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Salient. Victoria University Students Newspaper. Volume 38 Number 8. 1975

On the Political Side

On the Political Side

A moderately left-wing government, dominated by the Labour Front, assumed office in 1955, with David Marshall as Chief Minister. The aims of this new government were the achievement for Singapore of independence within the Commonwealth, and ultimate political merger between Singapore and Malaya. Between 1950 and 1957, leftwing pressures came to a head in a series of protests against the government and the colonial policy which controlled much of Singapore's economic, social and political life: there were strikes by unionists and Chinese Middle School students, rioting, and repressive government action, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of many political leftwing figures. Inevitably, the division between Mandarin-educated and English-educated Chinese was given sharper focus by socio-economic disparities amongst the population. Socialist and nationalist ideals disseminated through Mandarin schools found fertile ground among the working class, organised labour, and the politically conscious but officially side-stepped the mass of people whose participation in government was inconsonant with a largely expatriate and English-educated upper middle-class administration.

In 1954, the People's Action Party was founded by a group of liberal, largely English-educated, nationalists. The party's secretary-general was Lee Kuan Yew. At its inception, the P.A.P. was non-socialist and, though nationalist, by no means rigidly anti-British. But to win popular support the P.A.P. needed the backing of Singapore's leftwing and Mandarin-educated Chinese. Thus, soon after its founding, the P.A.P. embarked upon a marriage of convenience with the radical left in Singapore. It was a marriage convenient to both groups, each hoping to outwit the other and gain overall political control before the decisive 1959 election. By 1958, it was clear that the liberal faction had outwitted the left-wing for control of the P.A.P. In 1956 and 1957, the colonial government interned most of the socialist leadership, and in 1957 the P.A.P. amended its constitution, giving ultimate power to Lee Kuan Yew.

The political conflict which characterised the 1950's and the first half of the 1960's is thus of fundamental importance to any understanding of the position of Singapore within the sphere of British and Malayan Alliance Party interests in the region. For it involved a number of critical questions: was a radical left-wing government in keeping with the rational of an entrepot economic system; was such a government liable to threaten the role Britain wished to preserve in the region, let alone its military role; was socialism likely to threaten the position of the Alliance government in Malaya — given its aim of the 'socialist unification' of the two territories; and what were the implications for communal relations of a pro-communist, basically Chinese orientated government in Singapore within a region dominated by Malays? The re-arrest and detention of the most effective left-wing leadership in February 1963 was the most dramatic single blow against the socialist oppostiion since 1957. In September the Federation of Malaysia, designed by the British who saw it as a way of countering the left-wing threat, came into being. It was followed by events including the declaration of 'Confrontation', Indonesia's embargo of trade with Malaysia, a costly build-up of British forces in the region and widespread unrest in Sarawak in 1964 and 1965.

It was hardly suprising, therefore, that the federal Union between Malaya and Singapore was shattered in 1965, within a wrath of political, economic, and communal acrimony.

Table 1 Singapore's Trade By Country & Sector, 1969 (summary percentages)
Country Imports major importing goods %age Exports major exporting goods %age
Malay Peninsular Indonesia Rubber, mining & quarrying, timber, palm oil 40 Manufacturing wholesale & retail trade 34
Japan, Western Europe, United States, Great Britain. Manufacturing wholesale & retail trade. 31 Rubber, mining & quarrying, timber, palm oil 30
Table 2 The Industrial Distribution of The Labour Force: 1947 & 1966 (summary percentages)
Industry 1947 census 1957 census 1966 survey
Primary 8.8% 7.4% 3.6%
Manufacturing 17.0% 15.7% 19.2%
Construction 2.7% 5.2% 6.4%
Public Utilities 0.2% 1.2% 1.4%
Commerce 24.0% 25.9% 23.7%
Trans., Star., & Communic. 15.3% 10.7% 9.7%
Service 31.9% 33.9% 35.8%