Singapore Citizenship Ordinance of 1957

Singapore Infopedia


Introduced in 1957, the Singapore Citizenship Ordinance marked the nation’s first step in establishing the national identity of its people as Singapore citizens. It allowed citizenship for those born in Singapore or the Federation of Malaya; British citizens with two years’ residence; and those who had lived in Singapore for ten years or more. 

During Singapore’s journey towards self-governance in the 1950s, then-Chief Minister David Marshall faced the serious issue of citizenship involving the 220,000 foreign-born Chinese, also known as overseas Chinese, who were living in Singapore. They had emigrated to Singapore before the war and played a major role in the economic development of the country.1

Following the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, the overseas Chinese found themselves faced with the possibility that they might never return to their homeland. As such, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce – the organisational body representing the overseas Chinese – actively fought for citizenship and its concomitant political rights for them.2

In 1955, the general election was held under the Rendel Constitution, which had been drafted based on recommendations presented by the Rendel Commission. Thus, as part of a strategy to win Chinese support during the election, Marshall and his coalition government led by the Labour Front announced plans to have a Singapore citizenship that would operate in parallel with British naturalisation.3

Marshall’s initial citizenship proposals required applicants to: (1) satisfy a reasonable residential qualification; (2) declare their intention of making Singapore their permanent home; (3) renounce any other foreign nationality; (4) swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown; and (5) pledge loyalty to Singapore.4 After further negotiations that took place over the next two years to alleviate concerns from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the People’s Action Party (PAP), a compromise was reached and the Singapore Citizenship Ordinance was introduced in 1957.

Even though the issue was not fully resolved during Marshall’s term of office as he stepped down in 1956, he succeeded in laying the groundwork for Singapore citizenship.He was succeeded by Lim Yew Hock as Chief Minister, who saw to the execution of the Ordinance via a nationwide citizenship exercise in 1957.6

Eligibility for citizenship
According to the Ordinance, all residents born in Singapore or the Federation of Malaya as well as British citizens with two years’ residence were eligible for citizenship. Citizenship by naturalisation was also offered to those who had lived in Singapore for at least eight years and were prepared to swear an oath of loyalty to Singapore and renounce allegiance to any foreign state.7

However, an individual could also be deprived of citizenship if there was evidence of fraud, false representations or mistake; if the person displayed dissatisfaction towards the Crown or the Constitution of Singapore; or if he or she engaged in illegal trading or association with enemy entities during wartime. In cases of citizenship deprivation, the Minister had to be satisfied that it was not conducive to the public good that the individual should continue to be a citizen of Singapore.8

Operation Franchise
The nationwide drive to register citizens began on 1 November 1957. Named “Operation Franchise”, the campaign took three months to complete and involved a team of about 30 registrars recruited from Justices of the Peace, university graduates, solicitors, retired public servants and professionals.9

In order to generate interest and spread awareness of the citizenship programme, the campaign employed propaganda and volunteers. Representatives of organisations, societies, clans, district and provincial associations were required to attend lectures to familiarise themselves with the registration procedure and then teach it to their peers. Volunteers were also expected to promote enthusiasm for the campaign and distribute the registration forms.10

When the campaign ended on 31 January 1958, more than 320,000 had registered as citizens of Singapore, with about 9,000 cases deferred.11

In 1963, the Singapore Citizenship Ordinance of 1957 was officially repealed and replaced by the new citizenship laws under the 1963 State of Singapore Constitution. These citizenship laws would continue to be retained as part of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore in 1965.12

Mervin Ang

1. Chan Heng Chee, A Sensation of Independence: David Marshall, a Political Biography (Singapore: Times Books International, 2001), 155. (Call no. RSING 324.2092 CHA)
2. Michael Hill and Lian Kwen Fee, The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore (London: Routledge, 1995), 52–53. (Call no. RSING 306.095957 HIL)
3. Hill and Lian, Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship, 54.
4. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 156–57.
5. Chan, Sensation of Independence, 158.
6. “From Clerk to Chief Minister,” Straits Times, 8 June 1956, 8; “Campaign to Make 250,000 Aliens Voters from Nov. 1,” Straits Times, 16 October 1957, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
7. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 268 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Report of Select Committee, Singapore Citizenship Bill, 16 October 1957; "Citizenship Bill Approved by the Assembly," Straits Times, 17 October 1957, 1.
8. “This Bill Represents a Major Advance in Our Political Development – Says Mr Lim,” Straits Times, 12 September 1957, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Campaign to Make 250,000 Aliens Voters.”
10. Paul Foo, “250,000 New Citizens,” Straits Times, 3 November 1957, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “321,453 New Citizens,” Straits Times, 2 February 1958, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Singapore Statues Online, rev. ed. 2020.

The information in this article is valid as at 27 July 2020 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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