The PAP: Why and how

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Petir reproduces extracts of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's essay "What of the past is relevant to the future" in the 25th Anniversary issue of Petir, to retrace the beginnings of the party since its formal inception 60 years ago.


The PAP was formally inaugurated at 9.30 a.m. on Sunday, November 21, 1954 at the Victoria Memorial Hall. For two years, the PAP had been under gestation. Sometimes weekly, most times fortnightly, a group - Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, S Rajaratnam, K M Byrne, Samad Ismail (a self-asserting communist, now under detention by the Malaysian government) and I - met in the basement dining room of my home at 38 Oxley Road. The group discussed the policies of a political party which would make a broad appeal to nationalists and those with radical political views. The Emergency had led to a vacuum in the constitutional arena in Singapore. The communists were underground, and the stage was occupied by lightweights, opportunists and time servers, none of them with any broad following. Our primary concern was how to muster a mass following. How did a group of English-educated nationalists - graduates of British universities - with no experience of either the hurly burly of politics or the conspiracies of revolution, move people whose many languages they did not speak, and whose problems and hardships they shared only intellectually?

The party was to be consciously radical and anticolonial. We understood communists and their fellow travellers would be admitted into the ranks of the party in a united front for the struggle for independence against the British; hence Samad Ismail's presence. We were riding a tiger and we knew it. No non-communist faction in any united front of the communists had ever emerged in one piece, let alone retain its grip over the united front organisation. For how could a bunch of armchair critics of British colonialism hope to stay in charge of events when they went into an unequal partnership with agents of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), a party secretly organised by two Comintern agents sent from Shanghai in 1923, eradicate before the war, a party hundreds of whose members were released from prisons in Singapore in January 1942 as the Japanese Imperial Army closed in on the city?

Did we, an English-educated, bourgeois group, with no organisation, and little ability to communicate with the Chinese dialect speaking Chinese masses or the Mandarin speaking educated elite, believe we could cope with Chinese pride in Chinese language, culture, history, in a period of intense resurgence, and stand up to the MCP, the protégé of the Chinese Communist Party? In all honesty, we did not think in those terms; we wanted the British out; we believed nationalism to be a more potent force than communism; we pressed on regardless of the horrendous risks because our visceral urges were stronger than our cerebral inhibitions.


Before launching the party in November 1954, we had established links with the unions. I had been called to the English bar and had come back on August 1, 1950. I was working as a legal assistant in a law firm in Malacca Street. In February 1952, the President, Secretary, and several committee members of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union looked for me. Amongst them was P Govindaswamy. The union was about to go on strike and needed someone to advise it, about its rights and duties, and to draft its press statements. I became their legal adviser to negotiate a settlement. 

The strike drew tremendous public interest and wide press coverage and sympathy. The colonial government was anxious not to be seen as repressive because since 1948, when it had banned all communist unions and arrested communist leaders, the situation was unnaturally quiet. The wild and violent communist-type strikes, demonstrations, and vociferous political opposition had gone underground. The colonial government was careful, even anxious, that it should be seen to allow non-communist activity in the unions and in political parties. They were government servants, not Chinese-educated and patently non-communist. After three week of negotiations, the 500 postmen and their uniformed senior ranks, up to Inspector of Postmen, went back to work with every one of their demands conceded in full or in part. I had been seen as a radical but effective spokesman for the workers and a successful negotiator for the Union. These postal workers and their families were the first supporters to line up behind the PAP. P Govindaswamy, then a supervisor of postmen, was later to be promoted Inspector of Postmen. In September 1963 he was to retire, contest and win Anson, and become its MP till he died in 1978.

In December 1952, 10,000 workers of the Naval Base Labour Union went on strike. They sought my services. The strike ended with an arbitration. The arbitrator's findings gave enough concessions to the workers for the award to be accepted.

In 1954, the clerical workers in the postal and telecommunications services threatened to go on strike.

It was another non-communist union of English-educated workers. I represented them in negotiations which ended in an arbitration.

This historical backdrop is important to an understanding of the politics, and later the policies, of the PAP government. We had grown up in the unions; we had built up our political following working on and through workers' problems, fighting against unfair treatment and injustice.

We never allowed the tail to wag the dog; the unions were not allowed to decide national policy as we had seen them do to the Labour Front government in 1955-59.

MALAYSIA 1963-1965

On September 16, 1963, we joined Malaysia. Polling Day, September 21, was after the merger. Many people feared we would lose to Barisan Sosialis. They made detention of their open front leaders and our alleged "sell-out to Malaysia" the burning issues of the elections. Barisan rallies drew huge crowds; their speakers were wildly cheered. It proved the communists were good at organising big crowds to intimidate neutral onlookers. They were meant to demoralize and rout our supporters. They failed. Although the percentage of PAP votes fell from 53.4% in 1959 to 46.5% in 1963, we won 37 seats against 13 seats for Barisan Sosialis.


1964, the year after merger, Singapore had its first communal riots on Prophet Muhamad's birthday, 21 July. Singapore had been initiated into the politics of communal intimidation in the Federation. It was a horrendous shock to discover how trusting and innocent we had been. We refused to be cowed into acquiescence. In May 1965, the PAP teamed up with all the opposition parties in Malaysia to form the Malaysia Solidarity Convention. The PAP began to gather support in peninsular Malaysia. We fought back peacefully and constitutionally. On August 9, that year, Singapore left Malaysia; the Tunku had told me on Friday, August 6, in Kuala Lumpur, that he knew no other way; he was not able otherwise to prevent a bloodbath.


When was the turning point for the PAP? PAP votes hit their lowest in September 1963 at 46.5%. The Hong Lim by-election in July (1965) was a straight fight between the PAP and Barisan Sosialis. We won Hong Lim by 58.9% of the votes, although 22 months earlier in the general elections of September 1963, we had lost Hong Lim, getting only 33.1% of the votes. We had increased our support by 25.8%.

In the 1963 general election, we lost Bukit Merah. In the 1966 by-election, we got 80% of the votes polled, against 38.7% in 1963, an increase of 41.3%. Bukit Merah's increase of 41.3% support was not a flash in the pan for the party.

Leaders must lead


Six basic principles guided us in government from 1959-79. We enjoined ourselves to:

Give clear signals: don't confuse people

We have been a coherent united group not given to cliques and factionalism. We argued and thrashed out our differences in private. In public we never contradicted each other.

Be consistent: don't chop and change

We have kept faith with ourselves and our supporters. Our policies have been consistent but not inflexible. We won the trust of the people. The next generation of PAP leaders will inherit this trust. They cannot afford to squander it.

Stay clean; dismiss the venal

We have run the government in an honest, fair and efficient manner. This is easier said than done; for once in office the temptations are great.

Whether it is licences for hawkers and taxi drivers, or balloting for flats, or tenders for millions of dollars' worth of government contracts, PAP members, MPs and Ministers have not taken advantage of their positions. The leadership as individuals and as a group has not allowed it and will not tolerate it.

Win respect, not popularity; reject soft options

The government has not hesitated to implement policies despite the unpopularity they caused in the short-term, in order to secure the long-term interest of the people. We have never allowed ourselves to forget that popular government does not mean that we have to be popular in every act of government.

Spread benefits; don't deprive the people

Do not tolerate the cornering of the fruits of group endeavour for the exclusive, and worse, ostentatious enjoyment of a privileged few, depriving the many workers, who contributed, of their fair share of the benefits.

Strive to succeed; never give up

However formidable the opposition, be they communists or communalists, or having to defend ourselves as when the British announced their pull-out in January 1968, we did not waste time wringing our hands and sighing at our misfortune. Keep cool, take a realistic look at the size of the problems and have a hard-headed assessment of possible solutions; narrow the solutions down to those mostly likely to succeed; decide on your course of action and set to work on it with all your might. If your best is not enough, and there can be such situations, history will forgive you. But if you fail because you dared not try, or did not give of your best, you are a disgrace.

These precepts are deceptively easy to spell out; they are exceedingly difficult to practice. The above principles of PAP government are as relevant in the future as they were in the past 20 years.

These excerpts were published in the April 2014 issue of Petir Magazine.

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Published by and at the directions of People's Action Party
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