Monday, October 19, 2009

Book preview: Staging merdeka

This is the fourth book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which is being launched next week. The first three previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out', 'The education of Singapore girls' and 'Captain Mohan Singh's dark night of the soul'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

This preview introduces David Marshall, who was elected Singapore's first Chief Minister in 1955.

Staging merdeka
On 21 March 1956, a tall, Mediterranean-looking man, who carried a pipe and whose bushy eyebrows seemed to attempt an escape from his forehead each time he emphasised a point, spoke into a microphone in front of a crowd of supporters. He was standing underneath the 'apple tree' at Empress Place (next to what is today Old Parliament House) from where his words were broadcast live by Radio Malaya. In a present age, in which politicians try hard to appear natural and approachable, his performance serves as something of a master class:
Merdeka! People of Singapore! Last year, this time, in the month of March: a time of agony. I came before you, day after day at lunchtime, to speak to you of the dangers that the future held and to put before you a blueprint for a miracle. I did not dream, I did not dare believe, that you would give us an opportunity to make that miracle possible.
The man was David Marshall, a brilliant lawyer, a Sephardic Jew and one of the most colourful personalities Singapore politics has ever known. Then in his late 30s, Marshall had served for the previous year as the island’s first elected Chief Minister. He now appeared before his supporters to declare his government’s achievements, to relate the hurdles that it had overcome, and to explain the dangers that it faced in the future:
I think you know, when I was first elected and appointed Chief Minister, I was told I had no office, no clerk, no thambi [a boy or male servant]. And oh they couldn’t give me any office – it took a long time – government offices were extremely overloaded – and there was a lot of difficulty. I had to threaten to bring a desk here and set it up here or in my flat [laughter] before I could get an office!

I was told that, of course, the heaven-born, including the Chief Secretary, was the man who would coordinate government policy; that I was just the, the sort of the – the senior thambi among the thambis! [more laughter] I made it very clear and very soon that I was either Chief Minister or not. Finally, they accepted the position that I could coordinate policy.
Superior colonial officials were not the only obstacle Marshall and his government faced. Recalling another source of opposition, the Chief Minister felt clearly in his element:
To read the English press, we are a group of baboons who are trying to impose independence on you against your will. The Standard came out on Sunday with an article – not written by a Malayan, thank god. Well, he said, please don’t give us independence: we want Papa and Mama colonialism! [loud laughter, then Marshall imitates a child] Mama colonialism! Mama! A lost boy!
Finally, Marshall laid the jokes aside to conclude with a more serious message:
The communists are the ultimate danger to this country. And whether it is today or it is tomorrow, whatever the threat to my own personal safety may be and to my friends and to my colleagues, we intend to act with all the firmness possible against those disruptive elements that call themselves communists.

You don’t want, I don’t want, the people of Singapore don’t want a yanko merdeka. We want a Malayan merdeka! [Loud applause] And we will get it!
For all these fine words three months later Marshall was to resign, his dreams of steering Singapore to independence in tatters. His rapid rise and then equally sudden demise tell us much about the high drama (and sometimes high farce) of what was then a new style of politics on the island. But his story is equally important because of the leading players who shared his stage. For it was these other rising stars in the political firmament – the young Hakka Chinese lawyer Lee Kuan Yew and the even younger Hokkien Chinese bus worker Lim Chin Siong – who not only matched Marshall for charisma, but who ultimately presented him with far greater challenges than the British.

The outsider comes in
Looking back over his career in an oral history interview, Marshall claimed that the main motivation that drove him to enter politics was anger: ‘Anger at the leprous concept of racial superiority and it had been mounting in my belly since my schooldays’. He explained that he was never ‘anti-British’; rather, he wanted to ‘break through the sonic barrier against Asians and especially Jews’. Nor, he admitted, was he especially ideological. Though he moved in Singapore’s socialist circles during the early 1950s he never became especially grounded in socialist dogma. His personal understanding of socialism was that it simply meant ‘an effort to create the foundations of the opportunity of all our people to attain conditions of living compatible with human dignity’.

Marshall received his clarion call when in mid-1953 the British governor John Nicoll, in an effort to speed up Singapore’s progress towards self-government, announced the formation of a new constitutional commission. The outcome of the 1954 Rendel Commission (named after its chief convener Sir John Rendel) was that popular elections would be held the following year for a newly constituted Legislative Assembly made up of 32 members, 25 of whom would be elected. For Marshall, the political dawn that beckoned was so exciting as to be almost palpable:
‘Hey we are human beings! Hey, we’ve got the right to vote! Hey, we’ve got a right to elect our own representative! We’ve got a right to a voice in how we are to live.’ Now that is something you don’t understand today. But that was very, very radical at that time. You know it’s like the four-legged animal suddenly finding himself standing straight and looking upwards instead of looking to the ground. It really was a radical change of psychological atmosphere … ‘Hey we are standing on two legs!’
© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography was published in October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore & Editions Didier Millet.

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