Rendel Commission

Singapore Infopedia


The Rendel Commission was appointed by Governor John Nicoll (Sir) in July 1953 to undertake a comprehensive review of the constitution of the Singapore colony. Initially known as the Constitutional Commission, it later took on the name of its chairman, George Rendel (Sir).The commission paved the way for internal self-government, while allowing the British to retain control over internal security and foreign affairs. Elections under the Rendel Constitution swept the Labour Front into power with 10 seats, with party leader David Saul Marshall becoming the first chief minister of Singapore.2

After the Japanese Occupation, there was a rising tide of national consciousness and a greater desire by the people of Singapore and Malaya to manage their own affairs. Hence the British government embarked on a constitutional reform in Singapore to make way for greater local participation.3

With Rendel as chairman, the nine-man committee included five nominated unofficial members of the Legislative Council, namely Tan Chin TuanLim Yew Hock, N. A. Mallal, Ahmad bin Mohamed Ibrahim and C. C. Tan.The remaining three were British subjects who were citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies as required by the British Nationality Act 1948.5 In addition, Professor Owen Hood Phillips was appointed as an advisor to the commission on constitutional affairs.6

Nicoll listed the terms of reference, which laid out the objectives of the review. These included making recommendations on issues regarding the enlargement of the electoral roll, increasing the number of elected members, and the appointment of a Speaker. Between 6 November 1953 and 22 February 1954, the commission held 37 meetings, of which two were public. In all, 39 statements from individuals and associations were received and taken into consideration.7

Key considerations of the Rendel Commission
The small geographical size of the Singapore colony cast doubts on its survival capabilities if it was granted full governance.8 Heavily dependent on the Federation of Malaya for food and water supplies, the island could not sustain itself.9 The commission also deemed that local nationalists lacked the political experience and sense of political responsibility, and were incapable of establishing a stable government.10

Moreover, Singapore’s prosperity relied heavily on her position as a vital port plying the trade routes to and from Australasia and the Far East.11 It was crucial to ensure a stable administration in order to command the confidence of other countries, and to ensure the continuance of trade.12

Strategic implications such as the communist threat also weighed heavily on the minds of the British. It was feared that if left alone to its own defences, Singapore would be too vulnerable and fall prey to the communist insurgency.13

The allegiance of overseas Chinese in Singapore also posed a constitutional problem – to whom their loyalty lay would have had an impact on their voting eligibility. The British Nationality Act of 1948 mandated that all British subjects who were not citizens of an independent Commonwealth country, regardless of their United Kingdom or colonial origins, be described as British subjects, citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies.14 The Chinese objected strongly to this phrase as they felt no connection to the United Kingdom.15 Therefore, the criteria by which the immigrants could be granted the right of franchise (the right to vote) needed consideration.16

Summary of the recommendations

The Rendel Constitution was clearly intended as an interim step towards complete self-government.17 It sought to cultivate a sense of political accountability through the establishment of an empowered body, allowing local nationalists to preside over domestic issues while leaving internal security and foreign affairs in the hands of the British.18 Hence, a 32-member Legislative Assembly was formed, with 25 seats up for elections. It was agreed that the largest party or coalition in the Assembly would take six seats on the Council of Ministers (akin to present day Cabinet), and bear collective ministerial responsibility.19

It also called for an automatic registration of voters, thus expanding the electorate roll and increasing the numbers qualified to vote. The Speaker would be elected by the Legislative Assembly from a list of candidates selected by the governor from outside the Assembly.20

Though not included in the governor’s terms of reference, Rendel felt that the relationship between Singapore and the Federation of Malaya had to be addressed. The prevailing opinion was that a closer association between the two was needed before full independence could be achieved.21 However, each bore mutual suspicions and was reluctant to establish closer relations.22 In the report, the commission urged for rapprochement on the account of their close geographic, economic and strategic ties.23

Political impact of the Rendel Constitution

Elections under the Rendel Constitution were held in 1955. It was a contest among the Progressive Party, Democratic Party, Labour Front, UMNO-MCA-Malayan Union Alliance, People’s Action Party (PAP), Labour Party and 10 independents.24

The Labour Front gained unexpected victory, winning 10 out of the 25 elected seats in the 32-seat Legislative Assembly. Marshall became chief minister and went on to form the first Council of Ministers. It was a coalition government formed of an alliance between the Labour Front-UMNO-MCA.25 Malayan Union refused to be part of the coalition.26

The Council of Ministers comprised the governor, attorney-general, chief secretary, financial secretary and six elected members who were to take up ministerial positions overseeing domestic affairs. The six elected members formed a racially diverse group that reflected the ethnic make-up of the Singapore population. Marshall was chief minister and minister for commerce and industry, while the other five elected members were Chew Swee Kee as minister of education, Lim Yew Hock as minister for labour and welfare, A. J. Braga as minister for health, Francis Thomas as minister of communications and works, and Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat as minister for local government, lands and housing.27

Constitutional talks

In December 1955, Marshall led a delegation to London to pave the way for an all-party constitutional conference. The Singapore mission was well-received, and talks proceeded smoothly. Setting 23 April 1956 as the date for the constitutional conference, Marshall returned jubilant, declaring that Singapore would obtain dominion status by April 1957. It signalled the beginning of his expanded ambitions to achieve something more than the removal of colony status for Singapore to something more than self-government and something less than full independence.28

On 14 April 1956, a delegation of 13 members left for London.29 The group consisted of seven Labour Front coalition members, two PAP members and four Liberal-Socialists. Talks got off to an ominous beginning, with the British clearly reiterating their stand that the Singapore government must be prepared to accept joint control over internal security, while Marshall pressed strongly for self-government. This key point of contention was the main reason that the talks broke down. A stalemate developed, and cracks developed within the Singapore delegation. Some members felt that Marshall was an inadequate negotiator and could have settled for a compromise. He received the backing of only two others, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong.30

A communiqué was issued on 15 May 1956 to announce the breakdown of the talks. Marshall despaired of the situation. He compared the British’s offer of self-government with the preservation of British imperial power as “Christmas pudding with arsenic sauce”.31 In a last-ditch effort, Marshall attempted to restart the talks but incurred the wrath of his delegation members who felt that it was a humiliation to do so. On his return to Singapore, Marshall worked behind the scenes for the possibility of restarting talks with the new Singapore government, but was met with rejection. He officially stepped down as chief minister on 7 June 1956.32

Lim Yew Hock was then asked to helm the next government. Apart from Marshall, other members of the Cabinet remained unchanged. In March 1957, Lim led a delegation to London that accepted a constitution almost similar to the one Marshall had rejected but with a new arrangement for internal security.33 A Internal Security Council with seven members would be set up, with Britain and Singapore appointing three representatives each, and the seventh member to be appointed by the Federation of Malaya.34 On 28 November 1958, the Singapore (Constitution) Order in Council for the creation of a self-governing state finally came into being.35

Ng Tze Lin Tania

1. George Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1954), 43 (Call no. RCLOS 342.5957 SIN); George Rendel, The Sword and the Olive; Recollections of Diplomacy and the Foreign Service, 1913–1954 (London: John Murray, 1957), 331–32. (Call no. RCLOS 327.20924 REN)
2. Tommy Koh et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 144. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
3. Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 332–33.
4. Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 332; Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 41, 43.
5. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 7–8, 41; Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 332.
6. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 43; Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 332.
7. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 43.
8. Tan Tai Yong, Creating “Greater Malaysia”: Decolonization and the Politics of Merger (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 31 (Call no. RSING 959.5051 TAN); Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 333.
9. Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 333.
10. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 43.
11. Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 333.
12. Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 333.
13. Tan, Creating “Greater Malaysia”, 18.
14. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 7–8; Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 334.
15. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 7–8; Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 334.
16. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 7–9.
17. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 5.
18. Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 337.
19. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 3, 9.
20. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 3.
21. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 5, 33–34; Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 335–36.
22. Rendel, The Sword and the Olive, 335.
23. Rendel, Report of the Constitutional Commission, Singapore, 33–34.
24. Chan Heng Chee, A Sensation of Independence: David Marshall, A Political Biography (Singapore: Times Books International, 2001), 90. (Call no. RSING 324.2092 CHA)
25. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 91, 97–98; Tan, Creating “Greater Malaysia”, 34.
26. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 98.
27. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 99.
28. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 171–72, 174, 175–76.
29. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 183; Tan, Creating “Greater Malaysia”, 34.
30. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 183–88, 190.
31. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 191.
32. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 191, 193, 195–96.
33. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 195–196
34. Kevin Y. L. Tan, ed. The Singapore Legal System, 2nd ed (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1999), 44. (Call no. RSING 349.5957 SIN)
35. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 238.

The information in this article is valid as of September 2023 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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