Singapore Politics - Insights from the Inside

Monday, February 27, 2006 

Part III: Tribute to S. Rajaratnam
The Man Who Gave Singapore an Identity

I didn’t intent to write on S. Rajaratnam this early in the month. The original sequence was to write on the other Old Guards such as Dr Toh and Dr Goh before writing on Raja. However, I thought it is only appropriate that I write an article on Raja now, with his unfortunate passing on Thursday. The unprecedented scale of Raja’s State Funeral Service, is fitting for a man who gave Singapore an identity and a soul. Unlike many of the Old Guards who were born out of “Fire”, baptism of fire through the tumultuous years, Raja had the perfect elements of a Leader. He had the courage of steel, intellect of a sage, indomitable spirit of a lion, passion and energy of an unquenchable fire and more importantly, heart of gold.

In the past week, tributes poured out from all walks of life to Raja and the papers have covered much of his accomplishments. The original article I planned to write on him prior to this passing, cannot never be as detailed or as eloquent as the papers. Nor would my article be as emotionally moving as the eulogies given by people dear to him at the funeral service. But in the course of reading the great achievements of Raja, words can’t really described such leader who practiced what he preached and what he believes in. Ultimately, he believed in treating all humans with intrinsic value and treating each human with respect, equality and love. His infectious smile, articulated use of words and genuine character and personality made him loved by both friends and former adversaries. If Singapore can be depicted as a human, Lee Kuan Yew gave it a heart and mind, Dr Toh Chin Chye gave it a skeleton, Dr Goh Keng Swee gave it flesh and blood, but Rajaratnam gave Singapore the most important element: a soul. Indeed, he brought soul into the society and the government. In every policy that Raja was involved in, the human element was put in first priority and central to it. When many politicians landed up serving power when entering politics, his brand of politics always served people; never to power, fame or glory but just people and Singaporeans.

His contributions to ASEAN, foreign policies, domestic policies, culture and identity was well covered in the local papers. “The man who penned our pledge” and “the man who put Singapore in the world map” are apt titles for his achievements. But for many youths, they may never know or have the privilege meeting the real Rajaratnam. In the modern Singapore, many youngsters were guilty of forgetting our past and indulge in material wealth. History, is no doubt crucial, but is also and will be boring to many.

Once, someone asked me whether it will be a pity if youngsters do not understand our past. I said yes, indeed but it is not because we lack history books or educational materials of our political past. Ultimately, history itself is not “attractive”, “marketable”, “sensational” enough for the young ones to read it. History is and will be boring to most. Give them a choice of two books, Leaders of Singapore and DaVinci Code, which will they choose? I think the answer is obvious to most youth. The crux of the issue is that youths are not interested in political ownership and learning the history, more so when it is on Singapore. Simply because there are more entertaining and more fun things to do. I wouldn't say it is the PAP government’s fault for this sad societal problem but it is the mark of an economically successful country. We lacked ownership and patriotism not because there isn’t Singapore identity or that we don’t have a history. Raja and the Old Guards gave us one, just that we chose not to believe or we are blinded by the material aspect of the real world that we are Singapore Singaporeans. In this aspect, I think Raja epitomizes the term “Singapore Singaporean”.

I was very lucky to be able to meet him once at an event couple of years back. Not many 25 year olds can be as blessed as me to get this chance. I didn’t know he was Rajaratnam, but only informed that he was one of the ex-MP. He was frail, old man who needed assistance to stand and walk. Later, I informed that during then, he was struck with dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease which robbed him of his precious memories. But the Raja that I met, was still the friendly, courteous gentleman that many personal friends who knew him as. Inherently, he was a wonderful and kind man. I was just an usher, a young man and a stranger. But he was still courteous and thanked me and my friends for every moment we assisted him.

This article will not list his every achievements or historical moments as I originally intended it to be. But instead, for those who didn’t have the privilege of meeting him in person, this article will just focus on some excerpts from the conversations with Rajaratnam published in Melanie Chew’s Leaders of Singapore.

QN: How did you meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew?

RAJA: I was working as a journalist. He organized the Postmen’s strike. He used the civil servants, the workers, to embarrass David Marshall. And of course that upset David Marshall no end.

I didn’t know him then. I was editor and columnist for the Singapore Standard. It was a paper sponsored by Aw Boon Haw… (Raja spoke about the story of Aw Boon Haw and Lee Kong Chian)

As that time, there was Lim Yew Hock and David Marshall. David Marshall was a one-man show. He was running the thing. We never agreed, we always were clashing with him. He disagreed with our approach to politics.

But he was a colourful figure. He was like another Messiah. He had a flat in North Bridge Road, where we first encountered him. You see, we were thinking of forming a party, but we had not yet declared ourselves PAP. So David Marshall said, “Come and join me.” He respected us, not Lim Yew Hock, Ong Eng Guan and so on. So he said, “You must come and join me. I’ll lead you!”

And so he gave us a dinner, one of the most lavish dinners. He was a very generous man. There were lots of goodies to eat. Very expensive red wines! We were eating and he tried to persuade us to join his party which was called the Labour Front. And we enjoyed ourselves, took advantage of his lavish dinner, very expensive dinner, and then we started explaining very bluntly why we couldn’t join the Labour Front.

Jokingly, we said, “Because Lee Kuan Yew is a lawyer and David Marshall is also a lawyer. But a different type of lawyer.” That irritated David Marshall, and he just said, “I don’t want to talk to you people, I’m going hone.” And he stepped out, got into his car and never turned back. And we looked at each other, Kuan Yew, and myself, and said, well, since the dinner is here, let us enjoy it! Red wine was there, and we got soaked!

QN: At that point you said there was no point to join the Labour Party, and you had to start your own. Why did you have this idea?

RAJA: Because we decided that we as Singaporeans must run Singapore, not anybody else. So we fought the imperialists, who ran Singapore as a colony. At that time we were thinking of running the whole of Malaya, Malaysia, and we brought together a very odd number of people: Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Kenny Byrne, myself, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pan Boon, Yong Nyuk Lin, these are the first batch of the PAP.

QN: How would you characterize Lee Kuan Yew?

RAJA: Kuan Yew was really the leader. He’s the number one. So he was leading the group as a whole. Keng Swee was more of the civil servant, and I, the ideas man. And that’s how we all got started.

QN: Have you ever disagreed with Lee Kuan Yew?


QN: Does everyone defer to him?

They may defer to him, yes. But he knows at the same time that we are speaking openly. Even at the party conference, we speak openly. We are critical of him!

QN: And how does he react?

He says, “Yes, you disagree with me. But nevertheless, I believe in what I believe.”

QN: Do you remember the start of the PAP in 1954?

Yes! The first meeting was in Victoria Concert Hall. I was already in the Straits Times, on the editorial staff, so I could not get involved. The Straits Times was run by Englishmen, by a man called Simmons.

And there was a man called Samad who was a Malay, in Utusan Melayu. So he also a Leftist. He felt a bit uneasy that the Chinese-speaking were not included in the installation of PAP. So Samad Ismail said, “Look, I’m a Malay. But I am a Leftist, so I can join. But we need some Chinese speakers.” So we got Fong Swee Suan. He was a trade unionist. He was involved in bus strikes and so on. He was dialect speaking, Chinese speaking. Lim Chin Siong was not brought in because he was very Leftist.

QN: Did he feel that in order to win power, you had to attract the Chinese speaking masses?

There was the belief. That was what Kuan Yew believed. He started studying his Mandarin! For he is a Baba Chinese, speaking only Malay and English. But when he went into politics he spent a lot of time learning Chinese. Ong Eng Guan was a very fluent, charismatic Hokkien speaker. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t know how to hit back. So he started studying Hokkien to hit back at Ong Eng Guan.

QN: It must have been very difficult for you as a Ceylonese Malayan. The masses in Singapore were Chinese. Did you worry about Singapore becoming a Chinese State?

That’s why I believed in multi-racial democracy.

When you say the Chinese masses as a whole, well, they are not interested in politics. They are interested in making money. The pro-Communist Chinese were active because they had no share in the establishment. Some of them ended in jail. The chaps who were resentful of the PAP were the monied classes, the businessmen. They were frightened of the PAP! Some of them left Singapore in 1959, when we formed the government.

Some of the businessmen, you even hear of it happening now. When Keng Swee was here, the first thing he did was to build homes for the masses. Flats. No posh flats. High rise buildings. But the chaps who were making money were the bankers, businessmen. Even when I went there, they would greet me and give me garlands and so on, and then ask me for a piece of land. So Keng Swee turned it down. This land is valuable estate! And he started building high rise flats. So many Chinese, workers, shopkeepers, and so on, are all house owning, even my chauffeur. He has a flat. Everyone has a home.

QN: If we are to have a political theory to say that the strong man, the strong leader is the best form of government, then, it begs the question, how is this strong leader to be selected? And who is going to control him?

There is a difference between me and Kuan Yew. He was not all that keen on democracy, “one man one vote.” I always believed that every one should be allowed to vote. This was an important difference. Goh Keng Swee had a different approach. He was a civil servant. We must have a very strong civil service. And we can dominate by running the civil service, and there is fair play all round.

I believe in democracy. Here, Kuan Yew and I don’t agree. He says, “You are very naïve. You don’t understand. One man, one vote won’t work.” Recently, he said there should be two votes for every educated man.

QN: This is quite a great difference. But you defer to him.

I express my views. Every citizen has the right to vote. Lee Kuan Yew says that you cannot trust democracy. I believe you can and you must.

And Lee had this belief in IQ. Some are born with high IQ and some with low IQ. I remember once arguing with him. I said, “What is IQ based on?” I still have the book, Not In Your Genes. It makes this point: you can take the blood of any person, Chinese or Indian. Can the blood tell the IQ? No! It’s impossible. It’s not genetic.

QN: Can I ask you about Malaysia?


I was one of those who disagreed with Goh Keng Swee and Lee Kuan Yew. You see, we wanted a merger. At the time, Malaysia was formed. We wanted to form a common market. And one of the things we were very critical about, we didn’t want to have racial politics. In Malaysia, then was the Tengku, who was a very nice man. His politics were not that complicated. Taw Siew Sin was hostile to the idea, because he said that if the PAP gets into Malaysia, his own party the MCA will no longer be masters. But Tengku said, “Oh, let’s form,” so we had this referendum, and we won and merged with Sabah, Sarawak and the Federation of Malaya.

But as it went on, the Malays, Syed Albar and all those, were playing the Malay line, religion and so on, and there were two riots in Singapore in which chaps were slashed and killed. When these race riots started, we knew that if we carried on, Singapore is such a small island, and Communists were still active, very active. But we had riots, and Kuan Yew said, “OK, we’ll separate.”

QN: Whose idea was it to separate?

Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee had the idea. I disagreed. I was for merger. I said, “It doesn’t matter. Carry on.” That was where Kuan Yew and I disagreed.

QN: You wanted to try to resolve the disputes within Malaysia?

Yes, because I believed in a multi-racial society. The Malaysians said, “get rid of the PAP.” And we separated. So we were on our own. Without resources. No Water. And Kuan Yew said. “This must work!” An independent Singapore. You must make it work. That was the reason why he was prepared to take some very tough measures.

QN: How did you feel at the time of separation?


Separation, to me, was the crushing of my dreams. I believed in one nation, regardless of race and religion. My dreams were shattered.

That’s why Kuan Yew came, and he scolded me. He said, “You don’t understand. We are going to run this place.” You know? And Keng Swee too. He was also strong, determined. He said, “Let’s build flats!”

To me, it was also my family. They were from Malaysia. My brother, my father, were all from Malaysia. So to me it was separation from kith and kin. It has nothing to do with race. When I was still in the Malaysian parliament, I used to go to Seremban once in every two months. I would go there, and enjoy being with my family: my father, mother, nieces, nephews and so on.

QN: You didn’t feel that you should remain in Malaysia?

No. I would be betraying something which I believed in. I believed in multi-racial democracy. And Singapore. I could have gone back to Seremban. But to me, politics is the essences of everything. It would have been betraying my political ideals.

QN: The Old Guards seem very close. Did you all work well together?

Yes, we worked well together right up to the time when we were getting older, and it was said, “We wanted new blood.” So that was why we got Goh Chok Tong and people like that. They came in. They were not politicians at all. Goh Chok Tong was from Neptune Orient Lines.

I had heart problems. So they had to do an operation. Lee Kuan Yew told me, “Raja, don’t strain yourself. I don’t mind you holding office, getting paid for it.” So I said, “OK, what do you want me to do?” Because I had already become Foreign Minister, traveling around, which I enjoyed very much. So he said, “Well, what do you want to call yourself?” I said, “Call me Senior Minister. Number One amongst equals.” So when he was Prime Minister, I was Senior Minister. And he followed me. So that’s how it started. We all step down in favour of others.

It also included Keng Swee. But he does not want to be subordinate. So he was in various posts, holding no office, in the Institute of East Asian Political Economy. Just like I was in Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Both of us said we wanted to be on our own.

QN: How did you pick the second generation of leaders?

We interviewed them. It took one whole year. We spent a whole year, drilling them, questioning them, making sure that they were not opportunists.

QN: What is Lee Kuan Yew’s vision?

He believes that he must have a team of honest people. There were one or two cases where they were not honest, and we had to get rid of them, sack them. Lee Kuan Yew is not a tyrant in that he just enjoys pushing people around! He wants to select, train new people. He knows he cannot live forever. So we are getting Goh Chok Tong and others to come in, and we are training them.

Chok Tong is an honest man. This is my assessment: “He is very sharp, a good listener, listens to the voice of the people. But he does not believe in the infallibility of the people. Unlike Lee, he smiles, even when he is angry. He has a good grasp of the problems facing Singapore. He does not believe in political dominance.”

Lee Kuan Yew is a dominant man. But Chok Tong believes in consensus. Once he’s decided, that’s it. There was little tiff between him and his son, you know. Because Lee Kuan Yew said, “If anyone stops my way, it doesn’t matter who he is, I’ll push him away.” For the first time the son was being different. And Lee Kuan Yew said, “No if anyone stands in my way I’ll just push through.” So while Lee Kuan Yew is alive, he’ll be dominant.

QN: What is his vision?

HE knows that we can’t live forever. His dream is to leave behind a reputation. So that even when he passes away, that Singapore will remember him. That this is the man we wanted in Singapore. I don’t think that exactly what he wrote, but that is how he reflected himself, project himself.

QN: But it must be difficult for the second generation…

Yes, I think so. Lee Kuan Yew doesn’t say it but I know. He thinks Goh Chok Tong should be trained – must be trained to be tough. Tough like Lee himself.

QN: Can one be trained to be tough? Or is it a natural trait?

Well, he wants it. He knows that we are getting older and older, and must step down. Ong Pang Boon, Yong Nyuk Lin, Toh Chin Chye, they all stepped down. I stepped down, though I still associate with him. We may disagree. But we agree that if Goh Chok Tong doesn’t have the strong will like Kuan Yew had, he may have problems.

QN: When you observe our country, our people, is there anything which worries you?

The big problem is that life is becoming comfortable for many Singaporeans. People are becoming used to comforts. They want cars. Many of them – Lee Boon Yang is mentioning this – want good things of life. Well I don’t blame them. This is part of what I said before, “moneytheism.” the worship of money. This will be one of the vulnerable points of the Singaporean.

QN: How can we always afford to give people the best? And is it healthy for them to have the best?

Yes, that is a contradiction in concepts. How can we give the best, the good things of life? How do you reconcile between giving people good things and yet making them undergo hardship as a price? I have not been able to find an answer for this yet.

QN: If you can’t reconcile this, maybe then Lee Kuan Yew is correct, that you can’t have democracy.

He may be correct. But intellectually and emotionally, I can’t accept it. But Kuan Yew is tough enough to say, “It will be that way. It must be that way.”

QN: That’s why you are the philosopher of the Old Guards?

Lee Kuan Yew knows what I am talking about, but he doesn’t want to concede. He believes that if there are more Lee Kuan Yew’s, this place will hum.

QN: But it is difficult for others to be like him.

That is the problem he has. That he has discussed with us, and as the result, he became Senior Minister. Not the Prime Minister. He wanted to test them, to make them go through this shock period. But not a shock where they become vulnerable. He’s like a father, trying to bring up his children, to make them strong.

QN: Do you think that the reason why all of your generation was so strong is because you had this struggle with the British, the Communists, and underwent hardship? And that is what made you Leaders. Whereas now, we don’t have any such…

Yes, but you can’t repeat circumstances twice. You can’t. I studied in Catholic school, and got a distinction in Religious Knowledge. And I always mention this story about Moses. The chosen people were subject to the tyranny of the Egyptians. So Moses came and he said, “Israelites must be liberated.” And he took them and the first thing they did, they went into their desert, to have a golden calf, to celebrate their wealth. Moses said, “This is terrible.” And he made them wander through the desert for 10 years, made them go through the most difficult times! It was just next door! But he took them through the desert for 30 years, 40 years, to train them to be tough.

And that’s how the Israelites survived. Lee Kuan Yew wants Singaporeans to be tough. He also wants them to go through the desert. The hardship.

QN: But we live in a Garden of Eden

That’s the problem.

Source: Melanie Chew’s Leaders of Singapore (1996). For the full text interview, please refer to the book which is available at the National Library and all major bookstore. Photos are from National Archive public domain. Not for reproduction.

Fittingly, and in memory of S. Rajaratnam, allow me to end with excerpts from MM Lee Kuan Yew’s Eulogy to Rajaratnam:

“With his passing, Singaporeans have lost a patriot, a man of deep conviction and principle. His contribution was not in bricks and mortar, or concrete and glass, but in ideas, sentiments and spirit. Everyday when the pledge is recited in our schools, our children are reminded to live up to our aspirations as Raja expressed them.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2006 

Tribute to S. Rajaratnam


When I was typing the article on Dr Toh Chin Chye (below), I suddenly thought about Rajaratnam. I didn't know of his passing during then but his image just flashed across my mind. I met him once about two years ago ushering at a conference. He was frail old man with the walking stick. I didn't know he was Rajaratnam, but just occured to me as a gentle old man, with a permanent smile on his face and thank us for helping him to his seat. Upon the arrival of the Ministers, he waved his flag enthusiastically. Later, learning about his great achievements he did for Singapore, it was even more admiring to know that he was such a humble and sincere man. As a Foreign Minister, he put Singapore on the world map and made ASEAN to what it is today. As a Culture Minister, the racial harmony and integration attest to his great efforts. As a Singaporean, he touched the lives of ordinary folks and constantly brought consciousness into the government.

On 25 February 1990, Mr Rajaratnam said: "Certainly all of us who went into politics believed in it that we can create a Singapore where race, religion, language does not matter. What matters is that we are one people and if you know there's a song we have. It goes something like, "We are Singapore and these are my friends." - This is why I am here tonight." The pledge we take was compose, not by Rajaratnam's words but by his heart. He truly believed in one Singapore and we should too.


Part II: True Founders of Singapore
The Man Who Made PAP & The Man Who Made Singapore:
Story of Dr Toh Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee

For the past month, I was pleasantly surprised by the word of encourage and the positive feedback on the Part I: History and Founding of PAP. I thank all comments and emails that I have received and glad that you all found it interesting. History, to most students, is never as exciting when in the syllabus. In the end, history covers only winners from battles and is told by those won it. But if history has a life of its own, it might be told from a different perspective, a perspective that I hope to tell.

I was sitting in a bus yesterday, reading some printed articles on Dr Toh Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee (I’m probably the only blogger that does his “homework”) before writing this article, when I saw a secondary school girl holding a History textbook on the founding of Singapore. I wonder to myself, how different is the textbook (portraying the glorified history of PAP) and how much it differs from reality? Would the textbook ever said about the “Man Who Made PAP: Dr Toh Chin Chye” or the “Man Who Made Singapore: Dr Goh Keng Swee”? In the end, textbooks are made to be student-friendly and revolve around one leader and one story from one perspective. In rewriting this history, I hope to “popularize” history via the medium of blogs, not to increase the traffic flow of this blog but to tell a more complete history. So, I’ll do my research and lengthy readings in hopes that people would read the forgotten history of us.

Dr Toh Chin Chye: The Man Who Made PAP
How can we say, who contributed more? Without Dr Toh holding the fort in the PAP, we might never have held the Party together.”
Lee Kuan Yew, Valedictory Dinner, 22 August 1981.

Dr Toh was the founding Chairman of the PAP in 1954. In 1959, he was the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore and then in 1968, Minister of Science and Technology, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Singapore, and in 1976, Minister for Health and Education. He left the Cabinet in 1980 but remained as the MP for Rochore. He was a vocal backbencher until 1988, when he retired from politics.

To many Singaporeans, either they have never heard of Dr Toh Chin Chye or only remembered his as one of the Deputy Ministers to Lee Kuan Yew. While the Party was in turmoil, Dr Toh held the PAP together. In two occasions, then-PM Lee Kuan Yew offered his resignation and Dr Toh could have chance upon it and made himself the Prime Minister. For the better good and stability of the Party and Singapore, Dr Toh rejected the proposal and threw his support behind Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore’s success is NEVER and NOT by chance or the miracles of one man. It is the sweat, blood and effort of talent men, like Dr Toh and Dr Goh, who served and toiled for Singapore not for their own fame and fortune but for Singaporeans.

Humble Beginnings of the Indomitable Fighter
Dr Toh was born in Batu Gajah, near Taiping, Perak in 1921. Like the best and brightest of his generation, he pursued his studies at Raffles College, Singapore. He was Lee Kuan Yew’s senior but they never knew each other then. Before he could further his studies overseas, the Japanese war broke out. During this period, Dr Toh first became a hawker assistant and grew potatoes and tapioca for his own survival. The Japanese Occupation changed his perspective, political outlook and was awakened to the injustice of colonial society.

While in London as a student from 1949 to 1953, he led the anti-colonial group of Malayan students known as Malayan Forum. The Forum provided a place for native nationalists to debate and to examine the future of Malaya. Before returning to Singapore, Goh Keng Swee, the then chairman of the Forum, nominated Toh to succeed him.

In his early years, he was very much a socialist and close friend of Dr Goh Keng Swee during his days in London. Together, they took up the political cause and came back to Singapore in 1953. Later, Dr Goh, Kenny Byrne and Dr Toh formed the Council for Joint Action with Lee Kuan Yew as the legal advisor. That was how LKY got involved in union politics. During then, LKY was also the legal advisor to Samad Ismail (editor of Utusan Melayu and ex-detainee), Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair. The few of them would always meet in the “basement” of LKY’s house but with special attention from the “Special Branch” (old version of ISD), they would always be watched and risk being detained without trial. Toh did not belong to the first wave of founding members who met at LKY’s house; he was still in England when the “basement group” first met. However, after Dr Toh joined the group, it was Dr Toh who proposed the formation of an open and legal political party to champion the cause of nationalism and independence of Malaya.

Founding of PAP
Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened to our basement group had I not pushed for it to register as a political party. What is I had not come back to Singapore? You know, in 1953, I was advised to go to USA to continue my research. If I had gone that route, would anyone have started the PAP? Would the basement crowd have remained in Kuan Yew’s house? Would it have come together at all?” – Dr Toh Chin Chye.

To avoid complications such as being arrested by the Special Branch they formed a political party and registering as a society. Initially, the “Action Party” was coined and later, they added the word “People” into it. The word “Action” reminded Dr Toh of a lightning symbol and with other suggestions thrown in; the famous logo of PAP was born.

The “Chairman”

With the formation of the PAP, Dr Toh was appointed Chairman of the Party. During the 1950s, as the Chairman of the PAP, he led the PAP during its critical internal struggles between Left and Right. In 1957, the “communist (subjective on whether they are communist or not)” have taken over the Central Executive Committee. Dr Toh, Dr Goh and LKY lost control over the party. The old party constitutions provided for an Annual Congress, where every party member could attend the meeting and speak up, as well as vote for the CEC. At the Badminton Hall, where the Annual Congress was held, the place was filled with all sorts of people: Left Wing unionist, maybe people from the Special Branch and even Devan Nair’s sister was there.

After the Congress, Dr Toh asked LKY and Ong Pang Boon to stay behind and said, “We must have a cadres system. We cannot go on admitting people as ordinary members who can overthrow the CEC just like that!” In the end, T.T. Rajah took over as Party Secretary-General and his Left Wing crowd took over the whole CEC. But after then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock clamed down on the riots and communist, many of them were under detention under the Emergency regulations and Dr Toh and LKY took over the party. Then, they brought in the Cadres system, system which the PAP adopts even until today.

Unquestioned Loyalty to LKY
When PAP won the elections in 1959, it did not mean that Lee Kuan Yew, PAP Secretary-General would be automatically become the Prime Minister. There were two candidates for that post: Ong Eng Guan, the popular and charismatic mayor of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP’s CEC held a vote to pick its Prime Minister, but there was an even split and thus a deadlock. Toh, as Chairman, held the casting vote, threw his support behind LKY and broke the impasse. If Toh has voted differently, LKY would not have become PM in 1959 and the history of Singapore and Malaysia would have turned out very differently.

In 1961, PAP suffered a traumatic party split. On June 1961, Lim Chin Siong wrote to Dr Toh, demanding the release of their Left Wing political colleagues. PAP could not agree to this with their prior agreements with the British. The beginning of the split between Left and Right was the Anson By-elections on July 1961. The Left demanded “internal democracy in the PAP” and the release of all political prisoners from detention. They were refused. The Left then threw their support to the rival candidate, David Marshall and he won.

The final split came just few days later in the Legislative Assembly. Thirteen Left Wing PAP Assemblymen abstained from voting with the party line. They were dismissed from the PAP. In August 1961, they formed a rival party, the Barisan Sosialis, led by Dr Lee Siew Choh and Lim Chin Siong. They took 35 branch committees, 19 of the 23 organizing secretaries and an estimated 80 percent of the membership. PAP under LKY was a mere shell, according to Dr Lee. Both Dr Goh Keng Swee and Lee Kuan Yew were devastated and thought that it is the end of the PAP. But on man never gave up the fight as Dr Goh recalled the following conversation with Toh Chin Chye:

Toh: Why are you staring at the ceiling?
Goh: Do sit down, Chin Chye, we are all busted; the party secretaries, the PA (People’s Association), the organizing secretaries, the Work Brigade. I know the communists were organizationally much stronger than us. But I didn’t expect us smashed up like this in just a week.
Toh: I just come from Harry’s office. He was staring at the ceiling just like you did. You should snap out of this mood. The fighting has just begun. It is going to be long and nasty. But if we keep wringing our hands in anguish we are sure to lose. We should start thinking immediately of our next moves – how to rebuild the Party, rally the loyal Party members and how to carry the fight into the enemy camp.

A fight that Dr Toh would not shy away from, Dr Toh chose the most difficult of constituencies to contest and fought head on. In September 1963, he presided over the PAP’s historic election victory over the breakaway Barisan Sosialis. Rather than opting for a safer seat, Dr Toh chose to stand in Rochore constituency, a tough Chinese working-class area and a natural constituency for the Left-wing Barisan Sosialist Party. To add to his challenge, he was to face a formidable opponent, the Chairman of Barisan Sosialist, Dr Lee Siew Choh. In the hotly contested electoral battle, Dr Toh defeated the Chairman of Barisan Sosialist, Dr Lee Siew Choh, by the slimmest Election margin of just 89 votes.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Resignation
On at least two occasions, Toh Chin Chye’s name was floated as an alternative Prime Minister to LKY. In 1961, they lost two successive by-elections to Ong Eng Guan and David Marshall. On 17 July 1961, Lee Kuan Yew wrote a letter to Dr Toh, Chairman of the CEC. He wrote that the trade unions, the Middle Road Crowd wanted him to resign and they wanted Dr Toh to take over as the Prime Minister. Dr Toh read the letter to all the Cabinet Ministers and CEC members during a Cabinet meeting. All who were present were stunned. Yong Nyuk Lin asked Dr Toh, “Should we accept his resignation?” Dr Toh replied, “No,” because it will divide the government and it will appear to the people of Singapore that they are being unsteady. So they declined the resignation. Dr Toh could very well make himself as the Prime Minister, but he didn’t.

In 1964, in the aftermath of race riots in Singapore and Malaysia, LKY offered again to resign as PM in an attempt to ease the strained relations between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. In the wake of certain extremist demands from UMNO (United Malays National Organization) to arrest LKY for the ostensible reason of preventing him from causing more political and ethnic tension within Malaysia, Dr Toh and his comrades stood by LKY. If LKY was arrested and detained without trial, Dr Toh or Dr Goh might have been the next logical choice to become PM of Singapore. Dr Toh’s support and ability to rally members behind LKY probably prevented the Malaysian government from arresting LKY.

Singapore’s Separation From Toh Chin Chye’s Perspective
By 1964 and 1965, tension between Malaysia and Singapore was mounting but both Dr Toh and S. Rajaratnam opposed the separation. Apparently, LKY anticipated Toh and Raja’s reluctance to sign the separation agreement and did not inform them of the discussion of Singapore’s secession in K.L. According to Dr Toh, LKY ensured that Rajaratnam and he did not travel together from Singapore to see him in K.L. This was a shrewd move to make sure that the men would not collude to reject separation.

In the middle of the night of 20th July 1965, LKY called Dr Toh and asked him to drive to K.L. When he was in Sri Temasek, K.L., LKY told him of the news and was later joined by Rajaratnam and Ong Pang Boon. Dr Toh stayed behind in K.L. while LKY returned to Singapore to announce to the public. LKY asked Dr Toh to attend the Malaysian Parliament the next day. It was an unenviable task to face the uproar by the members of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention (a coalition of opposition parties formed by Dr Toh to compete the Elections in Malaysia for a “Malaysian Malaysia” – equal rights regardless of ethnicity). With LKY devastated over the separation and tearing on national television (and later seek solace in Changi Villa), Dr Toh and other Minister held the fort. Opposition members demanded Dr Toh for a parliament seating but was only able to recommence on December 1965. The crucial stabilizing role that Dr Toh played after the separation could not be under-estimated.

The Iron Chancellor and Nation Builder
After Singapore’s independence in 1965, Dr Toh was DPM, Minister for Science and Technology, and Minister for Health. He chaired the Singapore Polytechnic and was Vice-Chancellor (VC) for the new University of Singapore (SU). Many had underestimated his role as the Vice Chancellor of SU. In many underdeveloped countries like Singapore, they faced the same problem of managing conflicting goals of promoting education in universities yet managing social unrest and instability caused by student leaders in these universities. Thus, Dr Toh’s appointment as VC was crucial to maintain political stability.

At SU, the VC quickly acquired a reputation of being a ruthless autocrat. This was largely due to his single-mindedness in attaining his academic reforms and furthering national goals of economic development. The amount of work which Dr Toh did, and the decisive and speedy way in which he did it, can only be described as Napoleonic. He inspected every division of the campus with an eye to efficiency and productivity. He had a strategic plan, which was to bring all the divisions he dealt with together in a totally new and spaciously adequate campus (Kent Ridge, present day NUS Campus). Dr Toh believed that, was he not autocratic, things would never get done and the university would never have been reformed.

Iron Fist against Student Riots
Despite Toh’s reputation as a tough VC, he had problems with radical students at SU. In 1974, the campus was rocked by student unrest. This took place just before Tan Wah Piow, the president of University of Singapore Students’ Union (USSU), was to appear in a district court on charges of rioting. In December that year, immigration officers accompanied by riot police conducted a pre-dawn raid at the university campus in Bukit Timah Road. They caught and deported six students who were active in the USSU.

The detentions triggered off student protests, boycott of lectures and approximately 2000 students, out of a total of 7500 enrolment, turned up for a two-hour student rally against the arrest. This was the largest student demonstration in Singapore’s history. However, Toh avoided further punitive action against the dissenters and simply allowed the protests to peter out.

Nonetheless, the contribution by Dr Toh to the tertiary education was significant and positive. He set in place a university that contributes rather than hinders Singapore’s growth. Today, the shape and success of NUS and NTU bears Dr Toh’s imprints.

No “Dumb Cow”: Dr Toh the Vocal Backbencher
After leaving the Cabinet under the LKY’s renewal and infusion of new blood policy, Dr Toh became a PAP backbencher (meaning he step down as a Minister to become only a Member of Parliament). Dr Toh was openly critical of certain public policies which he deemed to be unsound and later, became one of the most vocal and critical MP against the PAP. Many suggested that his critical stance towards the ruling party was a case of “sour grapes” from losing his position as a Minister as well as unceremonious exit but this argument was unfounded. In fact, when he was in Cabinet, LKY identified Dr Toh as a Minister who sometimes would disagree with him over the matters of principles and policies. In the old political saying, “you are where you sit” and as a backbencher, Dr Toh felt that he was no longer constrained by the principle of collective responsibility as a Cabinet Minister is expected to defend. Rather, he chose to exercise the responsibility of a backbencher to question policies that he considers faulty. He famously said, “In this last term, I hope I will be of public service and not a wallflower in the chamber of parliament of a dumb cow.

One reason for his confidence in speaking against the government was his solid bastion in Rochore constituency. Some speculated that he might quit the PAP and run as an independent candidate (for which he stands a high chance of winning his ward), but we would never know and he would never had that chance. In 1988, Rochore Constituency disappeared from the political map after the redrawing of electoral boundaries.

Final Message to the Singaporean Youths
In a rare public interview in 1997 Radio Corporation of Singapore, Dr Toh passionately bemoaned the lack of idealism and creativity among the young and its implications for the future of Singapore. He said:

“I would say the generation of the ‘50s and ‘60s took the plunge into politics without ever calculating the costs of the risk and the benefits to be gained. They were driven by ideology. Today’s generation has no culture and averse to taking political risk. Really, an interest in politics is very necessary for the future. But I cannot blame the present generations, because they see the heavy-handed response by the government to dissenting views, even though they know that these matters involve their daily lives.

So the result is that we have produced a younger generation who are meek and therefore very calculating. They are less independent-thinking and lack in initiative. It does not bode well for the emergence of future leaders in politics and business. Robots and computers can be programmed or if you like, can be trained. But the trouble, of course, is that computers lack soul and what we need in Singapore is soul. Because it is soul that makes society.”

His words are aptly prophetic to our present society. Are we a soulless society? Maybe we are, but it is heartening to see great men like Dr Toh Chin Chye made passionate dreams for Singapore. Both in the development and building of modern Singapore, Dr Toh was instrumental in making the Singapore we know today. Dr Toh is truly one of the founders of Singapore.

If you ever had the patience to read this final sentence, you would guess that this article is too lengthy to include the story on Dr Goh Keng Swee. Thus, I would write it separately in the later weeks.

Source: Leaders of Singapore, by Melanie Chew (1996) and Lee's Lieutenants : Singapore Old Guard: by ER Lam Peng (2000) . Photos are available at National Archives, public domain. Not for reproduction.

Friday, February 17, 2006 

Fewer Walkovers Better for Ruling Party?

This is quite an interesting article from today's Straits Times at the Commentary section on Elections. By the way, there are some new polls out on the sidebar on the right side of the webpage. Feel free to participate in it.

"Will your constituency be contested or will there be a walkover?" This is the question on many Singaporeans' minds. Many who have never voted because their constituencies were not contested in the past are hopeful of finally being able to vote.

This is because the opposition parties have declared that they intend to contest in many wards. If you believe all they have said to the media, the picture you get is this: The major opposition parties will contest in all nine single-seat wards and at least six group representation constituencies (GRCs), possibly seven or more. They have also agreed to avoid three-cornered fights.

The Workers' Party is apparently eyeing Aljunied and East Coast, and possibly Sembawang, all GRCs. The Singapore Democratic Alliance is said to be considering at least two GRCs, including Jalan Besar. The Singapore Democratic Party said it intends to contest in at least one GRC and some single-seat wards. The Democratic Progressive Party also said it is eyeing at least one GRC 'somewhere in the east'. Add up the numbers and at least six, possibly seven or more, GRCs may be contested. The difference between six and seven is a wealth of difference.

If the opposition sticks to six five-member GRCs and the nine single-seat wards, it will field 39 candidates, which is just below half of the 84 seats under existing boundaries. That will return the People's Action Party to power on Nomination Day. If the opposition goes for one more GRC, it will contest in more than half the seats, and the PAP will not be returned to power on Nomination Day. If the opposition does indeed contest in more than half the wards available, this will be a departure from the past two general elections (GEs), when the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day as the opposition contested fewer than half the seats.

In fact, over the past four GEs, progressively fewer seats were contested and there were more walkovers. In the past four GEs, in 1988, 1991, 1997 and 2001, the number of walkovers went up: from 11, to 41, 47 and then 55.

In GE 2006, if the opposition contests in all nine single-seat wards and at least seven GRCs, then the number of walkovers could be reduced to just below half the total number of seats, depriving the PAP of being returned to power on Nomination Day. (All this is, of course, based on the current state of constituencies. The electoral boundaries report due to be out soon will change the calculation somewhat, although the implications of contesting more than half the seats remain.)

If the opposition does contest in more than half the seats, as it has suggested it may, does it matter? And what does it mean to the PAP and the opposition? For the opposition, contesting more wards risks spreading its already thin resources, but will give its many new recruits useful exposure and experience. It could also raise the image of the opposition, signalling its coming of age and readiness to take on the Government as an alternative, rather than remain bit players on the fringe. However, the opposition will have to weigh the potential benefits of an all-out onslaught against the impact that more contests will have on the PAP.

The PAP usually performs better in GRCs than in single-seat wards. So if the opposition contests in more GRCs, the net result is likely to be a rise in the PAP's share of votes overall. Contesting more than half the seats also deprives the opposition of the so-called by-election effect strategy - the brainchild of veteran opposition MP Chiam See Tong in 1991 - which refers to the strategy of contesting fewer than half the seats and returning the PAP to power on Nomination Day.

The reasoning is that with the PAP back in government, Singapore voters will feel freer to vote for the opposition as there will be no fear that an untested opposition might inadvertently come to power. The last three GEs, which all returned the PAP to power on Nomination Day, were premised partly on that calculation. However, it is debatable if the by-election effect strategy has as much resonance today as in the 1990s. And as the results showed, the strategy did not raise the opposition's vote share. On the contrary, it went down from 39 per cent in 1991, to 35 per cent in 1997 and 25 per cent in 2001.

A younger crop of opposition strategists may prefer to go for more contest rather than less, even if this risks diluting the by-election effect. Ironically, though, more contests spell good news for the PAP. As mentioned above, it is likely to raise the percentage of the PAP's vote share. More contests will also raise the legitimacy of the PAP, which has faced criticism for the way many of its new MPs have walked into Parliament without going through an electoral contest.

In 2001, 18 out of 23 PAP candidates who became MPs did so without having to go through the polls as their constituencies were not contested. PAP veterans have indicated in past elections that they would also prefer to see more young MPs and ministers go through the 'baptism of fire' an election campaign brings. This election, many ministers anchoring GRCs have explicitly challenged the opposition to contest in their wards.

In the end, it is the opposition's call how many candidates it aims to field collectively. It will have to weigh the potential benefits of contesting in more than half the seats, against the potential advantage this may inadvertently cede to the PAP. For the opposition, the key calculation will be this. Contest in more seats for the experience and risk giving the PAP a greater share of the vote? Or contest in fewer and aim to make a dent in the PAP's vote share? It's a tough call.

There is one group, though, that will welcome more contests as a win-win proposition: voters, especially those hoping for a chance to cast their vote for the first time.
Chua Mui Hoong alternates with guest writers in this weekly column

Thursday, February 09, 2006 

Elections Issues and Talks?

Just came back from a Prime Minister's Dialogue Session on Community Engagement Programme at Kallang Theatre. Usually, during dialogues or speeches, I always like to observe the body language and "off-screen" moments between Ministers. Today's dialogue was attended by quite a few Ministers such as Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Vivian Balakrishnan, Yaccob Ibrahim, Wong Kan Seng, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Lee Boon Yang, Lim Hwee Hua, Gan Kim Yong, Chan Soo Sen and Zainal Abidin. I think I'll just keep the observations to myself and not make any judgements out of it.

Another issue that the press have been publishing quite often is the Elections. TODAY papers and the Straits Times have made quite a few speculations. Quite some time back, I've made my own deductions on the possible changes and movements within MPs, Ministers and GRCs. Let's wait and see if any of that is true. From the comments page of the previous articles, I guess history is one that is not that popular (though important). Anyway, feel free to suggest any articles or topics that I could share with. This is quite a busy month for me and as such, I don't think I will be able to make any lengthy post at the moment (to the relieve of any readers!). :P


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    The author of this blog bears no responsibility for any misinterpretation, libel, defamation, injury and death as a result of reading this blog. Contents are high subjective and readers should read with caution. All readers should be 18 years and above, with half a decent brain to judge the validity of the articles.

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