Barisan Sosialis

Singapore Infopedia


The Barisan Sosialis, a now defunct political party, was formed in 1961 by the People's Action Party (PAP) left-wing members who had been expelled from the party. Barisan Sosialis became the main opposition party in self-governing Singapore. Following Singapore's independence, it boycotted the parliament. Nevertheless, it returned to contest the 1972 and subsequent elections. It failed to win any seats in the parliamentary elections and was dissolved in 1988. Prominent members of the party included Dr Lee Siew Choh, Lim Chin Siong and Chia Thye Poh.

In 1961, the Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, suggested the creation of a new Malaysia state consisting of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei.1 Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew supported the idea, but the pro-communists opposed the merger. They also sought the release of political detainees and the abolition of the Internal Security Council.2

On 13 July 1961, the then PAP member Lim Chin Siong persuaded eight PAP Assemblymen to denounce the party, resulting in the absentation of 1,500 disillusioned voters during the Anson by-election two days later.3 The pro-communists also withdrew their support for PAP’s candidate Mahmud Awang at a crucial stage of the campaign and endorsed David Marshall of the Workers’ Party. Marshall went on to win the five-corner fight by a small majority of 546 votes.4

On 20 July, the PAP called for an emergency Legislative Assembly meeting to debate on the motion of confidence of the government. In the vote on the motion taken on 21 July, the PAP won narrowly with 26 out of the 51 votes.5 The crucial 26th vote came from Sahorah Binte Ahmat, who left her sickbed in Singapore General Hospital to cast her vote. Thirteen left-wing PAP members who had abstained in the vote were expelled from the party on 26 July.6

On 29 July 1961, the expelled members announced the formation of Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) with Lee Siew Choh as the pro tem party chairman. The party was officially registered on 13 August with Lee Siew Choh and Lim Chin Siong as its chairman and secretary-general respectively.7

By that time, the left-wing faction had deeply infiltrated the PAP branches, the unions and schools. Twenty out of the 25 PAP branch organising secretaries and their committees defected and joined them.8 The Singapore Trades Union Congress was split into the National Trades Union Congress, which supported the PAP, and the Singapore Association of Trade Unions, which supported the Barisan.9

Major Events
On 2 February 1963, a security operation known as Operation Coldstore involving Singapore’s Special Branch and Police Field Force of Singapore and Malaya was conducted, and 113 people were detained for communist activities and for supporting the Brunei rebellion.10 The detainees included 24 leading members of Barisan (including Lim Chin Siong), 21 trade union leaders, 19 university graduates and undergraduates, 7 members of rural associations and 5 journalists.11 On 22 April, Lee Siew Choh, together with some 100 people marched to the City Hall to present a petition against the arrest of the Barisan members. Eight people, including Lee Siew Choh were arrested after they scuffled with the police.12 

The referendum on the merger with the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo was held on 1 September 1962. The Barisan was unsuccessful in its campaign against the merger, as only a quarter of the voters heeded its call to cast blank votes.13 

In October 1966, the Barisan rallied a demonstration, but only Chia Thye Poh and 30 supporters turned up outside the parliament. On 21 and 22 October, violence broke out at the “Aid Vietnam against U.S.” show at Gay World Stadium, and the police had to open fire to control the violent mob, which was hurling bottles, acid, stones and chairs at them. After the incident, the Barisan openly expressed support for the Gay World event.14 On 29 October 1966, 22 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act for engaging in communist activities. The detainees were eventually released except Chia Thye Poh, who refused to sign any document to renounce violence and sever ties with the Communist Party of Malaya.15

On 21 September 1963, the Barisan contested the general election for the first time with its candidates vying for 46 seats. However, it was unable to gain majority power, winning only 13 seats. In comparison, the PAP won 37 of the total 51 seats available. Ong Eng Guan, an ex-PAP member, who contested under the banner of United People's Party, won the remaining seat.16

On 1 July 1965, Ong resigned from the Singapore State Legislative Assembly resulting in the Hong Lim by-election nine days later. The PAP received 59.8 percent of the votes, securing a decisive victory over the Barisan.17

The Barisan boycotted the 1968 general election.18 However, after seven years of boycotting the parliament and elections, it decided to take part in the 1972 election fielding 10 candidates. However, it failed to win any seat. It contested the next three elections with fewer candidates and again without any success.19

When the Constitution Amendments Bill and the Singapore Independence Bill were passed on 22 December 1965, all the Barisan Sosialis MPs boycotted parliament. In 1966, 11 of them resigned in batches, giving th
e reason that neither national independence nor parliamentary democracy existed in Singapore. The remaining two had fled to Rhio Island after the 1963 election after being identified as Malayan Communist Party “plants”.20 

By 1967, the Barisan had lost ground support. When the Barisan called for a strike, only 3 trade unions responded, while 26 declined. In the same year, the party’s Secretary-General Lim Chin Siong announced his decision to quit politics for good. He was released in 1969, six and half years after Operation Cold Store.21

After seven years of boycott, the Barisan returned to contest the 1972 general election. However, it failed to win any seats in this and subsequent elections. In 1988, Barisan Sosialis, along with the Singapore United Front, merged with the Workers’ Party.22

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia

1. Alex Josey, Singapore: Its Past, Present and Future (London: Andre Deutsch, 1980), 25. (Call no. RSING 959.57 JOS)
2. Ernest C. T. Chew and Edwin Lee, A History of Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 141. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS)
3. Chew and Lee, A History of Singapore, 141–42.
4. Leong Ching, PAP 50: Five decades of the People's Action Party, ed. Irene Ng (Singapore: People's Action Party, 2004), 33. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 LEO)
5. Leong, PAP 50, 32.
6. Leong, PAP 50, 32.
7. Chew and Lee, A History of Singapore, 141–42.
8. Leong, PAP 50, 32.
9. Leong, PAP 50, 35.
10. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, 1998), 472 (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE); Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004), 63. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 HUS)
11. John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (Singapore: Times Editions, 1984), 319. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DRY)
12. Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 98.
13. Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success, 309, 312.
14. Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 107.
15. Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 106–8.
16. Chew and Lee, A History of Singapore, 143.
17. Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success, 388–90.
18. Leong, PAP 50, 49.
19. Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 109–10.
20. “Four MPs Send Own Quit Letters,” Straits Times, 28 October 1966, 4; “Five More Barisan Mps Quit Seats,” Straits Times, 6 December 1966, 12; R. Chandran, “Barisan MPs Quit,” Straits Times, 8 October 1966, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success, 397–400.
22. Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics, 108–10.

The information in this article is valid as at April 2021 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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