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60th anniversary of self-government: Singapore’s pre-independence 'national day'

On this day in 1959, Singapore was first proclaimed as an internally self-governing state under the British Crown.

60th anniversary of self-government: Singapore’s pre-independence 'national day'

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding Prime Minister, at the People's Action Party victory rally on Jun 3, 1959.

SINGAPORE: Everyone knows Aug 9 is Singapore's National Day, when the country comes together to celebrate independence. But for a few years before 1965, it was held on another date.

For older Singaporeans, Jun 3, 1959, was that day to remember. It was when Singapore adopted its own constitution and became an internal self-governing state for the first time in its history (The British still had the final say over external matters, namely defence and foreign affairs).

In fact, the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) recorded the momentous day as “the making of a nation”. It says on its website: “On Jun 3, 1959, the 1.6 million people in Singapore awoke to a new beginning - as people of a fully internal self-governing city state under the British Crown.”

The day has also been immortalised through the famous video clip of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's rousing call of "Merdeka".

Historian Albert Lau told CNA that self-government, while not yet independence, was a significant milestone in Singapore’s constitutional evolution.

“Attaining self-government sent an important signal that Singapore still needed a further push to achieve its goal of freedom from colonial rule,” said the associate professor from National University of Singapore.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also made mention of this historic day in last year's National Day Rally saying: "Domestically, Singapore politics was fiercely fought, over different visions of the colony’s future. In 1959, Singapore gained internal self-government, one big step towards independence."

On the 60th anniversary of Singapore’s pre-independence national day, CNA takes a look back at some of the key events and quotes that shaped its significance.

HEATED HUSTINGS

The General Election held in 1959 was to determine who would lead Singapore in this new period of internal self-rule, but it was also significant for another reason: It was the first time voting was made compulsory. 

Nanyang Technological University Assistant Professor Ngoei Wen-Qing told CNA this was the moment “mass politics” reached Singapore.

According to the Chronicle of Singapore, a book put out in association with the National Library Board of Singapore, there were 51 seats on offer in that election, and the PAP contested for them against the likes of the Singapore People’s Alliance (SPA), led by Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Workers’ Party founded by David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister. 

Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his memoir The Singapore Story said the polls closed at 8pm on May 30, and counting of the votes began from 9pm onwards before ending at 2.45am the next morning. 

Ultimately, PAP won 43 of the 51 seats contested, while the SPA won four - including Lim’s successful contest against Marshall in Cairnhill - and UMNO took three. Independent A. P. Rajah took the remaining seat.

“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.” - PAP secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew as quoted in Chronicle of Singapore.

FREEING THE DETAINED 

Immediately after the election victory though, Mr Lee and his colleagues focused on securing the release of eight men associated with the PAP who had been detained under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance Act. This meant that Mr Lee and his cabinet would not be sworn in until Jun 5.

The Chronicle of Singapore records that the eight men were C.V. Devan Nair (Singapore’s third President), Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, S. Woodhull, Chan Thiaw Thor, James Puthucheary, Chan Chong Kin and Chen Say James. 

They were trade union leaders who were among 234 people detained by the Government in 1956 following the Chinese middle school riots. They were eventually released on Jun 4 - 31 months after being detained.

In his memoirs, Mr Lee shared why freeing the eight took precedence over being sworn in: “We had done some hard thinking before the election and concluded that Lim Chin Siong and company must be released from prison before we took office, or we would lose all credibility.”

This was reiterated by Dr Ngoei: “The PAP, going into the 1959 election, pledged that they would get them released. And once they won that election, Lee Kuan Yew delayed taking office in order to get that release … so it’s important for the credibility of the PAP.”

Sir William Goode, the last governor of Singapore who then became its first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State), disagreed with the delay, especially after Lim Yew Hock had resigned as Chief Minister once he knew his party had lost the election. But Mr Lee stood his ground.

Sir William, though, would not wait. He gazetted and brought into force the new constitution on Jun 3, Mr Lee recounted on his memoir.

This was why there was a delay between Singapore being recognised as a state with internal self-rule on Jun 3 and its new leaders being sworn into office on Jun 5. 

Dr Ngoei said this proved to be “good politics” on the part of the PAP.

“It was good politics that the PAP were trying to push for that to separate the release of the detainees as a news event from the constitution being promulgated, and identifying the constitution being promulgated with the will of the people as well as the PAP victory,” he explained.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Kwa Chong Guan went a step further by saying the day was one of those "turning points" that could have resulted in Singapore's political and historical development taking a "rather different turn" if Sir William did not accede to Mr Lee's request. 

“I again countered that we must be sworn in only on Jun 5, after Lim Chin Siong, Fong and the six other pro-communists had not only been released but had duly issued a statement publicly endorsing the non-communist aims of the PAP.

“I wanted that endorsement to get full coverage in the press; we would therefore take office only on the afternoon of Jun 5 so as not to compete with it for the headlines.” - Mr Lee in The Singapore Story

SWORN IN, AT LAST

The PAP formed the first fully-elected government of Singapore and the nine-member Cabinet sworn in on Jun 5:

  • Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister
  • Toh Chin Chye, Deputy Prime Minister
  • Ong Eng Guan, Minister for National Development
  • Goh Keng Swee, Minister for Finance
  • Ong Pang Boon, Minister for Home Affairs
  • K. M. Byrne, Minister for Labour and Law
  • Ahmad Ibrahim, Minister for Health
  • Yong Nyuk Lin, Minister for Education
  • S Rajaratnam, Minister for Culture 

They were sworn in at a closed-door ceremony held at City Hall by Sir William. According to Mr Lee, Sir William arrived at the venue in “nothing more formal than a light fawn suit and tie” while the Cabinet wore “open-necked white shirts and trousers”. 

The chamber for the swearing-in was “bare except for one table and a few chairs”, as there was no time for decorations, he added.

As well as an important step towards full independence, the events of June 1959 also "marks the ascendancy of the PAP into political power in Singapore”, NUS Assoc Prof Lau pointed out.

Celebrations for this pre-independence national day were held from 1960 to 1963, according to the National Library Board.

Source: CNA/kk

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