The names and roles of Singapore’s first and second Chief Ministers were left out by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he spoke of how his late father had addressed a crowd in 1959, where the latter famously shouted “Merdeka!” with a raised fist.
Singaporeans (and anyone) who may not be familiar with Singapore’s history may have gone away from PM Lee’s speech with the impression that Lee Kuan Yew had spearheaded the country’s efforts for independence from the British back then.
That would, of course, be wrong.
In his speech on 19 August, PM Lee spoke of the “Merdeka Generation”, the group of Singaporeans born in 1950s, who had “lived through the tumultuous years of the 1950s and early 1960s.”
“They were too young to participate in events but most were old enough to sense the electricity in the air, to share the excitement of the changes, to feel the hope of a brighter tomorrow,” he told the rally audience.” They saw the posters and banners that festooned the streets, and were stirred by the rallying cry “Merdeka.” One word that meant so much – liberation, freedom, independence. One word that expressed the determination and the passion, the ambitions and aspirations, of a people who were roused and on the move.”
PM Lee added:
“And seldom were the people more roused than on 3 June 1959, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, newly elected Prime Minister, addressed a huge rally at the Padang. As he told the crowd from the City Hall steps: “Once in a long while in the history of a people there comes a moment of great change. Tonight is such a moment in our lives… We begin a new chapter in the history of Singapore.” Most memorable was his call to action, captured in this clip. You have seen it. You have heard it. But it is still electrifying.”
PM Lee then showed the audience a video clip of Mr Lee shouting “Merdeka” with clenched fist punching the air. Mr Lee had recently led his party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), to electoral victory a month earlier, winning 43 out of 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly.
The word “Merdeka” is Malay for “free” or “independence”.
Mr Lee’s speech is memorable for its fiery nationalism, and his charismatic leadership.
But Mr Lee did not spearhead Singapore’s efforts for independence, or merdeka, from British rule.
It was David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister, and Lim Yew Hock, who replaced Marshall later, who led 3 all-party delegations to talks with the British for independence or self-rule.
The Labour Front had won 10 out of 25 seats in the 1955 elections and thus governed Singapore.
The 3 talks, led by the Labour Front, took place in 1956, ‘57 and ‘58.
Marshall had included Mr Lee and Lim Chin Siong of the PAP, which was formed in 1954, in his delegation.
Marshall had famously vowed or promised to resign as Chief Minister if he failed to get independence from the British at the talks of 1956.
At the talks, the British agreed to a fully elected legislature and Cabinet, and that they would also retain control of foreign affairs and defence.
Marshall wanted Singapore to be responsible for internal security, which the British disagreed with.
As the talks progressed, the disagreement over internal security became intractable, and the talks failed. Marshall then resigned, as he promised, and was replaced by Lim Yew Hock.
It was believed that Marshall had pledged to resign in the belief that his party colleagues would do the same in solidarity with him. But his behaviour in London during the talks spooked some of them and they decided to carry on without him, instead of resigning in support.
Lim then led the second talks, after having done what the British had wanted – for him to quash the communists in Singapore. Lim generally agreed to the British terms which Marshall had rejected.
The two sides also came to an agreement on internal security – with a proposal for a “security council comprising three British and three Singapore representatives, together with a seventh member from the Federation of Malaya who would possess the casting vote.” (NLB)
The third talks was to finalise the details and agreements.
Singapore thus gained self-governance in 1959, with the PAP sweeping to victory under Mr Lee in the Legislative elections in May that year.
Mr Lee then made that famous “Merdeka” speech on the steps of City Hall in June 1959.
While undoubtedly Mr Lee, being part of the delegations during the talks, played a part in this historic moment in the story of Singapore, it is only right to recognise those who were involved and who in fact led the talks with the British for independence.
Marshall, for example, may have failed at the first talks itself, but he had long campaigned for independence from the British before that.
It is unfortunate that PM Lee missed an opportunity to include or mention Marshall and Lim in his speech. The two men were instrumental in how the “Merdeka generation” came about, the same “Merdeka generation” which PM Lee’s government says it is now honouring via a special “Merdeka generation” healthcare package.
“[It] will show our appreciation for the Merdeka Generation and their contributions,” PM Lee said.
Let us also not forget those who were there in history who actually fought for merdeka, those like Marshall, Lim Yew Hock and Lim Chin Siong.