Rendel Commission

The Rendel Commission was appointed by Governor, Sir John Nicoll, in July 1953 to undertake a comprehensive review of the constitution of the Singapore colony. Initially known as the Constitutional Commission, it later took on the name of its Chairman, Sir George Rendel. The commission paved the way for internal self-government, while allowing the British to retain control over internal security and foreign affairs. Elections under the Rendel Constitution swept the Labour Front into power with 10 seats. Party leader, David Saul Marshall, became the first Chief Minister of Singapore.
Following the end of the Japanese occupation, there was a rising tide of national consciousness and a greater desire by the people of Singapore and Malaya to manage their own affairs. Moreover, in the time after the war, it called for an expanded role of government to provide more services. With massive costs incurred in World War II, the British could ill-afford to invest more resources into its colonies. Thus, it was imperative that the British Government embark on a constitutional reform in Singapore to make way for greater local participation.

With Rendel as chair, the nine-man committee included five nominated unofficial members of the Legislative Council, namely Tan Chin Tuan, Lim Yew Hock, N.A. Mallal, Ahmad bin Mohamed Ibrahim, and C. C. Tan. The remaining three were British subjects. In addition, Professor Owen Hood Phillips was appointed as an advisor to the Commission on constitutional affairs.
Governor Nicoll listed a set of terms of references which laid out the objectives of the review. They were to make recommendations on issues regarding the enlargement of the electoral roll, increasing the number of elected members, and the appointment of a Speaker.

Between 6 November 1953 and 22 February 1954, the Commission held 37 meetings, of which two were public. In all, 39 statements from individuals and associations were received and taken into consideration.

Key Considerations of the Rendel Commission
The small geographical size of the Singapore colony cast doubts on her survival capabilities if she was granted full governance. Heavily dependent on the Federation of Malaya for food and essential water supplies, the island was incapable of being self-sustaining. Local nationalists also lacked the political experience and the sense of political responsibility, and were deemed incapable of establishing a stable government.

Moreover, Singapore's prosperity relied heavily on her position as a vital port in the trade routes to and from Austral-asia and the Far East. It was crucial to ensure a stable administration in order to command the confidence of other countries and to ensure the continuance of trade. Strategic implications such as the red threat also weighed heavily on the minds of the British. It was feared that Singapore left alone, would be too weak and fall prey to the communist insurgency.
The allegiance of the Overseas Chinese in Singapore also posed a constitutional problem - to whom their loyalty lay would have had an impact on their voting eligibility. The British Nationality Act of 1948 mandated that all British subjects who were not citizens of an independent Commonwealth country, regardless of their United Kingdom or colonial origins be described as British subjects, citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. The Chinese objected strongly to this phrase as they felt no connection with the United Kingdom. Therefore, on what criteria can the immigrants be granted the right of franchise needed consideration.

Summary of the Recommendations

The Rendel Constitution was clearly intended as an interim step to complete self-government. The constitution sought to cultivate a sense of political accountability through the establishment of an empowered body, allowing local nationalists to preside over domestic issues while leaving internal security and foreign affairs in the hands of the British. Hence, a 32-member Legislative Assembly was formed, with 25 seats up for elections. It was agreed that the largest party or coalition in the Assembly would take six seats on the Council of Ministers (akin to present day Cabinet) and bear collective Ministerial responsibility.

It also called for an automatic registration of voters, thus expanding the electorate roll and increasing the numbers qualified to vote. This was aimed at increasing political interest in the Singapore community. On the issue of a Speaker, it was decided that the Speaker be elected by the Assembly from a list of candidates selected by the Governor from outside the Assembly.

Though not included in the Governor's terms of reference, Sir Rendel felt that the relationship between Singapore and the Federation of Malaya was an issue that had to be addressed. The prevailing opinion was that a closer association between the two was needed before full independence can be achieved.  However, each bore mutual suspicions and was reluctant to establish closer relations. In the report, the commission urged for rapprochement on the account of their close geographic, economic, and strategic ties. 

Political Impact of the Rendel Constitution

Elections under the Rendel Constitution were held in 1955. It was a contest among The Progressive Party, the Democratic Party, the Labour Front, the UMNO-MCA-Malayan Union Alliance, the Peoples Action Party, the Labour Party and 10 independents.

The Labour Front gained unexpected victory, winning ten out of the 25 elected seats in the 32 seat Assembly. Marshall took power as the Chief Minister and went on to form the first Council of Ministers. It was a coalition government formed of an alliance among Labour Front-UMNO-MCA. Malayan Union refused to be part of the coalition.

The Council of Ministers consisted of the Governor, the Attorney-general, Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary and six elected members who were to take up ministerial positions overseeing domestic affairs. The six elected members was a racially diverse group that reflected the ethnic make-up of the Singapore population. The six were:
Chief Minister and Minister of Commerce and Industry: David Saul Marshall.
Minister of Education: Chew Swee Kee.
Minister of Labour and Welfare: Lim Yew Hock.
Minister of Health: A. J. Braga.
Minister of Communications and Works: Francis Thomas.
Minister of Local Government, Lands and Housing: Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat. 

Constitutional Talks

In December 1955, Marshall led a delegation to London to pave the way for an all-party constitutional conference. The Singapore mission was well-received and talks proceeded smoothly. Setting 23 April 1956 as the date for the constitutional conference, Marshall returned jubilant, declaring that Singapore would obtain dominion status by April 1957. It signalled the beginning of his expanded ambitions to achieve something more than the removal of colony status for Singapore to something more than self government and something less than full independence. 
On 14 April 1956, a delegation of 13 members left for London. The group consisted of seven Labour Front coalition members, two PAP and four Liberal-Socialists. Talks got off to an ominous beginning, with the British clearly reiterating their stand that the Singapore government must be prepared to accept joint control over to internal security while Marshall pressed strongly for self-government. This became the key point of contention and was the core factor that resulted in the breakdown of the talks. A stalemate developed and cracks developed within the Singapore delegation. Some members felt that Marshall was an inadequate negotiator and could have settled for a compromise. He received the backing of only two others Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong.

A communiqué was issued on 15 May 1956 to announce the breakdown of the talks. Marshall was greatly despaired and compared the Britishs offer of self-government with the preservation of British imperial power as a Christmas pudding with arsenic sauce. In a last-ditch effort, Marshall attempted to restart the talks but incurred the wrath of his delegation members who felt that it was a humiliation to do so. On his return to Singapore, Marshall worked behind the scenes for the possibility of restarting talks with the new Singapore government. But he was met with rejection, and officially stepped down as the Chief Minister on 7 June 1956.

Lim Yew Hock was asked to helm the next government, apart from Marshall, other members of the previous Cabinet remained onboard. In the March of 1957, he led a delegation to London which accepted a constitution that was nearly similar to the one that Marshall rejected. On 28 November 1958, the Singapore (Constitution) Order in Council for the creation of self-governing state finally came into being. 

Ng Tze Lin Tania

Chan, H. C. (2001). A Sensation of Independence: David Marshall, a political biography. Singapore: Times Book International.
(Call no.: SING  324.2092 CHA)

Constitution. (2009). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Retrieved 8 July, 2009, from Singapore: the Encyclopedia.

Rendel, G. (1957). German Debts, and Singapore, 1950-1954. In The Sword and the Olive; recollection of diplomacy and the foreign service, 1913-1954. London: John Murray.
(Call no.: RCLOS 327.20924 REN)

Singapore Constitutional Commission. Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore. (1954). Singapore: Government Printer Office.
(Call no.: RCLOS 342.5957 SIN)

Tan, T. Y. (2008). Creating Greater Malaysia: Decolonisation and the Politics of Merger. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5051 TAN)

The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources.  It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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