1955 Legislative Assembly general election

Singapore Infopedia


On 2 April 1955, a general election was held to elect 25 out of 32 seats in the Legislative Assembly of Singapore. The landmark election was the first time a majority of legislators was elected by popular ballot rather than appointed by colonial authorities. The election was held under the Rendel Constitution, which had been drafted based on recommendations presented by the Rendel Commission.

Background: Rendel Commission
The Rendel Commission was set up by the British government in 1953 to review the constitution of Singapore and recommend changes with a view towards self-government.1 The nine-man committee was headed by George Rendel, a former ambassador to Belgium. Other members included five nominated unofficial members of the Legislative Council: Tan Chin Tuan, Lim Yew Hock, N. A. Mallal, Ahmad bin Mohamed Ibrahim and C. C. Tan. The remaining three were British subjects. In addition, Owen Hood Phillips was appointed as an adviser to the commission on constitutional affairs. Then Governor of Singapore John Nicoll drew up the terms of references laying out the objectives of the review. The commission was to make recommendations on issues regarding the enlargement of the electoral roll, increasing the number of elected members and the appointment of a Speaker.2

The report of the Rendel Commission, published on 22 February 1954, made a number of key recommendations for the new constitution. First, it recommended the automatic registration of voters. Second, it proposed to have a Legislative Assembly replace the Legislative Council. The Legislative Assembly would have 32 members: 25 elected members, four nominated members and three ex-officio members. Third, there was to be a council of nine ministers, three to be appointed by the governor and the remaining six recommended by the leader of the majority party in the Assembly. The Council of Ministers would act like a Cabinet, with authority over all matters except external affairs, internal security and defence. The three ministries were to be in the hands of the three appointed ministers who were also the financial secretary, attorney-general and chief secretary. Fourth, on the issue of a Speaker, it was decided that the Assembly would elect the Speaker from a list of candidates from outside the Assembly who was selected by the governor. Fifth, the commission recommended the removal of direct representatives for the chambers of commerce in the government. Sixth, it proposed that the electoral boundaries be divided into 25 divisions.3

The report of the Rendel Commission was accepted by the British government, and the Rendel Constitution came into effect on 8 February 1955.4 That same day, Nicoll also signed election writs for the 25 divisions to be contested in the Legislative Assembly general election. Nomination Day was on 28 February 1955 and Polling Day, 2 April.5

Election day and contesting parties
The 25 seats in the Legislative Assembly were contested by a total of 79 candidates.6 Of these, 69 candidates were fielded by six political parties and the remaining 10 were independents.7 The six political parties were: Singapore Progressive Party, Singapore Democratic Party, Labour Front, People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Alliance.8

Singapore Progressive Party
Both the Progressives and the Democrats entered the election as front-runners, fielding the most candidates: The Progressives had 22 candidates, while the Democrats had 20.9 Holding six seats in the Legislative Council, the Progressives were expected to dominate the new Legislative Assembly. The Progressives were also favoured by the British and was considered a party of the English-educated professional elite. Some of the prominent Progressives running for election were also Legislative Council members, including C. C. Tan and N. A. Mallal.10 In its party manifesto, the Progressives proposed for the localisation, or Malayanisation, of the civil service, six years of free bilingual education for every child from the age of six, more free medical services and no rise in income tax. It also called for the establishment of a government housing authority for the building of more low-cost housing.11

Singapore Democratic Party
The Democrats, on the other hand, was formed by the Chinese business community. Dubbed the “Millionaire’s Party”, it was sponsored and supported by wealthy Chinese business leaders, most notably the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. At its formation, the president of the Democrats was rubber tycoon Tan Eng Joo.12 Other party members included C. K. Lim and Ong Eng Lian, who contested in the Changi and Rochore constituencies respectively.13 The Democratic Party’s manifesto called for the establishment of a multilingual legislature, promotion of free trade, encouragement of local and foreign investment, and provision of equal grants for schools of all races. The Democrats also wanted to build more low-cost housing through the setting up of housing development schemes.14

Labour Front
In 1955, the Labour Front and PAP were new political parties which were not aiming to become the ruling party but to be a formidable opposition in the Legislative Assembly.15 The Labour Front was headed by prominent lawyer David Marshall, and among its members was Lim Yew Hock – a Legislative Councillor and former member of the Progressive Party. Altogether, Labour Front put up 17 candidates for the election. Marshall contested in Cairnhill against C. C. Tan of the Progressive Party and Tan Khang Khoo of the Democratic Party.16 The Labour Front’s manifesto called for immediate self-government through unity with the Federation of Malaya, the creation of a Singapore citizenship and the setting up of a welfare state, which would provide the locals with affordable housing loans and medical services as well as unemployment insurance and a minimum wage. The party also wanted the Emergency Regulations to be repealed and the Trade Union Ordinance amended to allow unions to associate freely and to set up political funds.17

People’s Action Party
The PAP was established by a group of English-educated professionals and intellectuals together with a group of Chinese-educated trade unionists.18 Led by Lee Kuan Yew, the party was inaugurated at the Victoria Memorial Hall on 21 November 1954.19 In its election manifesto, the PAP called for the immediate independence of Singapore through merger with the Federation of Malaya and the removal of voting rights for those who enjoyed expatriate privileges. It also aimed to have the complete localisation of the public service in four years, and free compulsory education for all children up to the age of 16. Similar to the Labour Front, the PAP wanted to abolish the Emergency Regulations and amend the Trade Union Ordinance to allow unions to set up political funds. In addition, the PAP proposed for the provision of a Workers’ Charter that included legislation for various benefits such as a minimum wage, equal pay to women, two weeks’ paid annual holidays, availability of sick leave, unemployment benefits, child endowment and maternity allowances, and workers’ compensation. The PAP also laid out an economic policy that encouraged the growth of local industries through tariffs and subsidies.20 PAP named four candidates for the 1955 election.21 Lee contested in Tanjong Pagar and ran against Peter Lim Seek Tiong of the Progressive Party and Lam Thiam of the Democratic Party.22

The Alliance was a coalition of the Singapore divisions of the United Malays National Organisation and the Malayan Chinese Association, as well as the Malay Union.23 In the 1955 election, it campaigned for a fully elected legislature and revision of the Trade Union Ordinance to allow unions to set up political funds.24 The party also proposed setting up a government housing trust, provision of free compulsory education, building of more hospitals and introducing an authority to encourage and protect local industries.25 The Alliance fielded five candidates for the election.26

Campaigning in the 1955 election was in no way similar to that of the 1951 Legislative Council election, which Lee Kuan Yew, an election agent in the 1951 election, described as “a genteel affair with tea and dinner parties”.27 With the automatic registration of voters, the Rendel Commission estimated the number of voters in Singapore to be about 282,100. Among the electorate, 198,600 of them were not literate in English.28 Compared to the 48,155 qualified voters in the 1951 election, it was a sharp increase.29 As the voters were predominantly working class and Chinese- and Malay-speaking, the main languages used during the campaign were Chinese dialects and bazaar Malay. Even Lee, who did not speak Mandarin, had to deliver a speech in the language at one of his rallies. In a bid to reach as many voters as possible, candidates stood on lorries or pickup trucks with microphones and makeshift loudspeakers, and held street rallies and meetings in open spaces.30

The election rallies were dominated by the charismatic speeches of PAP’s Lee and Labour Front’s Marshall. Coupled with the radical changes promised in their respective party manifestoes, PAP and the Labour Front appealed to the new working-class voters. The Progressives and the Democrats, on the other hand, campaigned for what were considered “a continuation of the unpopular, pro-colonial conservative policies of the past”.31

Election results and coalition government
On polling day, 2 April 1955, 53 percent of the electorate, or 160,395, people turned up to vote.32 This was a five-fold increase from the 1951 election.33 When the results were announced on the same day, it surprised the winning parties, the losers and the British alike.34 Both the Progressives and the Democrats were defeated in the polls as they were only able to capture four of the 22 seats and two out of the 20 contested seats they contested respectively. Furthermore, none of the Progressives’ Legislative Councillors were returned. The PAP, on the other hand, won three out of the four seats it contested, with Lee capturing Tanjong Pagar with 5,121 votes, the largest majority registered in the election. By winning 10 out of the 17 seats it contested, the Labour Front emerged as the biggest winning party. Marshall won his Cairnhill seat with 3,305 votes against C. C. Tan with 2,530 votes and Tan Khiang Khoo with 1,111 votes.35

At least 5,000 people gathered at Empress Place as Marshall announced his triumph.36 Speaking to the press, Marshall said that the election results were a victory for the people.37 Marshall did not form a government until 7 April 1955 because he had to discuss with the governor regarding the appointment of his Council of Ministers. He also had to negotiate with the Alliance to form a coalition.38 Although the Labour Front was the largest winning party, the party did not have the 13 seats to command a majority in the Legislative Assembly. As a result, the Labour Front had to seek a coalition with the Alliance, which took three seats during the election.39

On 7 April, members of the Council of Ministers in the Singapore Legislative Assembly were sworn in by Governor Nicoll at Government House (present-day Istana).40 Marshall was appointed chief minister.41 He also assumed the portfolio of minister for commerce. Other appointments included Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat as minister for local government, lands and housing, Chew Swee Kee as minister for education, A. J. Braga as minister for health, Lim Yew Hock as minister for labour and welfare, Francis Thomas as minister for communications and works, and  J. M. Jumabhoy as assistant minister in the Ministry of Commerce.42 Other assemblymen included George Alexander Phimister Sutherland, Ong Piah Teng and Richard Chuan Hoe Lim.43

First Legislative Assembly and challenges ahead
The first session of the first Legislative Assembly was convened on 22 April 1955.44 In his opening address, Nicoll noted that the meeting inaugurated an epoch in the constitutional history of Singapore. He also stated that the election had shown that the people of Singapore understood the importance of the vote and cast their votes according to their convictions. Hence it was important that the Council of Ministers and the Legislative Assembly could carry out the tasks with which the people had entrusted them.45

Some of these tasks included staffing the public service with locally domiciled officers, expanding the economy, raising the standard of living, providing adequate housing for the lower-income group, broadening the field of social services, improving healthcare services and providing more opportunities in education. Nicoll also added that ensuring the early attainment of complete internal self-government and union with the Federation of Malaya and repealing the Emergency Regulations were some of the immediate tasks that the new government had to address.46

It was difficult for the Labour Front government to address these issues, especially with numerous challenges including a series of unrest incited by pro-communist supporters and a fallout with the British government over the demand for immediate self-government. Marshall’s strong push towards independence also fragmented his own party. Failure at the Merdeka talks in London, which aimed to give Singapore’s complete self-governance, led Marshall to tender his resignation on 7 June 1956.47

Although Marshall’s appointment as the first chief minister of Singapore was shortlived, he implemented a number of important policies. For instance, he introduced meet-the-people sessions which are still conducted today, advocated the use of multilingualism in the Legislative Assembly to get all citizens to participate in the affairs of the country, and was instrumental in passing the Labour Ordinance towards the end of 1955 which brought an end to long work shifts.48

Lim Tin Seng

1. Singapore. Constitutional Commission, Report of the Constitutional Commission of Singapore (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1954), 4. (Call no. RCLOS 342.5957 SIN-[RFL])
2. Leslie Hoffman, “Government of the People by the People You Put In,” Straits Times, 25 February 1954, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Singapore. Constitutional Commission, Report, 3, 9–13, 14–19, 27.
4. “Constitution Day,” Straits Times, 7 February 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Singapore’s Election Day: April 2,” Straits Times, 9 February 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Singapore’s Election Day: April 2”; “All the Candidates,” Straits Times, 1 March 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “A Lively Election,” Straits Times, 1 March 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “All the Candidates.”
9. “Lively Election.”
10. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 255. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
11. “The Party Manifestoes,” Straits Times, 2 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 255.
13. “All the Candidates.”
14. “Party Manifestoes.”
15. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 259.
16. “All the Candidates.”
17. “Party Manifestoes.”
18. Diane K. Mauzy and Robert stephen Milne, Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party (New York: Routledge, 2002), 39. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 MAU)
19. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings; Times Editions, 1998), 181. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
20. “Party Manifestoes.”
21. “Lively Election.”
22. “All the Candidates.”
23. “The Alliance,” Singapore Standard, 30 January 1955, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Party Manifestoes.”
25. “Party Manifestoes.”
26. “All the Candidates.”
27. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 184.
28. Singapore. Constitutional Commission, Report, 29.
29. “Over 200 Booths for Elections,” Straits Times, 16 February 1951, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 185.
31. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 260.
32. “Labour Wins – Marshall Will Become Chief Minister,” Straits Times, 3 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Yeo Kim Wah, Political Development in Singapore, 1945–55 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), 275. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 YEO)
34. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 260.
35. “The Results,” Straits Times, 3 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Colony of Singapore, Extraordinary, G. N. 46 of Government Gazette, 6 April 1955, 153. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG-[HIS])
36. “Labour Wins.”
37. “Results.”
38. “Marshall Names His Men,” Straits Times, 7 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Kevin Y. L. Tan, Marshall of Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 241–42. (Call no. RSING 959.5705092 TAN-[HIS])
40. Marshall Names His Men.”
41. Colony of Singapore, Extraordinary, G. N. 48 of Government Gazette, 7 April 1955, 525. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG-[HIS])
42. Marshall Names His Men”; “Last Minute Change in the Ministry,” (1955, April 9). Singapore Standard, 9 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Colony of Singapore, Extraordinary, 525.
44. Colony of Singapore, Extraordinary, 549.
45. Singapore. Legislative Assembly. Governor’s Address, vol. 1 of Debates: Official Report, 22 April 1955, col. 5. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
46. Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Governor’s Address, cols. 6–11.
47. Tan, Marshall of Singapore, 255–89, 326–30, 357–61. 
48. Tan, Marshall of Singapore, 295, 310; Chan Heng Chee, A Sensation of Independence: David Marshall, a Political Biography (Singapore: Times Books International, 2001), 201–02. (Call no. RSING 324.2092 CHA)

Further resources
David Marshall, “Singapore’s Struggle for Nationhood 1945–1959,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 1, no. 2 (September 1970) 99–104.  (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008). (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])

Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004). (Call no. RSING 324.25957 HUS)

James Low, “Kept in Position: The Labour Front-Alliance Government of Chief Minister in Singapore, April 1955–1956,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35, no. 1 (February 2004) 41–64. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2015). (From NLB Overdrive)

“Marshalling His People,” in Singapore Days of Old: A Special Commemorative History of Singapore Published on the 10th Anniversary of Singapore Tatler (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine, 1992), 78. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 24 January 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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