Walking with Workers (1955 – 1963)
The 1950s was a period of political upheaval in the colonial island state of Singapore. The city was invigorated with the conferment of limited self-government by the British, which allowed the people of Singapore to vote and be elected into the Legislative Assembly. This began several years of campaigning and negotiations geared by many political parties towards gaining independence from the British. Towards the end of the decade and in the early 60s, merger with Malaya, Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak as a route to independence was widely debated by the various political parties, and also became a key issue within The Workers’ Party.
8 February 1955:
The Rendel Constitution was introduced to Singapore’s legislation, conferring limited self-governance to Singapore. The Legislative Council was replaced with the Legislative Assembly, and all local citizens were given the right to vote.
2 April 1955:
Legislative Assembly General Election
David Saul Marshall’s Labour Front emerged victorious as the largest party in the Legislative Assembly, but was short of a majority. Bolstered by support from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), Marshall formed a new government, thus becoming Singapore’s first Chief Minister.
7 June 1956:
Marshall steps down as Chief Minister
Having failed to secure self-government for Singapore after several rounds of talks in London, in accordance with a promise he made to the people of Singapore, Marshall stepped down from the post of Chief Minister.
17 April 1957:
Marshall leaves the Labour Front
Due to his dissatisfaction with the terms of agreement borne out of Lim Yew Hock’s Merdeka talks in London, Marshall quit the Labour Front and sat instead as an independent in the Legislative Assembly.
30 April 1957:
Marshall resigns from the Legislative Assembly
Marshall challenged Lee Kuan Yew of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to a by-election contest Tanjong Pagar to test the popularity of his views. This resulted to unexpected public clashes between trade unions. Not wanting to fuel further public discord, Marshall resigns from his seat in Cairnhill.
23 June 1957:
Marshall announces idea of forming a party for the workers
While addressing the delegates of the Army Civil Service Union at a conference, Marshall said, “We can evolve a plan whereby we can create a political party whose membership is exclusively confined to members of the trade unions… and which would never be manipulated by the communists… I will co-operate with you in making this idea a reality.”
3 November 1957:
Formation of The Workers’ Party (WP)
Headed by David Saul Marshall, the party was launched at the Hokkien Association Hall in Telok Ayer street in the presence of 800 members, pledging founding principles of Merdeka, Parliamentary Democracy, and Socialism.
21 December 1957:
City Council elections
WP performed well in its maiden election, winning four out of five of its contested seats in Cairnhill, Kallang, Delta and Telok Ayer.
26 July 1958:
City Council By-election
WP’s vice-chairman and city councillor, Chang Yuen Tong, abruptly resigns in May 1958 upon the instigation of communist leader, Fang Chuang Pi. Lee Kuan Yew had asked Fang Chuang Pi to do so to prove that he was not using WP as a vehicle to run the People’s Action Party (PAP) down at the polls. This triggered a by-election in Kallang.
30 May 1959:
David Marshall contests in Cairnhill against Lim Yew Hock and loses with only 26.7% of the valid votes.
After successful negotiations with the British, Singapore was now granted full internal self-governance under the new constitution. PAP wins the elections by a landslide, forming government for the first time.
15 July 1961:
By-election in Anson
After PAP assemblyman Baharuddin Mohammed Ariff passes unexpectedly, a by-election was called in Anson. David Marshall contests against four others and won, the first win for WP in the new legislature of Singapore.
Marshall was elected at a time when merger with the Malayan Federation was being fervently debated. Strongly against PAP’s brand of merger for fear that Singaporeans will be disadvantaged, Marshall proposed for complete merger, or for Singapore to be independent. He fell into an uneasy compromise with other leaders within the party, resulting in supporting the White Paper for merger in Parliament, but urged voters to cast blank votes at the referendum. This was heavily criticised by PAP.
15 September 1962:
Sum Chong Heng and Chua Chin Kiat, Vice-President and Secretary-General of WP, resigns
After discovering that his party colleague mistranslated his speeches, Marshall writes to the executive council of the party on 4 September 1962, demanding the expulsion of Sum Chong Heng and Chua Chin Kiat. The two eventually resigned.
13 January 1963:
Marshall resigns from WP
Although Marshall was re-elected as Chairman, the previously ousted Chua Chin Kiat returned to the party and was elected as Secretary-General of WP as its organising members meeting. Marshall was extremely disappointed by this outcome, and resigns only half an hour after he was elected.
He felt that WP was “no longer the appropriate medium for the destination of the concept of democracy” and it was taken over by the “industrial Chinese-speaking people” whom he deemed were “deaf to reason and sense”.
21 September 1963:
Marshall stands in Anson as an independent, and loses. WP following Marshall’s resignation falls into decline, with only 3 candidates in the election, polling an average of 1% of the valid votes.