Merdeka talks

In 1955, Singapore was granted partial internal self-government under the Rendel Constitution. The Legislative Assembly election held in April that year saw the formation of the Labour Front-Alliance government with David Marshall as the first chief minister of Singapore. A year later, Marshall led a 13-man all-party delegation in what became the first of three constitutional talks, later known as the Merdeka talks, held in London to determine the terms of full internal self-government for Singapore.1

Negotiations

At the discussions, which commenced on 23 April 1956, the Singapore delegation put forth the requirements for the independence of Singapore by April the following year.2 The delegation proposed that the British retain control over foreign policy (excluding trade, commerce and cultural relations) and external defence. In the proposed State of Singapore Act, the British would also retain the power to suspend the constitution should there be a threat or failure of the Singapore Government to give assistance for the utilisation of its external defence installations.3

Desiring to retain control over internal security, the British insisted on a defence council made up of an equal number of representatives from the United Kingdom government (the high commissioner and two other representatives) and Singapore (the chief minister and two other representatives), with a casting vote in the hands of the British high commissioner who would also be the chairman of the council.4 Marshall’s proposal for a Malayan, born and living in Singapore or the Federation of Malaya, to be appointed as chairman of the defence council by the independent government of the Federation of Malaya, and the abolishment of the casting vote, were rejected.5 The negotiations hit a deadlock on 15 May as both sides refused to compromise on internal security arrangements.6

Failing to deliver on his pledge to secure independence for Singapore, Marshall resigned as chief minister in June 1956.7 Lim Yew Hock succeeded him as chief minister and led the second all-party mission to London in March 1957 to renew discussions with the British government.8 This time, the knotty matter of internal security was resolved with the proposed formation of a security council comprising three British and three Singapore representatives, together with a seventh member from the Federation of Malaya.9

Under the agreement, Singapore would gain the status of a self-governing state with powers to control trade, commerce as well as cultural relations in external affairs.10 The terms provided for a fully-elected legislature of 51 members and a Malayan-born head of state, or Yang di-Pertuan Negara, who would replace the British governor as representative of the Queen.11 The British retained the responsibility for defence and foreign policy, while overlapping aspects of internal security and external defence would be managed by the aforementioned security council.12

Following the success of the second all-party mission in 1957, a third delegation returned to London in May the following year to finalise the new constitution that would establish the basis for Singapore’s achievement of full internal self-government. The main point of interest in this concluding round of discussions pertained to Clause 30 of the agreement, which prohibited persons known to have been engaged in subversive activities from contesting in the first general election to be held under the new constitution.13 This was a non-negotiable term introduced by then Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox Boyd on 10 April 1957 – the day before the signing ceremony that sealed the terms of agreement reached during the second round of Merdeka talks.14 The Singapore delegation “took note with regret” over this “last minute surprise”,15 and later sought a compromise during the third and final round of constitutional talks but to no avail.16 Although the clause was eventually omitted from the constitution, the ban remained through a separate order-in-council that laid down the conditions for the first general election in the new city state.17


The concluding round of discussions, which lasted from 13 to 28 May 1958, kept to the agreement established at the 1957 talks.18 Singapore was to be recognised as a self-governing state with powers to regulate its internal affairs through a 51-member legislature under a Malayan-born head of state, the Yang di-Pertuan Negara.19 The British retained responsibility for defence and foreign policy, while internal security would be managed by a security council comprising three representatives each from Britain and Singapore, as well as one from the Federation of Malaya who would hold the decisive vote.20

Following the final terms of agreement made at the third and concluding Merdeka talks, the State of Singapore Act to convert Singapore from a colony to a self-governing state was passed by the British Parliament on 1 August 1958.21



Author
Lee Meiyu



References
1. Chan Heng Chee, A Sensation of Independence: A Political Biography of David Marshall (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2008), 183. (Call no. RSING 324.2092 CHA); Singapore. All-Party Mission to London, Report on Singapore All-Party Mission to London, April/May, 1956 (Singapore: Printed at the Govt. Print. Off., 1945), 1–3. (Call no.  RCLOS 342.5957 SIN)
2. Chan Heng Chee, A Sensation of Independence: A Political Biography of David Marshall (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2008), 185. (Call no. RSING 324.2092 CHA); Singapore. All-Party Mission to London, Report on Singapore All-Party Mission to London, 4.
3. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 265. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR); Singapore. All-Party Mission to London, Report on Singapore All-Party Mission to London, 71–72.
4. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 185, 188; Singapore. All-Party Mission to London, Report on Singapore All-Party Mission to London, 67.
5. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 190–91; Turnbull, History of modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 265; Singapore. All-Party Mission to London, Report on Singapore All-Party Mission to London, 15, 72.
6. Harry Miller, “Drama of the Last Hours,” Straits Times, 17 May 1956, 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chan, Sensation of Independence, 191; Singapore. All-Party Mission to London, Report on Singapore All-Party Mission to London, 31.
7. Harry Miller, “Marshall to Resign on June 6,” Straits Times, 21 May 1956, 1; “The Marshall Diary,” Straits Times, 6 June 1956, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
8. A History of Singapore, ed. Ernest Chin Tiong and Edwin Lee (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 137. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS); Singapore Constitutional Conference, Report of the Singapore Constitutional Conference held in London in March and April, 1957 (Singapore: Printed at the Govt. Print. Off., 1957), 2. (Call no. RCLOS 342.5957 ALL)
9. Felix Abisheganaden, “Colony Talks a Success – Triumph for Mr. Lim,” Straits Times, 30 March 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Constitutional Conference, Report of the Singapore Constitutional Conference, 6–7.
10. “2 a.m.: It’s Success!” Straits Times, 10 April 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG; Singapore Constitutional Conference, Report of the Singapore Constitutional Conference, 18.
11. Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 139. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE); Singapore Constitutional Conference, Report of the Singapore Constitutional Conference, 3–5.
12. Lee, Unexpected Nation, 139; Felix Abisheganaden, “Last Lap in London,” Straits Times, 28 March 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG); “It’s success!”; Singapore Constitutional Conference, Report of the Singapore Constitutional Conference, 6–7.
13. Patricia Morgan, “New London Mission,” Straits Times, 19 March 1958, 1; “Last Mission to London,” Straits Times, 8 May 1958, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Felix Abisheganaden, “Lim's Big Moment,” Straits Times, 12 Aril 1957, 1; “‘That Clause is Vital’,” Straits Times, 9 May 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “The Flaw in the Clause,” Straits Times, 3 October 1958, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Morgan, “New London Mission”; Chew and Lee, History of Singapore, 137; “It’s Final – That Detainees Ban Will Stay,” Straits Times, 28 May 1958, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Leslie Hoffman, “2 a.m. News RoundUp,” Straits Times, 23 May 1958, 1; “Singapore, a City State,” Straits Times, 29 May 1958, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Singapore, Singapore Annual Report 1958 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off, 1958), 4. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN)
19. Lee, Unexpected Nation, 139.
20. Lee, Unexpected Nation, 139.
21. Great Britain, State of Singapore Act 1958: Chapter 59, 6 & 7 Eliz. II (Singapore: H. M. S. O., 1958), 1. (Call no. RRARE 342.5957 GRE; Microfilm NL25



The information in this article is valid as at September 2018 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.

 

Subject
Events>>Historical Periods>>Self-Government, Merger and Separation (1955-1965)
Singapore--History--1945-1963
1955-1965 Road to independence
Politics and Government
Political development