Self government

60th Anniversary of Self-Government: Singapore’s Pre-Independence ‘National Day’

SINGAPORE: Everyone knows that August 9 is Singapore’s national day, when the country comes together to celebrate independence. But for a few years before 1965, it took place on a different date.

For older Singaporeans, June 3, 1959 was that day to remember. It was at this point that Singapore adopted its own constitution and became a self-governing internal state for the first time in its history (the British still had the final say on external matters, namely defense and foreign affairs. ).

In fact, the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) recorded this momentous day as “the creation of a nation”. It is written on its website: “On June 3, 1959, the 1.6 million people in Singapore woke up to a new beginning – as people of a fully self-governing city-state under the British crown. “

The day was also immortalized through the famous music video of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s catchy “Merdeka” call.

Historian Albert Lau told CNA that self-government, while not yet independent, was a milestone in Singapore’s constitutional development.

“Achieving self-government sent an important signal that Singapore still needed new momentum to achieve its goal of freeing itself from colonial rule,” said the associate professor at the National University of Singapore. .

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also made mention of this historic day during last year’s National Day rally, saying, “Nationally, Singapore’s politics have been fiercely opposed, on different visions of the future. of the colony. In 1959, Singapore gained internal autonomy, a big step forward. towards independence. “

On the 60th anniversary of Singapore’s pre-independence national day, CNA looks back on some of the key events and quotes that shaped its significance.


The general elections held in 1959 were to determine who would lead Singapore into this new period of internal autonomy, but they were also important for another reason: it was the first time that voting had been made compulsory.

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Ngoei Wen-Qing told CNA that this was the time when “mass politics” reached Singapore.

According to the Chronicle of Singapore, a book published in association with the National Library Board of Singapore, 51 seats were nominated in this election, and the PAP ran against groups like the People’s Alliance of Singapore (SPA), led by Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, the United Malaysian National Organization (UMNO) and the Workers’ Party founded by David Marshall, the Chief Prime Minister of Singapore.

Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in his memoir, The Singapore Story, said polls closed at 8 p.m. on May 30 and the vote count started from 9 p.m. before ending at 2:45 am the next morning.

In the end, PAP won 43 of the 51 contested seats, while SPA won four – including Lim’s successful contest against Marshall at Cairnhill – and UMNO won three. Independent AP Rajah won the remaining seat.

“The people’s verdict is clear and decisive. Nothing more can be added to it. It is a victory of good over evil, of the pure over the dirty, of righteousness over evil. – PAP Secretary General Lee Kuan Yew, quoted in Chronicle of Singapore.


Immediately after the election victory, Lee and his colleagues focused on the release of eight men associated with the PAP who had been detained under the Preservation of Public Safety Act. This meant that Mr. Lee and his cabinet would not be sworn in until June 5.

The Singapore Chronicle reports that the eight men were CV Devan Nair (Singapore’s third president), Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, S. Woodhull, Chan Thiaw Thor, James Puthucheary, Chan Chong Kin and Chen Say James.

They were union leaders who were among 234 people detained by the government in 1956 following the Chinese high school riots. They were finally released on June 4 – 31 months after being detained.

In his memoir, Mr. Lee explained why the release of the Eight took precedence over the swearing in: “We had thought before the election and concluded that Lim Chin Siong and his company should be released from prison before we took office, otherwise we would lose all credibility.

This was reiterated by Dr Ngoei: “The PAP, before the 1959 elections, pledged to have them released. And once they won this election, Lee Kuan Yew delayed taking office in order to obtain this release… so it is important for the credibility of the PAP.

Sir William Goode, Singapore’s last governor who went on to become its first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (head of state), disagreed with the delay, especially after Lim Yew Hock resigned his post as chief minister once he found out his party had lost the election. But Mr. Lee held on.

Sir William, however, would not wait. He published in the Gazette and brought the new constitution into effect on June 3, Lee said in his memoir.

This is why there was a delay between the recognition of Singapore as a state with internal autonomy on June 3 and the swearing-in of its new leadership on June 5.

Dr Ngoei said this turned out to be “good policy” on the part of PAP.

“It was good policy that the PAP was trying to press so that it separates the release of detainees as a topical event from the constitution being enacted, and identifying the enacted constitution with the will of the people as well. than the victory of the PAP, “he explained.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies principal researcher Kwa Chong Guan went further, saying that the day was one of those “turning points” that could have given Singapore’s political and historical development “quite a turning point. different “if Sir William had not done so. accede to Mr. Lee’s request.

“I again countered that we were not to be sworn in until June 5, after Lim Chin Siong, Fong, and the other six pro-Communists were not only released but duly issued a statement publicly endorsing the non-Communist goals of the government. PAP.

“I wanted this endorsement to have full media coverage; so we would only take office on the afternoon of June 5th so as not to compete with him for the headlines. – Mr. Lee in The History of Singapore


The PAP formed Singapore’s first fully elected government and the nine-member Cabinet was sworn in on June 5.

  • Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister
  • Toh Chin Chye, Deputy Prime Minister
  • Ong Eng Guan, Minister of National Development
  • Goh Keng Swee, Minister of Finance
  • Ong Pang Boon, Minister of the Interior
  • KM Byrne, Minister of Labor and Law
  • Ahmad Ibrahim, Minister of Health
  • Yong Nyuk Lin, Minister of Education
  • S Rajaratnam, Minister of Culture

They were sworn in at a closed-door ceremony held at Town Hall by Sir William. According to Mr Lee, Sir William arrived at the scene “nothing more formal than a light tawny suit and tie” while the Cabinet wore “white open-necked shirts and pants”.

The swearing-in room was “bare except for a table and a few chairs” as there was no time for decorations, he added.

In addition to an important step towards full independence, the events of June 1959 “also mark the rise of the PAP to political power in Singapore”, underlined the NUS Assoc Prof Lau.

The celebrations for this pre-independence national day took place from 1960 to 1963, according to the National Library Board.

Tags : prime minister
Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera