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SINGAPORE: Step to Freedom

2 minute read

In Singapore last week, the British took the longest step towards self-government in 136 years of colonial rule. They staged the island colony’s first really representative general election. In steaming heat, the Chinese, Malayan, Indian, Eurasian and European people of polyglot Singapore (pop. 1,200,000) went to the polls, where six political parties contended for 25 seats in a new Legislative Assembly, the winner to form a Cabinet and take over Singapore’s internal administration—subject only to the veto of the British colonial governor. Often trailed by as many as four interpreters speaking Singapore’s eight main languages, the 79 candidates ministered to curious, multilingual crowds with sound-truck orations, clanging gongs and cymbals, Chinese opera troupes, the reedy piping of snake charmers, and campaign promises that ranged from “hospitals at your doorstep” to “compulsory courtesy for civil servants.” Only three candidates were Europeans.

“A calculated risk,” the British called their experiment in democracy. They hoped the winner would be Singapore’s old Progressive Party, dominated by conservative, Westernized Chinese who are not too demanding in their cry for gradual independence. But the Progressives won only four seats. The decisive victor, with 10 out of 25 seats: the Labor Front, another Westernized party, endorsed by Clement Attlee’s Socialists in Britain, which stands for mild socialism and pitches its appeal to the industrial workers, who are mostly Indians. The parties that had stirred the most anxious interest before the poll finished up as also-rans: the Communist-supported People’s Action Party and the well-heeled, neutralist Democratic Party, both of which appealed almost exclusively to Singapore’s predominant (80%) community of overseas Chinese.

The new chief minister for the island colony, only 1,320 yards across the Straits of Johore from the guerrilla-war land of Malaya, would almost certainly be Laborite David Marshall, 47, a sharp, headline-grabbing lawyer who recently visited Britain to study Attlee’s and Nye Bevan’s methods. In colonial Singapore, one of Laborite Marshall’s planks was the abolition of compulsory necktie-wearing at official functions.

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