1959 Legislative Assembly General Election
On 30 May 1959, a General Election was held to elect 51 members for the Legislative Assembly.1 A total of 194 candidates from more than 10 political parties contested for the seats.2 In the end, the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by Lee Kuan Yew, was voted into power after taking 43 out of 51 seats and capturing 53.4 percent of the votes cast.3 Lee was then sworn into office as Singapore’s first prime minister. He went on to appoint his first Cabinet, which included Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Ong Pang Boon and Yong Nyuk Lin.4
In 1958, the British parliament passed the State of Singapore Act to convert Singapore from a colony to a self-governing state. In addition, the British agreed on the terms of a new constitution.5 Known as the Singapore (Constitution) Order-in-Council, or the 1958 State of Singapore Constitution, the new constitution was to come into effect after the 1959 General Election to replace the Rendel Constitution.6 The new constitution laid out the basic government structure for a self-governing Singapore. It created the position of Yang di-Pertuan Negara as the constitutional head of state, a prime minister and a 51-elected member Legislative Assembly. The constitution also granted the elected government control over all domestic affairs except for foreign affairs, external defence and internal security.7
The terms of the constitution, as well as Singapore’s ability to achieve internal self-government, were the result of three rounds of talks between the British Colonial Office and a Singapore delegation comprising selected members of the Legislative Assembly.8 This delegation was initially led by Singapore’s first Chief Minister David Marshall in 1956, followed by his successor Lim Yew Hock in 1957 and 1958.9
As the meetings were being held, the Legislative Assembly also passed the Citizenship Ordinance in 1957. The legislation offered Singapore citizenship to all residents born in Singapore or the Federation of Malaya, as well as British citizens who had been residents for two years.10 Naturalisation was also offered to all those who had lived for 10 years in the colony and were prepared to swear loyalty to Singapore.11 As a result of the Ordinance, Singapore citizenship was granted to the majority of the 220,000 foreign-born Chinese residents. This gave them the right to vote in the general election held in 1959.12
Besides the Citizenship Ordinance, the Legislative Assembly amended the Legislative Assembly Elections Ordinance in January 1959 to make voting compulsory. This meant that all voters in the electoral roll had to vote in the 1959 General Election, or have their names struck off the electoral register. To have their names relisted, the voter would have to provide the Registration Officer with a valid reason explaining he or she had failed to vote.13 With this amendment, the voter turnout for the 1959 General Election was a remarkable 92.9 percent.14
The main contesting parties
The election was set after Parliament was dissolved on 31 March 1959.15 Following nomination day, which was on 25 April 1959, a total of 194 candidates submitted their bids to contest for the 51 Legislative Assembly seats.16 Thirty-five candidates were independents, while the remaining 159 candidates came from 13 political parties including the PAP (51 candidates), Singapore People’s Alliance (39 candidates), Liberal Socialists (32 candidates), United Malays’ National Organisation (eight candidates), Malayan Chinese Association (five candidates), Party Rakyat (four candidates), Citizens’ Party (five candidates), Labour Front (three candidates), Singapore Malay Union (three candidates), Workers’ Party (two candidates), Katong United Residents Association (two candidates), Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (two candidates) and Malayan Indian Congress (two candidates).17
People’s Action Party
Although the PAP was an opposition party at the time, its decision to contest all 51 Legislative Assembly seats in the election placed the party as the front runner.18 The aim of the party was to provide Singapore with a government that was not only stable, honest, corrupt-free and just, but also capable of resolving the various economic and social problems that the state was facing.19 Its election manifesto was titled The Tasks Ahead, and outlined the party’s five-year plan to address acute problems faced by Singapore.20 For instance, it called for a series of policies and programmes such as the provision of low-cost housing, the strengthening of education, as well as the development of industries thus improving employment opportunities for the local population. These were in addition to the goal of attaining independence for Singapore through a merger with the Federation of Malaya.21
Singapore People’s Alliance
The Singapore People’s Alliance (SPA) was led by then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock. It was formed in November 1958 from the remnants of the winning party of the 1955 General Election – the Singapore Labour Front.22 The aims of this party, among others, were to safeguard and protect the livelihood and welfare of the people, secure full employment and fair working conditions for workers, and achieve independence through a merger with Malaya.23
The Liberal Socialist Party (Lib-Soc) was formed following the merger of the Democratic Party and the Progressive Party – the two political parties that had contested the previous general election in 1955.24 Led by E. K. Tan, its party-secretary, the Liberal Socialists considered themselves as a “selfless” party that “had the interests of Singapore at heart”.25 The party noted that it wanted to pursue an economic programme aimed at creating jobs, increasing foreign capital inflow and reducing industrial disputes. These were in addition to the introduction of national health insurance and the expansion of the public housing programme.26 On Singapore’s path towards independence, the Liberal Socialists believed that it should be achieved through a merger with Malaya.27
The Alliance was a coalition comprising the Singapore branch of three political parties from Malaya, namely the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).28 As their parent parties were the ruling coalition in Malaya, the Alliance promised voters that it could work for an early merger if voted into power as they knew “exactly” what their Malayan counterparts wanted. In addition, the Alliance wanted to raise the standards of living and improve the welfare of the people in Singapore, as well as to strengthen economic ties between Singapore and Malaya.29
Campaigning in the 1959 election mostly revolved around the question of party image. The two biggest contesting parties – the PAP and SPA – adopted the strategy of presenting itself as “the only sincere and able party”, while painting its opponents as “corrupt and incompetent”.30 This struggle was played out most prominently in the “Chew Swee Kee affair”, in which the PAP charged the incumbent SPA government in February 1959 with receiving political funds from the United States government.31 Subsequent investigations by a Commission of Inquiry later revealed that Chew, who was then Education Minister, had converted the alleged funds for his own use.32 The revelation had a devastating effect on the image of SPA as the party was seen to be serving a Western power, thus betraying Singapore’s anti-colonial movement.33
To counter the PAP, the SPA questioned the record of the PAP administration in the City Council by charging the latter with corruptly appointing its supporters to fill up posts in the City Council, as well as raising concerns over the tenders of some Council contracts.34 The SPA even went as far as setting up a Commission of Inquiry in April 1959 to investigate whether there had been “irregularities or improprieties” in the working of the City Council.35 The inquiry, however, failed to reveal anything suspicious against the City Council and the hearings were adjourned indefinitely.36
In light with the failed attempt, the SPA then tried to brand the PAP as a party being controlled by the communists.37 The accusation of the PAP having a Marxist doctrine and the intention to turn Singapore into a communist country if it were voted into power was also repeated by the Liberal Socialists and the Alliance.38 At one of the Liberal Socialists’ rallies, the party’s Vice-chairman Wee Soo Bee warned voters that a PAP government would mean “enslavement for all” and the “destruction of individuality”.39 As for the Alliance, its UMNO candidate for Changi Abdul Rahman bin Mohamed Said told voters that the people would be “no better than robots” if the PAP came to power as the PAP government would feed them with propaganda labelled "Made in Peking" or “Just arrived from Moscow” rather than food.40
Despite the accusations, which Lee had described as “silly”, “blabbering” and “lies”, the PAP recorded a landslide win in the 1959 General Election.41 The party took 43 out of 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly and captured 53.4 percent of the votes cast.42 The SPA won only four of the 39 it had contested, while the Liberal Socialists failed to win a seat. UMNO won three seats, while an independent candidate took the final seat in Farrer Park.43
After the election results were announced, incumbent Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock tendered his resignation. This paved the way for Lee to become the first prime minister of Singapore.44 The victorious Lee was then invited by then Governor of Singapore Sir William Goode to form a new government.45 However, Lee did not immediately accept the offer. Instead, he made a formal request to Goode for the release of eight left-wing PAP members, namely Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Devan Nair, Sandra Woodhull, James Puthucheary, Chan Chiaw Thor, Chan Chong Kin and Chen Say Jame.46
The detainees had been held under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance since October 1956 for their involvement as “active participants and key instigators” in the Chinese middle schools riots that had left 13 dead and 123 injured.47 The request, as Lee explained in his memoirs, was not an indication that his party supported the detainees’ actions. Rather, the PAP had, “after some hard thinking”, made an election pledge that it would not take office until the eight detainees were released. Therefore, if the party could not fulfil the pledge, it “would lose all credibility”.48
On 2 June 1959, Goode announced that the detainees would be released on 4 June 1959.49 The decision, according to a statement released by Director of Information Services George Thomson, was made “in order to achieve a swift and smooth introduction of the new Constitution”.50 Following the announcement, Goode again requested that Lee form a government and take the oath of office as he wanted to gazette and bring the new constitution into force on 3 June 1959.51
However, Lee turned down Goode’s request again. In his memoirs, Lee recounted that he had wanted his Cabinet to be sworn in only on 5 June 1959, after the detainees “had not only been released but had duly issued a statement publicly endorsing the non-communist aims of the PAP” on 4 June 1959.52 This arrangement was to allow the press to cover the two events separately.53 Lee also wanted to hold the PAP’s victory rally on 3 June 1959, prior to the release of the detainees, as the party had “fought and won [the] election on [its] own”, without the detainees.54
PAP’s victory rally
The PAP’s victory rally was held at the Padang in front of City Hall on 3 June 1959.55 Lee with the 42 MPs-elect from the PAP and some 50,000 supporters turned up at the rally.56 In his rally speech, Lee announced that he had been asked by his party to lead the government as prime minister and his government would take office formally on 5 June 1959. He also noted that the promulgation of the new constitution was “a moment of great change” and “a new chapter in the history of Singapore” as it was “a step forward” towards independence.57
Although the historic change deserved celebration, Lee reminded the crowd that “good things [in] life do not fall down from the skies” and “can only come by hard work over a long time”. As a result, Lee promised the crowd that his government would “do its duty to the people”.58 In return, he urged the people to continue to “support and sustain the work of [the] government”, and to “do their duty to themselves and their fellow citizens”. Lee pointed out that this might require the people to sacrifice their individual interests so that “the paramount interest of the whole community could prevail”.59
Taking the Oath of Office
Lee and his Cabinet took the Oath of Office on 5 June 1959.60 In total, there were eight ministers in Lee’s Cabinet. They were Toh Chin Chye (Deputy Prime Minister); Ong Eng Guan (Minister for National Development); Ahmad bin Ibrahim (Minister for Health); Goh Keng Swee (Minister for Finance); Kenny Byrne (Minister for Labour and Law); S. Rajaratnam (Minister for Culture); Ong Pang Boon (Minister for Home Affairs); and Yong Nyuk Lin (Minister for Education).61
Major revisions were made to the way in which the ceremony was carried out. Previously, ministers were required to present themselves at Government House to be sworn in by the governor, with the ministers clad in lounge suits and the governor “in his white ceremonial dress uniform, compete with a white plumed hat”.62 In an attempt “to make a break with the past” and to mark the start of the new post-colonial government, Lee and his ministers were sworn in at City Hall.63 Instead of lounge suits, they wore the PAP’s official attire of open-necked white shirts and trousers, which symbolised the party’s image as an honest and corrupt-free entity.64
The ceremony was witnessed by Goode who had assumed the position of Yang di-Pertuan Negara following the promulgation of the new constitution. In a symbolic gesture, Goode shed his white ceremonial dress uniform for a light fawn suit and tie.65 The swearing-in ceremony was held in the City Hall chamber and was closed to the press and public, including the 200 PAP supporters who were gathered outside.66
In the five years that followed, Singapore and the PAP government under Lee’s stewardship faced a series of challenges, including the political upheaval caused by left-wing PAP members who were expelled from the party. These expelled PAP members went on to form Barisan Sosialis, the main opposition party. The government also had to secure Singapore’s merger with Malaya and address the dire state of the Singapore economy. In fact, the unemployment rate at the time Lee became prime minister was close to 9 percent and the growth of the existing manufacturing sector in Singapore had stagnated due to a lack of investment and other adverse factors.
Lim Tin Seng
1. “The Day of Decision,” Straits Times, 30 May 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Lim Opposes Marshall in Cairnhill: Lee in Tanjong Pagar,” Straits Times, 26 April 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “2.45am – PAP Romps Home With Landslide Victory,” Straits Times, 31 May 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Lee’s Cabinet: This Is It,” Straits Times, 6 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “State of Singapore Bill in Commons,” Singapore Free Press, 18 June 1958, 1; “Commons Passes Bill for State of S’pore,” Straits Times, 18 July 1958, 6; “Lords Gives Assent for State of Singapore,” Straits Times, 26 July 1958, 2; “A Royal ‘Yes’ to Self-Rule for S'pore,” Straits Times, 2 August 1958, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 262–64. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR)
7. Singapore, The Singapore (Constitution) Order in Council, 1958 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off, 1958), 2–19. (Call no. RCLOS 342.5957 SIN)
8. “State of Singapore Bill in Commons”; “Commons Passes Bill for State of S’pore.”.
9. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 264–66.
10. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 268.
11. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 268.
12. Michael Hill and Lian Kwen Fee, The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore (London: Routledge, 1995), 55. (Call no. RSING 306.095957 HIL)
13. “Our Vote: It’s Now Compulsory,” Singapore Standard, 17 January 1959, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Introduction of Compulsory Voting – 1959,” Elections Department Singapore, last updated 12 September 2019.
15. “The Assembly Is Dissolved,” Straits Times, 1 April 1959, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Lim Opposes Marshall in Cairnhill.”
17. “Page 11 Advertisements Column 1,” Straits Times, 26 April 1959, 11; “Page 11 Advertisements Column 2,” Straits Times, 26 April 1959, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “P.A.P. Versus the Rest,” Straits Times, 27 April 1959, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “PAP Leader: We Can Give an Honest Government,” Straits Times, 29 April 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, ed. Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989), 72. (Call no. RSING 959.57 MAN)
20. “Party Milestones: Party Begininnings,” People’s Action Party, 2014.
21. Raj Vasil, A Citizen’s Guide to Government and Politics in Singapore (Singapore: Talisman, 2004), 24. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 VAS); Leong Ching, PAP 50: Five Decades of the People’s Action Party, ed. Irene Ang (Singapore: People’s Action Party, 2004), 26. (Call no. RSING q324.25957 LEO); Fong Sip Chee, The PAP Story: The Pioneering Years, November 1954–April 1968: A Diary of Events of the People’s Action Party: Reminiscences of an Old Cadre (Singapore: Times Periodicals, 1980), 71–72. (Call no. RSING 329.95957 FON); People's Action Party (Singapore), The Tasks Ahead: PAP's Five-Year Plan, 1959–1964, vol. 1 (Singapore: Petir, 1959), 8, 10, 19. (Call no. RCLOS 329.95957 PEO)
22. “Mr. Lim Leads New Party,” Straits Times, 11 November 1958, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Mr. Lim Leads New Party.”
24. “Independence Via Socialism,” Sunday Standard, 15 January 1956, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Merger? Never! If the PAP Comes In,” Singapore Standard, 28 April 1959, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Merger? Never! If the PAP Comes In.”
27. “Merger? Never! If the PAP Comes In.”
28. “Only Alliance Can Deliver the Goods – Wong,” Singapore Standard, 30 May 1959, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Only Alliance Can Deliver the Goods.”
30. Ong Chit Chung, “The 1959 Singapore General Election,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 6, no. 1 (March 1975), 64–65. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
31. Joey Long, “The Chew Swee Kee Affair Revisited: Querying the American Involvement in Singapore,” South East Asia Research, 10, no. 2 (July 2002) 217–218. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
32. “Commissioner: That $500,000 Account Was Political Gift,” Straits Times, 27 May 1959, 9. (From NewspaperSG); Long, “The Chew Swee Kee Affair Revisited.”
33. Long, “Chew Swee Kee Affair Revisited.”
34. Ong, “1959 Singapore General Election.”
35. “Commission of Inquiry,” Singapore Free Press, 20 April 1959, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
36.” Council Probe Adjourned: Atmosphere Deteriorated, Says the Commissioner,” Straits Times, 22 May 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Lim: PAP Still Rides Red Tiger,” Straits Times, 30 May 1959, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Ong, “1959 Singapore General Election.”
39. “Lib-Soc Candidate Accuses PAP of Red Methods,” Straits Times, 13 May 1950, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “An UMNO Man in Robot-Land,” Straits Times, 6 May 1959, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “The Final Quotes,” Straits Times, 30 May 1959, 1; “PAP Romps Home With Landslide Victory.”
42. “PAP Romps Home With Landslide Victory.”
43. “PAP Romps Home With Landslide Victory.”
44. “Lee Seeing the Governor: Lim Resigns,” Straits Times, 1 June 1959, 1; “Lee is Premier,” Straits Times, 2 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
45. “Lee is Premier.”
46. “The Big Moment for Eight Men,” Straits Times, 5 June 1959, 2; “Out – And What a Welcome,” (1959, June 5). Straits Times, 5 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
47. “Out – And What a Welcome”; “Two Years’ Detention for PAP Boss Lim,” Straits Times, 20 November 1956, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, 2000), 307. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
49. “8 PAP Men Go Free,” (1959, June 3). Straits Times, 3 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
50. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 308.
51. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 308.
52. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 308.
53. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 308.
54. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 307.
55. “Tens of Thousands Cheer at PAP Rally,” (1959, June 4). Singapore Free Press, 4 June 1959, 16; “The Start of a New Chapter – Lee,” Singapore Standard, 4 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
56. Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2009), 382. (Call no. RSING 959.57 FRO)
57. Lee Kuan Yew, “Victory Rally at the Padang,” speech, Padang, 3 June 1959, transcript, Ministry of Culture. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. lky19590603)
58. Lee, “Victory Rally at the Padang.”
59. Lee, “Victory Rally at the Padang.”
60. Singapore, Extraordinary, G. N. 58 of Government Gazette, 19. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG); “Lee’s Cabinet.”
61. “Lee’s Cabinet.”
62. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 315.
63. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 314–315.
64. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 315.
65. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 315.
66. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 315.
Alex Josey, Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years (Singapore: Times Book International, 1980). (Call no. RSING 959.57092 JOS)
Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009). (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR)
Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008). (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE)
Fong Sip Chee, The PAP Story: The Pioneering Years, November 1954–April 1968: A Diary of Events of the People’s Action Party: Reminiscences of an Old Cadre (Singapore: Times Periodicals, 1980) (Call no. RSING 329.95957 FON)
John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (Singapore: Times Books International, 1984). (Call no. RSING 959.57 DRY)
Kevin Y. L. Tan, Marshall of Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008). (Call no. RSING 959.5705092 TAN)
Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings: Times Editions, 1998). (Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE)
Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, Singapore Press Holdings, 2000). (Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE)
Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, 2010). (Call no. RSING 324.25957 YAP)
Thomas J. Bellows, The People’s Action Party of Singapore: Emergence of a Dominant Party System (Connecticut: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1970). (Call no. RSING 329.95957 BEL)
Tommy Thong Bee Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006). (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
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.
Events>>Historical Periods>>Self-Government, Merger and Separation (1955-1965)
1955-1965 Road to independence
People's Action Party (Singapore)
Politics and Government