Thu, Sep 10, 2009
The Straits Times
Did Lee become PM by one vote?

[Photo: The front page of The Straits Times; Mr Lee Kwan Yew, now Minister Mentor, disputes that there was a vote to decide whether he or Mr Ong Eng Guan would become premier, following the PAP's landslide election victory on May 30, 1959.]

THEY were still basking in the euphoria of their electrifying electoral victory on 30 May 1959 when they met in a small room in the law firm of Lee and Lee on Malacca Street sometime in the evening.

The 12 central executive committee (CEC) members of the winning party had to grapple with the all-important question: Who should be prime minister of the new PAP government?

Nothing in the party constitution had stipulated how a prime minister should be picked from the governing body.

No convention had been set as no PAP government had ever been formed.

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» Men in White special

Certainly, there was no assumption that the secretary-general should automatically be the prime minister.

Two names were proposed: secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew and treasurer Ong Eng Guan.

Small slips of white paper were handed to the CEC members to write down their choice in a secret ballot.

When chairman Toh Chin Chye received the votes, he opened and counted them one by one.

There was a hushed silence when he declared six for Lee and six for Ong.

The deadlock could not have been more dramatic.

Then exercising his prerogative as chairman, he used his casting vote to break the tie, and Lee went on to be prime minister and to preside over the miraculous transformation of Singapore for the next 31 years.

References to the vote were never refuted publicly.

In fact, a column on 12 July 1960 by Gordon Hung in The China Mail, which preceded the South China Morning Post, noted Ong's tremendous popularity saying that "the only thing that seemed to stop him from becoming Singapore's first prime minister was the formality of a vote by the central executive committee".

Yak Keow Seng, a former PAP activist and close aide of Ong Eng Guan, remembered the former mayor and minister confiding in him and saying that there was indeed a CEC vote after the elections and that he lost to Lee by one vote.

In what must surely go down as the greatest mystery of the PAP story, Lee said he was completely puzzled by accounts of such a vote.

"I don't remember any such thing. I cannot understand this, that Ong Pang Boon and Toh Chin Chye would say so. If one said so, I can dismiss it, but two said so...

"I led the elections. I crafted the strategy. I made the major campaign speeches. I made the last major broadcast. It was assumed that I would be the leader. I was the man meeting governor William Goode before, during and after the elections, not Ong Eng Guan. I negotiated with him for the release of the detainees, not Ong Eng Guan."

He referred to an exchange of letters between him and Toh published in the press on 19 July 1961.

Following the party defeat in the Anson by-election, Lee had written a letter to the then chairman offering to resign as PM.

In his reply, Toh recalled that the CEC was unanimous in choosing Lee as PM and that it had confidence in him to lead the government and party.

As a British-trained lawyer, Lee said that he was aware of the constitutional position that to be prime minister, you have to be voted by the members of the assembly, not by the party's CEC.

He noted that Ong Eng Guan could not have commanded the support of the majority of the elected representatives in the house.

On the prime minister's post, he added: "It's a job nobody wanted. Who wanted the job? Anybody who took the job knew that he was going to meet the communists and have a lot of trouble. So it was not a job that I sought. If I thought Ong Eng Guan could do the job, I would have happily given it to him."

S. Rajaratnam was certain "there was no voting as there was no need to do so."

Jek Yeun Thong thought likewise.

"The choice of prime minister was obvious. There was no doubt. If there was ever a vote, it must have been held within the inner circle - Lee, Toh and Ong."

The date of the CEC meeting had eluded Ong Pang Boon but he was quite sure that it must have been held sometime before June 1 when governor William Goode summoned Lee and asked him to form a new government.

On 31 May, the day after the polls, a special cadre members' conference was held at the Hokkien Huay Kuan on Telok Ayer Street to elect the sixth CEC.

But Ong believed that it was the fifth CEC elected on 20 October 1957 which met to "settle the premiership".

This CEC, he pointed out, included three former city councillors close to the former mayor and one or two members sympathetic to him.

Of the 12 members of the fifth CEC, seven have died - Goh Chew Chua, S.V. Lingam, Chan Choy Siong, Tann Wee Tiong, Ismail Rahim, Haron Kassim and Ahmad Ibrahim. The remaining five were Lee, Toh, Ong Eng Guan, Ho Puay Choo and Wee Toon Boon.

The latter two claimed they had no recollection.


For more The Straits Times stories, click here.


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