People's Action Party: Pre-independence years

Singapore Infopedia


The People’s Action Party (PAP) was established on 21 November 1954 with the primary objective of striving for Singapore’s independence from British rule.1 The political party was first led by Lee Kuan Yew as its secretary-general, with Toh Chin Chye as its founding chairman.2 The PAP was voted into power in the Legislative Assembly general election held on 30 May 1959 and officially became the first fully elected government of the self-governing state of Singapore on 5 June 1959, with Lee as the state’s first prime minister.3

The origins of the party can be traced to Lee, Toh and Goh Keng Swee in the 1950s. All three were studying in England at the time and had come together as part of the group called Malayan Forum, which pursued the idea of an independent Malaya. After returning to Singapore, the group met regularly at Lee’s home on Oxley Road to continue their discussions on the prospects and approach for attaining independence for Singapore. They were joined by S. Rajaratnam – then a journalist known for his strong anti-colonial views – who was introduced to Lee by Goh.4

At this point, Lee also served as a legal adviser to unions such as the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union and Naval Base Labour Union to help them fight for better terms for their workers. Through this, the group garnered the support of the English-educated and the Malay workers towards his cause. In order to win over the Chinese working class, clans and trade guilds, Lee and his team of moderate nationalists established links with influential trade unionists Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan – both of whom were radical leftists – and involved them in the subsequent formation of the political party. The ideological difference between unionists Lim and Fong, and the rest of the collective led by Lee, would eventually rupture their alliance.5

As the group expanded beyond five members, Toh became concerned that they would be arrested for illegal assembly. He thus proposed the formation of a political party to openly champion nationalism. Toh suggested the name “Action Party”, inspired by that of the Council for Joint Action, a committee that advocated equal benefits for local civil servants vis-à-vis expatriate government officers. The word “People” was added, as “Action Party” sounded too short and also because the party was representing the working class.6

The PAP was formally inaugurated on 21 November 1954 at the Victoria Memorial Hall.7 The 14 convenors of the inaugural meeting were Lee, Toh, Rajaratnam, Fong, C. V. Devan Nair, Abdul Samad Ismail (editor of Utusan Melayu), Tann Wee Tiong (lawyer), Mofradi bin Haji Mohd Noor (hospital worker), schoolteachers Tann Wee Keng and Chan Chiaw Thor, as well as unionists P. Govindaswamy, Ismail Rahim, Lee Gek Seng and A. K. Kuruppiah.8 The event was attended by some 1,500 people, including Tunku Abdul Rahman, then leader of the Federation of Malaya’s leading political party – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – and Tan Cheng Lock, then president of the Malayan Chinese Association.9 About two-thirds of the seats were filled by PAP’s supporters from the unions.10

Early developments: 1955–1959
First elections
On 2 April 1955, the first local election was held in Singapore under the new Rendel Constitution, which provided for a partially elected government. Of the 32-seat Legislative Assembly, 25 were to be elected. The Legislative Assembly general election was the PAP’s first political contest, and its aim was to gain enough seats to become an effective opposition. Out of the four PAP candidates fielded for the election, three won, including Lee for Tanjong Pagar. The Labour Front emerged as the leading political party by winning 10 seats, and hence the party’s David Marshall became Singapore’s first chief minister.11

The PAP also contested the City Council election on 21 December 1957. The election would form the first fully elected council – the decision-making body for matters such as public health, housing and electricity. The PAP won 13 of the 32 seats; as the leading party, its treasurer Ong Eng Guan was appointed the first mayor of Singapore.12

Early struggle against the radical left
The alliance between Lee’s moderate camp and the left-wing members led by Lim and Fong proved to be an uneasy union fraught with tension, given the ideological conflict. At the outset, Lee and his group had made it clear to Lim and the other leftists that they upheld moderate political values and supported change through constitutional means. The latter, however, were said to have communist links and lean towards violence to achieve their aims, notwithstanding the common goal of both sides to be free of British colonial rule.13 With Lim’s clout among the Chinese-educated union members and students, he rallied many left-wing supporters to the PAP’s cause.14

At the fourth party conference on 4 August 1957, six left-wing members were elected to the 12-member Central Executive Committee (CEC), the PAP’s highest decision-making body, while only five out of the eight that Lee had expected to be re-elected were voted in. The PAP attributed the outcome to a smear campaign conducted by the left-wing camp against four of the outgoing members. Although Lee and Toh retained their seats in the CEC, both refused to take office as they did not want to “become a shield for the pro-communists”.15

The leadership change, however, was short-lived. In the same month, then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock launched a series of anti-communist mass arrests starting from 21 August, under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (present-day Internal Security Act). About 35 people were detained in the first swoop, including five of the newly elected left-wing members of the PAP’s CEC and 13 PAP branch officials. The arrests subsequently enabled the moderate faction to regain control of PAP.16

Key developments: 1959–1965
Elected to power
After three rounds of constitutional talks (also known as the Merdeka talks)17 held in London, Singapore attained the right to internal self-government, following which a general election for the first fully elected government was held on 30 May 1959.18

The PAP contested all 51 seats. Its election manifesto, titled The Tasks Ahead, outlined the party’s five-year plan to address acute problems faced by Singapore.19 The manifesto covered a series of policies and programmes, such as attaining independence through merger with the Federation of Malaya, low-cost housing, the strengthening of education, as well as the development of industries and thus improved employment opportunities for the local population.20

By capturing 43 seats, the PAP won the election and formed the first government of the self-governing state of Singapore on 5 June 1959.21 The nine-member cabinet consisted of Lee as prime minister, Toh as deputy prime minister, Goh (finance), Ong Pang Boon (home affairs), Yong Nyuk Lin (education), Rajaratnam (culture), Ong Eng Guan (national development), Ahmad Ibrahim (health) and K. M. Byrne (labour and law).22

The left-wing PAP leaders, including Lim and Fong, who had been detained previously were released on 4 June 1959 as a condition for Singapore’s self-government.23

The big split
On 22 and 23 July 1961, 13 left-wing PAP assemblymen, including Lim and Fong, were expelled following their abstentions during a vote of confidence called by Lee in the Legislative Assembly. Besides not showing faith in the government, they were also deemed to have dissented from PAP government policies and acted against the party’s interest.24 Prior to the expulsion, Lim and his group of left-wing trade unionists had demanded for the abolition of the Internal Security Council (present-day Internal Security Department) as a prerequisite for merger with the federation – a demand tantamount to an open confrontation with the PAP. In addition, Lim and his group had also spurred PAP’s left-wing supporters to shift their support away from the PAP during the Anson by-election held on 15 July 1961.25

The expelled assemblymen then formed a new political party – the Barisan Sosialis – on 29 July the same year. At this point, the Barisan membership also included 22 former PAP branch officials who had been dismissed from their posts.26 Consequently, the PAP was left with a single-seat majority in the Legislative Assembly: It controlled 26, while the Barisan held 13, out of a total 51 seats.27

Merger with the Federation of Malaya
In November 1961, the PAP published the white paper on merger, which sought merger with the Federation of Malaya as a means to independence and to ensure Singapore’s economic survival.28 However, the proposal was met with resistance in the Legislative Assembly: The Barisan Sosialis and other opposition parties opposed the conditions of merger laid out by the PAP.29 Despite the resistance, the PAP successfully pushed forth its proposal for Singapore’s merger with the federation. A referendum to seek the people’s consent on merger was held on 1 September 1962. Seventy-one percent of the population opted for merger in accordance with the terms spelt out in the white paper.30

Singapore officially joined the Federation of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963.31 Lee called for a snap election held on 21 September 1963 in which the PAP fought against the Barisan Sosialis.32 The PAP centred its election campaign on the achievements of its government in the previous four years – such as the construction of 24,000 public-housing units, expansion of educational facilities and the development of the new Jurong industrial estate, as well as Singapore's independence through merger. The PAP presented itself as the representative of the Singapore state, while the Barisan Sosialis largely relied on its appeal among the Chinese masses, especially the Chinese-educated, as a movement dedicated to the Chinese language, education and culture.33 The PAP garnered 47 percent of the votes and returned to office by attaining 37 out of 51 seats, while the Barisan won 13 seats.34


Singapore’s merger with the federation was accompanied by many challenges. Disagreements ranged from the development of a common economy to Singapore’s contribution to the federal treasury. The PAP advocated equality of races with a “Malaysian Malaysia”, while UMNO maintained its position of having racialised policies for a “Malay Malaysia”. When the PAP sent a team of candidates to contest in the 25 April 1964 Malaysian general election – in which it won one seat – the participation was viewed by the Malaysian central government as an attempt by the PAP to intervene in federal politics.35 Subsequently, in May 1965, the PAP organised the Malaysian Solidarity Convention with another four opposition parties in Malaysia to promote a “Malaysian Malaysia”.36 Singapore eventually separated from the federation when a bill favouring the split was passed by the Malaysian parliament on 9 August 1965.37

Party core values, logo and uniform
Honesty is a core value of the PAP, which requires its members to be incorruptible and transparent, and to lead with integrity. Its other core values include multiracialism, which emphasises a “Singaporean Singapore” that belongs equally to all citizens; meritocracy and self-reliance.38

The PAP’s logo comprises a red lightning that represents action, a blue circle standing for unity of all races, and a white background to signify purity and integrity.39 The values of purity and integrity are also symbolised in the white-on-white uniform of the PAP.40

Party structure
Cadre system

Following the attempt by left-wing members to gain control of the party in 1957, the PAP introduced a cadre system on 23 November 1958 to prevent hostile takeover from within the party. Under the system, only cadre members have the voting rights to elect the CEC.41 Those invited to be cadres undergo a stringent review process and are selected by the CEC.42

Following Singapore’s independence in 1965, the first generation of PAP leaders who took office as the first 10 cabinet ministers of the Republic of Singapore were:43

Prime Minister: Lee Kuan Yew.
Deputy Prime Minister: Toh Chin Chye.
Minister for Culture and Social Affairs: Othman bin Wok.
Minister of Defence: Goh Keng Swee.
Minister for Education: Ong Pang Boon.
Minister for Finance: Lim Kim San.
Minister for Foreign Affairs: S. Rajaratnam.
Minister for Health: Yong Nyuk Lin.
Minister for Labour: Jek Yeun Thong.
Minister for Law and National Development: E. W. Barker.


The first PAP branch was Tanjong Pagar, established in April 1955. By the party’s first anniversary it had set up five branches, with the other four being Farrer Park, Punggol-Tampines, Bukit Timah and Bukit Panjang. In the 1950s and 1960s, the PAP branches organised activities such as language classes, basketball games and dance sessions. The branches also helped to raise literacy rates by setting up libraries on their premises, which proved to be a popular facility with the branch members, who were predominantly blue-collar workers.44

Timeline: Pre-independence
21 Nov 1954: Inauguration of the PAP at Victoria Memorial Hall.45
2 Apr 1955: PAP wins three of the 25 elected seats in the first local election held under the Rendel Constitution.46
Apr 1956: The first issue of PAP’s organ, Petir, is launched.47
4 Aug 1957: Six left-wing members are voted into the 12-member CEC at the fourth party conference.48
21–22 Aug 1957: Five of the left-wing CEC members are arrested for alleged involvement in communist activities, along with 13 other PAP branch officials.
20 Oct 1957: PAP regains control of the CEC; Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye are re-elected as PAP’s secretary-general and chairman respectively.49
21 Dec 1957: PAP wins 13 of the 32 seats in the first fully elected City Council; its treasurer Ong Eng Guan was appointed first mayor of Singapore.50
30 May 1959: PAP wins 53.4 percent of votes and 43 of the 51 seats in the general election for the first fully elected government in Singapore.51
5 Jun 1959: PAP forms the first government of the self-governing state of Singapore with Lee as prime minister.52
Jul 1961: Left-wing PAP leaders are expelled from the party.53
16 Sep 1963: Singapore becomes part of Malaysia.54
21 Sep 1963: PAP wins 47 percent of votes and 37 of the 51 seats in the first general election held after Singapore’s merger with Malaysia.55
9 Aug 1965: Singapore separates from Malaysia and becomes an independent and sovereign state.56

Cheryl Sim

1. “About,” People’s Action Party, accessed 7 May 2014; “‘Politics Must Take a Bigger Role Now’,” Petir (January–February 2012), 14–15 (Call no. RSING 329.95957 P); “‘Freedom Now’ – New Party,” Straits Times, 22 November 1954, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Charissa Yong, “Lee Kuan Yew Takes to Stage where He Founded PAP,” Straits Times, 8 November 2014, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2005), 45. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 HUS)
3. “Premier: We Need the Help of All in S’pore,” Straits Times, 6 June 1959, 1 (From NewspaperSG); “Party Milestones: Party Beginnings,” People’s Action Party, 2014; People’s Action Party (Singapore), For People Through Action By Party (Singapore: People’s Action Party, 1999), 150–51. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 FOR)
4. Diane K. Mauzy and R.S. Milne, Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party (New York: Routledge, 2002), 38 (Call no. RSING 320.95957 MAU); People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 52; Leong Ching, PAP 50: Five Decades of the People’s Action Party (Singapore: People’s Action Party, 2004), 10 (Call no. RSING q324.25957 LEO); “Rallying Force,” Petir (January–February 2012), 20–21. (Call no. RSING 329.95957 P)
5. Mauzy and Milne, Singapore Politics, 39–40; People’s Action Party, “About”; Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, 1998), 178–9. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
6. “Rallying Force,” 20–21; Yeo Kim Wah, Political Development in Singapore, 1945–55 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), 119–20. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 YEO)
7. “‘Freedom Now’.”
8. Fong Sip Chee, The PAP Story: The Pioneering Years, November 1954–April 1968: A Diary of Events of the People's Action Party: Reminiscences of an Old Cadre (Singapore: Times Periodicals, 1980), 11. (Call no. RSING 329.95957 FON)
9. Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 44–45, 59.
10. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 181.
11. “Labour Wins – Marshall Will Be Chief Minister,” Straits Times, 3 April 1955, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 181–2; Bilveer Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore: An Introduction (Singapore: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 23 (Call no. RSING 320.95957 SIN); Leong, PAP 50, 14.
12. “PAP Conquers the City,” Straits Times, 22 December 1957, 1; “Council Chaos again,” Straits Times, 25 December 1957, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Leong, PAP 50, 20; People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 150.
13. People’s Action Party, “About”; People’s Action Party, “Party Milestones”; “Reds Are Planning New Phase of Violence, Says the Govt,” Straits Times, 24 April 1963, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 44; People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 54, 59; “Left-Wing Unionism’s Role,” Straits Times, 8 June 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Leong, PAP 50, 19; “Big PAP Vote to Be Non-Communist,” Straits Times, 5 August 1957, 7; “Left-Wing Plot to Capture Govt,” Straits Times, 21 October 1957, 4; “PAP Row Leaves Party Leaderless,” Straits Times, 8 August 1957, 7; “Lee in PAP Sensation,” Straits Times, 7 August 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Mauzy and Milne, Singapore Politics, 39; Leong, PAP 50, 19; “The Lee Team Runs PAP again,” Straits Times, 21 October 1957, 1; “Arrests: More Today,” Straits Times, 24 August 1997, 1; “Here Is the List of Names of People Now in Custody,” Straits Times, 24 August 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Marshall Has Talk with Boyd,” Singapore Free Press, 23 April 1956, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. People’s Action Party, “Party Milestones.”
19. Raj Vasil, A Citizen’s Guide to Government and Politics in Singapore (Singapore: Talisman, 2004), 24 (Call no. RSING 320.95957 VAS); Leong, PAP 50, 26.
20. Fong, Reminiscences of an Old Cadre, 71–72; People's Action Party (Singapore), The Tasks Ahead: PAP's Five-Year Plan, 1959–1964, part 1 (Singapore: Petir, 1959), 8, 10, 19. (Call no. RCLOS 329.95957 PEO)
21. “2.45 am – PAP Romps Home with Landslide Victory,” Straits Times, 31 May 1959, 1; “Premier: We Need the Help of All in S’pore,” Straits Times, 6 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Lee’s Cabinet: This Is It,” Straits Times, 6 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “8 PAP Men Go Free,” Straits Times, 3 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Govt Dismisses Four Top Party Rebels,” Straits Times, 22 July 1961, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Ee Boon Lee, “Sack for 5 Parliamentary Secretaries Who Abstained in Confidence Vote,” Straits Times, 23 July 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Fong, Reminiscences of an Old Cadre, 96.
26. A. Mahadeva, “PAP Dissidents Name New Party ‘Barisan Socialis’,” Straits Times, 30 July 1961, 4; “Barisan Socialis Is Registered,” Straits Times, 14 August 1961, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 45.
27. “Barisan Socialis Is Registered”; Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 183.
28. Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 24; “Singapore 15 Seats,” Straits Times, 17 November 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Barisan Socialis Stand on Merger,” Straits Times, 11 September 1961, 8; Council of Joint Action on ‘Red Smear Tactics’,” Straits Times, 10 July 1962, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “Lee’s Trump Card,” Straits Times, 15 August 1962, 1; “Merger ‘Yes’,” Straits Times, 3 September 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 24.
32. “PAP Landslide: Barisan Is Hammered,” Straits Times, 22 September 1963, 1 (From NewspaperSG); People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 151; Jackie Sam, “Singapore’s D-day,” Straits Times, 21 September 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Raj Vasil, Governing Singapore: Democracy and National Development (N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 28. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 VAS)
34. “Barisan Is Hammered”; People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 151; Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 184; “Nair – He Dethroned the Front’s David,” Straits Times, 7 April 1964, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Leong, PAP 50, 40; Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 24–25; People’s Action Party, “Party Milestones”; “PAP’s entry into 1964 Polls Rouses Fears in KL,” Straits Times, 5 July 1998, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “Grand’ Opposition Discuss ‘Grave Trends…Straits Times, 10 May 1965, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Vasil, Citizen’s Guide to Government and Politics in Singapore, 15–16.
37. Leong, PAP 50, 43.
38. “Our Core Values,” People’s Action Party, 2014.
39. People’s Action Party, “Party Milestones”; People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 52.
40. People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 52.
41. Mauzy and Milne, Singapore Politics, 40; Leong, PAP 50, 19, 24.
42. People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 56.
43. National Library Board, Singapore and National Archives of Singapore, Singapore: The First Ten Years of Independence, 1965 to 1975 (Singapore: National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore, 2007), 248. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 SIN)
44. “Party Branches,” Petir (July 2014), 22–25 (Call no. RSING 329.95957 P); People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 68, 86.
45. People’s Action Party, “About.”
46. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 181; Leong, PAP 50, 14; Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 23; “Labour Wins.”
47. Leong, PAP 50, 17.
48. People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 150.
49. “Lee Team Runs PAP again”; People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 150.
50. Leong, PAP 50, 20; People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 150.
51. People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 151; People’s Action Party, “Party Milestones.”
52. People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 151.
53. People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 54, 151.
54. “Up Goes the Flag,” Straits Times, 17 September 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
55. People’s Action Party (Singapore), Through Action By Party, 151.
56. United Nations, “Agreement Relating to the Separation of Singapore from Malaysia as an Independent and Sovereign State. Signed at Kuala Lumpur, on 7 August 1965” (United Nation – Treaty Series, no. 8206, United Nations, 1966)

The information in this article is valid as of 26 January 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.












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