Lee Kuan Yew as the young politician 1949-1965

Lee Kuan Yew as the young politician 1949-1965
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and members of the PAP cabinet photographed outside the City Hall after the swearing-in ceremony on 5 June 1959.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew graduated in 1949 with a rare double first class honours in law from the University of Cambridge. He returned to Singapore to practise law.

His early clients were often trade unions and associations. When the cause was worthy and the clients needy, he waived his fees entirely. This meant he earned considerably less than he could have.

It was in the basement of 38, Oxley Road, that a group of English-educated middle-class friends whom Mr Lee himself called 'beer-swilling bourgeois', gathered in late 1954, usually between 2.30pm and 5.30pm on Saturdays.

Some 20 participants, including the 14 founding members of the People's Action Party (PAP), would engage in heated debates around a long table.

The talks initially revolved around whether the group should form a party of their own or attempt to capture the Labour Party.

On Nov 21, 1954, the group formed the "socialist" PAP with the pro-communist trade unionists.

The formation

The PAP was formed at a time when about 70 per cent of Singapore citizens spoke Chinese languages.

The English-educated group needed the mass support base offered by the unions, while the trade-unionists needed a respectable, non-communist party leadership.

On March 17, 1955, Mr Lee addressed 2,500 people in Tanjong Pagar in English, Malay and Mandarin, refuting rumours that he could not speak Mandarin. Despite being half-an-hour late, he was enthusiastically applauded.

The Singapore leadership

As seen by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, and why he accepted Singapore into Malaysia in September 1963:

Mr David Marshall: "He was not a Chinese, clever and outstanding though he may be as a lawyer and politician. Not being a Chinese, he would not hold power for long in a Chinese-dominated state."

Mr Lim Yew Hock: "Though a Chinese, he had not the strong character or personality which would ensure for himself the support of the Chinese population. So I refused to accept merger with him."

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: "...Came on the scene with his personal dynamism and worked himself into my confidence.

I knew this was the man who could hold power, so I accepted Singapore into Malaysia.

He has held his position and managed Singapore with admirable success. Whatever may be his faults, he had proved himself one of the worthy leaders of South-east Asia."

The split

On July 13, 1961, then-PAP member Lim Chin Siong persuaded eight PAP assemblymen to denounce the party.

On July 20, the PAP called for an emergency Legislative Assembly meeting to debate on the motion of confidence in the Government.

In the vote on the motion taken on July 21, PAP won narrowly with 26 out of the 51 votes.

The crucial 26th vote came from Madam Sahorah Ahmat, who left her sickbed at the Singapore General Hospital to cast her vote.

In July 1961, 13 left-wing PAP members were expelled from the party.

On July 29, they announced the formation of Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) with Dr Lee Siew Choh as the pro tem party chairman.

The party was officially registered on Aug 13 with Dr Lee and Mr Lim Chin Siong as its chairman and secretary-general respectively.

Twenty out of the 25 PAP branch organising secretaries and their committees defected and joined them.

The Singapore Trades Union Congress was split into the National Trades Union Congress, which supported the PAP, and the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (Satu), which supported the Barisan.

The merger

On Sept 16, 1963, which was also the day of Mr Lee's 40th birthday, Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya, along with Sabah and Sarawak, to form Malaysia.

Mr Lee felt that Singapore, which lacked natural resources, and which faced a declining entrepot trade and a growing population that needed jobs, would benefit from the merger.

The break-up

"For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I believed in merger and unity of the two territories.

"Now, I, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf of the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice, and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society."


This article was first published on March 28, 2015.
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