics to me. … The Japanese occupying forces were blind and brutal and made me, and a whole generation like me, in Singapore and Malaya, work for freedom— freedom from servitude and foreign domination. We decided that from then on our lives should be ours to decide, that we should not be the pawn and playthings of foreign powers.

-- Alex Josey, ‘Lee Kuan Yew’, 1968

Singapore was a British colony since 1819. After World War II, a strong wave of independence swept across the globe. British knew that it could no longer hold the crown of Malaya and progressively relieved the power back to the locals. The first legislative assembly election for Singapore was held in 1955 and defined an entire new era of Singapore. Locals would share executive power with the colonial authorities and there would be a Chief Minister among elected legislators. This first national election had 25 seats. Lee Kuan Yew was the elected candidate for Tanjong Pagar. This made him the longest serving member in the parliament. Total voters: 300,199. PAP fielded 4 candidates and won 3.

(Lee Kuan Yew, elected MP for Tanjong Pagar who visited 鹤山会馆,Neil Road. c.1955)

After 1955, legislators led by the Labour Front (LF) government continued to push for more autonomy. With the successful negotiation between the British and Singapore lawmakers, Singapore was granted full self-government in 1958.

The legislative assembly election 1959 was a fully-elected legislature in new self-governance Singapore. Appointed seats were abolished. All seats were for election and compulsory voting. Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, who succeeded David Marshall after the latter resigned in 1957, used extreme measures to suppress the leftists, causing the ground to turn against him. PAP won a landslide victory to form a new government. Opposition leader Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister of Singapore. Total voters: 586,098. PAP contested in all 51 seats and won 43. 54.1% of total votes’ shares.

(Swearing in of Lee Kuan Yew in 1959. Drawn by Lai Kui Fang and unveiled in 1992) 

The death of PAP Assembly Member Baharuddin Mohammed Ariff precipitated the by-election in 1961. The victory of former LF Chief Minister David Marshall, now Workers’ Party (WP) chief, symbolised WP's first presence in the legislature.

(David Marshall (1908-1995). The former Chief Minister from Labour Front. He founded Workers' Party in 1957)

The legislative assembly election 1963 held five days after Singapore's merger with Malaysia. It was probably the most hard-fought election in PAP history. Before that, the PAP government launched Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963 and detained more than 100 Barisan Sosialis (BS) members, including several key BS leaders such as Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Dominic Puthucheary, Lim Hock Siew and Poh Soo Kai. BS Leader Lee Siew Chor contested PAP's Toh Chin Chye in Rochor Constituency and lost by a thin margin of 89 votes. It is still the "thinnest" record up to today.

(Singapore celebrated merger with Malaysia, 16 September 1963)

(2 years later, Lee Kuan Yew announced Singapore as a independent republic, 9 August 1965)

Sole WP Assembly Member David Marshall resigned from the party he founded and became the only independent. Thereafter, the PAP government passed a law stipulating that legislators who resign or are expelled from the parties they were elected under would lose their seats. This law had almost thrown out Chiam See Tong in 1996 when he was expelled by SDP that he founded. Total voters: 617,650. PAP contested in all 51 seats and won 37. BS contested in 46 seats and won 13. WP contested in 3 seats and lost all. PAP: 46.9%. BS: 37.1%.

On 16 September 1963, Singapore, together with Sabah and Sarawak, joined the Federation of Malaysia. PAP contested 9 seats in the 1964 Malaysia GE. Although only Devan Nair (became Singapore President in 1981) won the election in Bangsar Constituency, it aggregated the friction between the Singapore state's leaders and Malaysia's UMNO-led governing Alliance coalition.

(PAP rally in Kuala Lumpur, 1964)

Within two short turbulent years, escalating differences between the local PAP administration and the Federation government arrived at an irreconcilable stage. On 9 August 1965, the Singapore state was expelled from Malaysia to become an independent Republic. The Legislative Assembly was renamed Parliament. Since then, PAP continues to win every GE, each time returned power with an overwhelming majority.

(BS was formed in 1961. The eventual leaders on the eve of international labour day. 1960)

(BS walked out from the Parliament. 1966)

Following the resignations of 11 BS MPs and departure of two BS MPs from Singapore to escape the Internal Security Department in 1966, the legislature was left with only PAP MPs. BS boycotted the first Singapore parliament GE 1968 and several opposition parties supported its call. This proved to be a costly mistake as reflected by leader Lee Siew Choh in the later years.

(Lee Siew Choh. Costly mistakes for walked out from parliament in 1966 and boycotted GE 1968)

The results of GE1968 set three precedents - the least number of seats contested in a GE, the first time PAP was returned to power on nomination day and the first time it won all seats to return a pure one-party legislature. Eligible voters: 759,367 from 58 constituencies. Voters in 51 walkover constituencies: 674,484 (88.8%). Total voters in 7 contested constituencies: 84,883 (11.2%). WP fielded 2 candidates and lost all. PAP: 86.7%. WP: 13.2%.

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