Singapore Progressive Party
by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia
The Singapore Progressive Party (SPP) was a conservative political party formed on 25 August 1947 to contest in the Legislative Council election in 1948. The SPP stood for gradual change and was willing to work with the British to introduce steady constitutional reform by slowly increasing the pool of elected councillors and eventually creating a cabinet of ministers.1 The party dominated the general elections in 1948 and 1951, but was later displaced by the more radical political parties that appealed to a wider spectrum of voters.2
The SPP was founded by lawyers John Laycock, Tan Chye Cheng (better known as C. C. Tan) and Nasir A. Mallal. Laycock and Mallal were municipal councillors in the 1930s, while Tan, SPP’s first chairman, was a non-official member of the advisory council in 1946. Like the other parties, such as the Malayan Democratic Union, the SPP attracted the English-educated professionals and leveraged on the party’s multiracial composition to garner support from a wide spectrum of the society.3 Because SPP leaders were English-educated and were members of the Straits Chinese British Association and the Singapore Association, they had the support of the leaders of these two associations. The party membership constituted mostly English-educated professional males, many of whom were also members of the two associations.4 Prominent SPP members included advisory council member Thio Chan Bee and trade unionist Lim Yew Hock.5
The SPP advocated gradual transition to self-government by increasing locally elected representation in the Legislative Council, which would eventually lead to a system of government by a cabinet of ministers responsible to the elected Council. It aimed for Singapore to achieve full internal self-government in 1963.6 Independence would then be achieved through a merger between Singapore and the Federation of Malaya. However, no target date was set for this.7
The SPP was involved in the passing of the Central Provident Fund Bill in 1954 and the setting up of the Singapore Improvement Trust, the predecessor of the Housing and Development Board. The SPP also supported the Malayanisation of the public service, the formation of the Public Service Commission in 1951 and the advancement of English education. It advocated for English as the sole official language of the legislature and the preservation of Singapore as a free port. The SPP opposed extending Singapore citizenship to the approximately 250,000 China-born Chinese in Singapore.8 Some of the reforms it advocated were represented in the Rendel Constitution, which paved the way for the formation of the Legislative Assembly, and a greater degree of self-government.9
The SPP was the only party to contest in Singapore’s first Legislative Council general election, held on 20 March 1948. Its lawyer candidates won three out of six seats. The remaining seats went to independent candidates.10 However, the election did not generate much public interest and less than 13 percent of the eligible electorate voted.11
In 1951, Lee Kuan Yew, then a practising lawyer in Laycock’s law firm, was roped in to help Laycock canvass in the forthcoming general election. The experience provided Lee with insights into Singapore politics.12 That year, SPP won six of nine seats contested.13
During the 1955 Legislative Assembly general election, the SPP contested 22 of the 25 seats available. At the time, David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock and Francis Thomas were contesting as candidates of the newly established Labour Front. The contest at Cairnhill generated great interest as Marshall took on C. C. Tan, who was favoured to be Singapore’s first chief minister. During the campaign, the People’s Action Party (PAP) launched a systematic attack on the SPP and helped canvass support for Marshall.14 Tan lost to Marshall, and the SPP failed to retain power, winning only four seats. The Labour Front emerged as the victor with 10 seats, while the PAP won three seats out of the four it contested.15
The SPP fared badly in the 1955 election, as it could not appeal to the much-enlarged electorate due to its conservative pro-colonial policies.16 The new voters, who were mainly working-class Chinese, supported the more radical Labour Front and PAP. The 1955 election marked the end of conservative politics, and the beginning of the SPP’s decline.17
In 1956, the SPP merged with the Democratic Party to form the Liberal Socialist Party.18 During the City Council election held in December 1957, the Liberal Socialist Party won only seven seats, and the PAP became the party with the largest number of seats in the new council, winning 13 out of the 14 seats it contested.19 In the 1959 general election, the Liberal Socialist Party fielded 32 candidates out of the 51 seats. However, it failed to win a single seat, and thereafter did not field any candidates for elections in Singapore.20
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore 1819–1975 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977), 235. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
2. Alex Josey, Singapore: Its Past, Present and Future. (London: Andre Deutsch, 1980), 23. (Call no. RSING 959.57 JOS-[HIS])
3. Yeo Kim Wah, Political Development in Singapore, 1945–55 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), 99. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 YEO); Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004), 41. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 HUS)
4. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 235–36.
5. Mutalib, Parties and politics, 41.
6. Yeo, Political Development in Singapore, 100.
7. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 235–36.
8. Yeo, Political Development in Singapore, 100.
9. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 242.
10. Josey, Singapore: Its Past, Present and Future, 23.
11. Ernest C. T. Chew and Edwin Lee, A History of Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 123. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS])
12. John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (Singapore: Times Editions, 1984), 36. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DRY-[HIS])
13. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions, 1998), 140. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
14. Drysdale, Struggle for Success, 94–97.
15. Drysdale, Struggle for Success, 99–100.
16. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 244.
17. Lee, Singapore Story, 190.
18. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 258.
19. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 268.
20. Chew and Lee, History of Singapore, 138–39.
The information in this article is valid as at 27 April 2021 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.