first Chief Minister
1927, a gangly 19-year-old with the looks of
a matinee idol gave his first public speech
at the YMCA.
Referring to a Straits Times
report that a member of the British
parliament had called Singapore "a
pestilential and immoral cesspool", he
knotted his dark bushy brows and, fixing his
audience with a baleful stare, thundered:
"Who is responsible for making this
(1908 - 1995)
Soon after, the
Department of Education issued a circular banning
David Marshall from ever speaking in the colony's
The late Mr Marshall
was a flamboyant, irascible man who leapt onto the
Singapore political stage at a simpler time when
charisma, pure human energy, passion and perhaps
romantic idealism mattered more than organisation in
the political scheme of things.
His entry into politics took a
circuitous route, for until he became Singapore's
first Chief Minister for 15 heady months in 1955-6,
he did not think that -- as a minority of minorities
("I am both a Jew and an Asian") -- he
could steer the fledgling nation. But once in the
political forefront, his driving ambition was to
deliver Singapore freedom from the British.
When he failed to
convince the colonialists to relinquish control to
him, he kept his promise to the people and resigned
in protest, leaving the seats of power to be filled
by more modest men.
By then, he had fired
the imagination of a whole generation of post-war
nationalists. In his inimitable, innocent and
enthusiastic way, he was a populist politician who,
more than anyone else in the early 1950s, aroused the
interest of the common man in elections. He could
mesmerise a crowd with his magnificent oratory -- the
commanding, authoritative tone, the measured
cadences, the well-chosen words -- or send them into
paroxysms of laughter.
His tenure as Chief
Minister was, by present standards, not a phenomenal
success. He was strong on ideas but poor on details,
leading what some hacks of the day called a
"walking administration"; policies were
formed as he walked along the corridors of power from
one department to another.
But even though he
failed to follow through on the numerous good ideas
he spawned, many were subsequently embellished and
translated into policies by the People's Action Party
that took over the reins of government in 1959, such as the creed of
multi-lingualism and multi-racialism, an education
policy for nation-building, meet-the-people sessions
and the Central Provident Fund.
political biographer ,Chan Heng Chee, put it,
Mr Marshall had gone into Singapore politics
"like a shooting star, and as in the
nature of a shooting star, filled the sky
with brilliance and disappeared".
He did not disappear
immediately from Singapore politics and
stayed on the backbench for a while, quitting
the ruling Labour Front party in 1957 and
starting the Workers' Party the same year.
Marshall slipped the wedding ring onbride
Jean Mary Gray's finger in 1961
In his political uniform of
white bush-jacket and grey trousers, with a
hammer -- the Workers' Party symbol.
became a vocal critic of the PAP government
and remained a factor in opposition politics
until 1972. That year, he was found guilty of
unprofessional conduct as defence lawyer for
executives of the Chinese-language newspaper,
Nanyang Siang Pau, who had been detained
under the Internal Security Act.
Suspended from the Bar
for six months, he decided thereafter to stay
out of politics because, as Dr Chan explains
in her book, "he felt the condition of
his return to his profession was implicitly a
non-political role in the Republic's politics
And after a highly
successful career as a criminal lawyer -- such was
his reputation that the enduring myth was:
"Marshall never loses" -- he switched to
Perhaps David Marshall
had entered the political scene at a propitious time,
when the British colonial authorities were prepared
to relinquish some power to the local people, but not
yet to an Asian Asian. For despite his trademark bush
jacket, he was quintessentially European in social
habits. Despite his public appeal to the masses, he
had little close contact with the grassroots.
According to an account of a meeting
that took place in 1954 between members of his Labour
Front and the nucleus of the future PAP -- including
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S Rajaratnam
-- to discuss a possible merger, the guests were
offered champagne and tiny shrimps on cheese
crackers, which had a "dampening effect on the
proceedings for it became difficult to discuss
unifying the anti-colonial classes while enjoying
Certainly Mr Marshall
did not take to the PAP founder members. After the
first meeting, he wrote in his diary: "Bitter
taste". On their part, the PAP activists found
the Marshall group politically naive and decided not
to work with it. His political ideology defied easy
labels for unlike Mr Lee's, his was not refined in
continuous political debate with a group of peers.
Yet, the story of
David Marshall is one of several epochs. He was born
into an Orthodox Jewish family of Iraqi ancestry in
turn-of-the-century Singapore. The eldest son of six
children, he became profoundly influenced by
Judaism's stress on social justice and quickly
acquired the qualities that were to be his abiding
hallmarks: humanitarianism, compassion and
As a schoolboy, he
witnessed the oppression of the local people by the
white colonial overseers and fought those who taunted
him or his friends with racial epithets. He was later
to say that the rage it bred in him drew him towards
the independence movement and politics.
He was first and
foremost a nationalist. When the call came to serve
the nation in a different capacity, the former
Ambassador to France, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland
kept the flag flying high.
differences with the PAP government, he always
defended Singapore's interests abroad and played the
role of ambassador with great aplomb for 15 years,
even when his eyesight failed. He wore an orchid at
every official function, and became widely-known as
the "Ambassadeur a orchidee" (the
Ambassador with an orchid).
Such was his
zest for life that when he retired to Singapore in
1993, his restlessness was almost palpable. He railed
at the press for its servile attitude towards the
ruling government, and yet in private moments, gave
credit where it was due.
A legend in his own
lifetime, he enjoyed the respect even of those he
lashed at in his more flamboyant moods. Above all, he
was a great friend to all who knew and loved him.
March 12, 1908, in Singapore.
Died: Dec 12, 1995.
to the Bar in 1937 after graduating from the
University of London and Middle Temple in Britain.
private in the Singapore Volunteer Corps, he was
taken prisoner soon after the fall of Singapore in
in the coal mines of Hokkaido, Japan. Freed in 1945.
Jean Mary Gray, a former social work lecturer, when
he was 53. They have three daughters and a son.
in private legal practice before he led the new
Labour Front in 1954.
1955: Singapore's first Chief Minister.
1956: Resigned from the post.
Lost legislative seat in 1959 polls. Won Anson
by-election in 1961.
in 1963 election. Returned to law. But remained
active in opposition politics till 1972.
Served as Singapore's Ambassador to France, then
Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.
1993: Retired from diplomatic corps, worked as
consultant to law firm Drew and Napier.
star of S'pore a legend in his lifetime", by
First published in The Straits Times on Dec 13, 1995
Copyright © 1998 Singapore Press
Holdings. All Rights Reserved.