S'pore founding fathers: Dr Toh Chin Chye ensured S'pore flag was all-inclusive

S'pore founding fathers: Dr Toh Chin Chye ensured S'pore flag was all-inclusive
Dr Toh Chin Chye speaking at the Young Historian award organised by Ministry of Education in 1997.

Less than six decades ago, the flag that flew over this nation was the British Union Jack.

Today, it is the crescent and five stars.

But if it weren't for the late Dr Toh Chin Chye, the red-and-white symbols of Singapore may have taken a very different form.

The flag was unveiled on Dec 3, 1959, at the Padang.

It was the result of a two-month design process involving Dr Toh and an artist from the then Ministry of Culture.

Dr Toh took great care to ensure the flag was as inclusive as possible.

In a 1995 interview with The New Paper, he explained that the crescent moon took into account Malay sentiments, since "there are also five stars on the flag of the People's Republic of China".

There was also a need to "remove any apprehension that we were building a Chinese state".

As for the choice of white, he meant for it to symbolise the unity of the different races since the seven colours of the rainbow, when mixed together, produce white.

Fittingly, Dr Toh led the men in white and was the founding chairman of the People's Action Party.

The party came into being on Dr Toh's suggestion.


Back in the 1950s, he was a regular at the hush-hush meetings held in the basement of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road house.

When the group got too big for the basement - which meant they risked being arrested for illegal assembly - Dr Toh suggested registering it as a political party. The rest is history.

For 27 years, from 1954 to 1981, Dr Toh served as the party's chairman.

He steered the PAP through some of its darkest days, including a split in 1961 when the left-wing Barisan Sosialis was formed, the merger with Malaysia in 1963 and the subsequent painful separation in 1965.

After 22 years as a minister, he left the Cabinet in 1981 but continued to be a vocal backbencher.

"In this last term, I hope I will be of public service and not be a wallflower in the chamber of Parliament or a dumb cow," he said before stepping down.

He remained a Member of Parliament until 1988 and during this period, he spoke out against the Government on issues like Central Provident Fund payments, press freedom and killer litter.

He died in 2012 at the age of 90.

In essence, Dr Toh was with the PAP at the start, kept it together, served it faithfully, and then became its most outspoken internal critic.

The late Mr Lee said it best at a valedictory dinner for retiring MPs in 1981: "How can we say, who contributed more? Without Dr Toh holding the fort in the PAP, we might never have held the party together."


Born in Taiping, Perak, the firmly pro-merger Dr Toh had at first refused to accept the 1965 separation. He later called it "the biggest disappointment" of his political career.

He held the distinction of securing one of the slimmest victory margins in Singapore's electoral history. He defeated Barisan Sosialis chief Lee Siew Choh by a mere 89 votes in Rochor in the 1963 general elections.

Dr Toh's love affair with orchids saw him meticulously tending to his landscaped garden after his political retirement. The colour of his beloved orchids: purple and white.

When his wife suffered a stroke, Dr Toh, a physiologist, created a daily exercise regime for her. Thanks to his care, she quickly recovered.

As vice-chancellor of the University of Singapore (the current National University of Singapore) from 1968 to 1975, Dr Toh diverted resources from arts and social sciences to more practical disciplines like engineering, equipping Singapore to take on an industrialised world


Dr Toh was a man with humble beginnings - a hawker's assistant in his teenage years.

But his life was forever changed when he witnessed a starving man die before him.

"(The man) looked worn out. I saw him lie down. I thought he was taking a rest," Dr Toh said.

"The next thing, I saw flies buzzing around him.

"Well, it really struck me. He is a human being! How could we leave him to starve?"

That memory of the hardship ordinary people suffered during the Japanese Occupation lit an unquenchable fire in his belly.

The hawker's assistant eventually rose up the political ladder to become Deputy Prime Minister and a giant of Singapore's history.

This article was first published on May 04, 2015.
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