Why 1959 matters
The central theme of the 1959 election campaign was the people of S'pore against privileged elites
By Thum Ping Tjin
THE significance of 1959 has faded out of our popular consciousness. Other dates and events, most notably 1942 and 1965, have surpassed our recognition of 1959 as a turning point in Singapore's history.
Yet to be alive at the time was to live amid one of the most exciting, eventful years of Singapore's history.
Singapore's economy had finally emerged from the post-Korean War slump. New technology, epitomised by the launch of Sputnik in 1958 and the opening of the first commercial nuclear power plant in Sellafield, England in 1956, promised to revolutionise the way people lived.
The opening of Nanyang University in 1958 heralded the availability of higher education for all who desired it. In a state which boasted one of Asia's highest standards of living, education and medical care, the choices and possibilities open to people seemed limitless.
The problem, of course, was that the benefits of the technological and economic transformations that were reshaping the world had, in Singapore, been largely monopolised by the privileged colonial and commercial elite.
The vast majority of Singapore's population still lived in relative poverty, with no social welfare provisions amid a severe housing shortage.
They could not afford private health care and queued long hours for treatment at one of Singapore's public hospitals. There were not enough jobs being created to meet the numerous young adults entering the workforce every year.
Singapore's economy was still dependent on trade, chiefly the export of rubber and tin, and buffeted by the fluctuations in world commodity prices.
Yet the successes of Singapore's first partially elected government had demonstrated how electoral democracy could produce a government that was responsive to the people and governed on behalf of all the people, and not just the elites.
The Labour Front government, led first by Mr David Marshall and then by Mr Lim Yew Hock, produced a number of very important legislation that would have a profound effect on Singapore, including the creation of the Central Provident Fund and the Housing and Development Board.
Mr Marshall introduced Meet-the-People Sessions, forcing government officials and civil servants to come face to face with the public they were supposed to be serving.
The public crammed themselves into the Legislative Assembly gallery to listen to the intense debate between Mr Marshall and the then leader of the opposition, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Their intelligent and informed verbal sparring was a clear sign to the world that the maturing Singaporean democracy was vibrant and productive.
Meanwhile, the people of Singapore had learnt to take responsibility for their own future. They organised themselves into political parties, trade unions and social action groups.
Capable and determined, they forced the colonial authorities to recognise that the continued promise of laissez-faire economic growth would no longer be enough.
The people were thirsting for their own rights and freedoms and would not be dissuaded from winning them.
In the face of scepticism and discouragement by the colonial authorities, Nanyang University, the people's university, was created.
It was organised by private enterprise and funded by donations from Singaporeans from all walks of life. It was the first state-wide popular campaign in Singapore's history, and served notice to the colonial government that if it would not provide for Singapore, Singaporeans would provide for it themselves.
Even so, there was much left to be done. The British government had held Malaya captive to global capitalism, minimising industrialisation to maximise production of raw materials, which they sold on the world market to finance the post-war reconstruction of Britain. It was widely recognised within the Federation and Singapore that industrialisation was needed to stabilise the local economy and create jobs.
As long as Britain held the levers of power, they would squeeze every last drop out of Malaya's rubber trees and tin mines, and Malaya would continue to be buffeted by the vagaries of the international commodity market.
Only fully self-governing states could hope to begin the process of economic development that the economies of the federation and Singapore needed.
Meanwhile, secret societies continued to rule the streets. Corruption and inefficiency infested the government and civil service. Most of all, the question of Singapore's complete independence, reunification with the Malayan mainland and the continuation of its democratic government needed to be addressed.
With so much at stake, the May 1959 election campaign was the most open and hotly contested in Singapore's history.
A total of 194 people, including nine women, contested Singapore's 51 constituencies, with up to seven people contesting each seat.
The parties campaigned on economic development, clean and efficient government, and safety and security for Singaporeans. The central theme of the campaign was the people of Singapore against the privileged elites.
Every party sought to claim the mantle of the people's voice. The People's Action Party (PAP) fielded many candidates from blue-collar professions, including farmers, barbers, carpenters and a seamstress.
The PAP's resounding victory, on a whopping 92.9 per cent turnout, cut across ethnic, religious and class lines.
It was more than just a victory for a well-run political party. Singapore was now a fully functioning democracy, where the rights of the people would be protected and their interests attended to.
The government was not only fully elected with complete internal control, vested with responsibility for the care of the people, but was also led by a party which was in touch with and represented the interests of the common people.
Singapore still faced an uncertain future, but now Singaporeans had control of their own destinies.
A new epoch had begun. Anything was possible. The future was, at long last, the Singaporean's very own.
Thum Ping Tjin, 29, is a doctoral candidate and teaches South-east Asian history at Oxford University.