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.
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.