The Legislative Council
by Ang, Mervin
The Legislative Council was one of the predecessors to today’s Parliament of Singapore. Established in 1867, its core function was to enact laws for Singapore. It was replaced in 1955 by the Legislative Assembly.
The Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements (1867 – 1942)
The Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements was officially formed on 1 April 1867, when the Straits Settlements – comprising Singapore, Melaka and Penang –became a crown colony. By shifting control of the Straits Settlement from the East India Company to the British Crown, it granted Singapore a colonial constitution that provided for the establishment of the Executive and Legislative councils to assist the governor.1
In 1867, the Legislative Council members consisted of the governor, the chief justice, the officer commanding the troops based in the Straits Settlements, the lieutenant-governor of Penang, the colonial secretary, the attorney-general, the colonial engineer and four unofficial Europeans.2
Meetings were mostly held in Singapore, although some were held in Penang and Melaka as well.3 The Legislative Council differed from the Executive Council in that its debates were held in public and reported in the local newspapers, whereas the latter’s meetings were held in private. The Legislative Council’s advice was not binding on the governor, who retained the power to assent or veto on all bills along with initiating legislation. While the official members of the Council were obliged to support the governor, the “unofficials” were free to speak or vote as they pleased. As such, the governor was instructed to pay deference to their views, particularly on matters of taxation.4
A revamped Legislative Council (1946–1953)
After the Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, the Straits Settlements was dissolved with the Straits Settlements Repeal Act of 1946. Singapore thus became a separate Crown Colony with its own constitution, while Penang and Melaka became part of the new Malayan Union.5 With the local population wanting more say in the management of their own affairs, a new Colonial Constitution was passed, calling for a revamped Legislative Council comprising 22 members. The new Council would have four ex-officio members, five officials, four nominated unofficials and nine elected members. Three of the nine elected members would be chamber of commerce representatives from the Singapore, Chinese and Indian chambers of commerce.6
These reforms in the Legislative Council were significant as there was now an unofficial majority of 13 unofficial members to nine elected members in the council, and general elections were also held for the first time, marking the one of the earliest milestones in Singapore’s journey to self-governance.7
The first Legislative Council election was held on 20 March 1948, in which only British subjects were allowed to vote. Out of a total of 22,334 registered voters, around 63 percent cast their votes.8 The Singapore Progressive Party was the only party to contest in the election, securing three out of six seats, while the rest were independent candidates. During the second general election in March 1951, the Progressive Party won again by securing six out of the nine available seats.9
Formation of the Legislative Assembly in 1955
After the second general election in 1953, the British recognised the need for there to be changes in the constitutional system in order to increase widespread participation in both the central and local government. This need arose as the British considered the apathetic disposition of the general public towards the political situation at the time to be a major obstacle to the development of a proper democratic government in Singapore.10
To look into the necessary reforms, the Rendel Commission was formed in 1953. Led by Sir George Rendel, the commission issued its report in February 1954, with one of its recommendations being the formation of a Legislative Assembly to replace the Legislative Council.11 This recommendation was accepted. Following the general election on 2 April 1955, members of the Legislative Assembly were sworn in on 7 April, thus replacing the Legislative Council.12
1. Tan, K. (2014). Constitutional law in Singapore. The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, p. 17. (Call no.: RSING 342.5957 TAN)
2. Tan, K. (2014). Constitutional law in Singapore. The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, p. 18. (Call no.: RSING 342.5957 TAN)
3. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (1991). One hundred years of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 149. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
4. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 94. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR)
5. Tan, K. (1999). The Singapore legal system. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 41. (Call no.: RSING 349.5957 SIN); Parliament of Singapore. (2018). Historical development of Parliament. Retrieved 2018, November 8 from Parliament of Singapore website: https://www.parliament.gov.sg/history/historical-development
6. Tan, K. (2014). Constitutional law in Singapore. The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 342.5957 TAN); Council membership completed. (1948, March 27). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Yeo, K. W., & Lau, A. (1991). From colonialism to independence, 1945–1965. In E.C.T. Chew & E. Lee (Eds.), A history of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 119. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS]); Tan, K. (1999). The Singapore legal system. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 41. (Call no.: RSING 349.5957 SIN)
8. 63 percent voters go to poll. (1948, March 21). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Tan, K. (1999). The Singapore legal system. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 41–42. (Call no.: RSING 349.5957 SIN)
10. Tan, K. (1999). The Singapore legal system. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 42. (Call no.: RSING 349.5957 SIN)
11. Tan, K. (1999). The Singapore legal system. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 42–43. (Call no.: RSING 349.5957 SIN); Singapore. Constitutional Commission Singapore. (1954). Report of the Constitutional Commission of Singapore. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., pp. 3, 9–13, 14–19, 27. (Call no.: RCLOS 342.5957 SIN-[RFL])
12. Marshall names his men. (1955, April 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 17 April 2019 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.