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David Marshall
Singapore's first Chief Minister
IN 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 cesspool?"

david marshall
David Marshall
(1908 - 1995)

Soon after, the Department of Education issued a circular banning David Marshall from ever speaking in the colony's schools.

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.

As his 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.

David 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.
He 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 henceforth".

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 commercial law.

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 bourgeois tidbits".

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 generosity.

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.

Despite his 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.




Born: March 12, 1908, in Singapore.
Died: Dec 12, 1995.

Called to the Bar in 1937 after graduating from the University of London and Middle Temple in Britain.

A private in the Singapore Volunteer Corps, he was taken prisoner soon after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Worked in the coal mines of Hokkaido, Japan. Freed in 1945.

Married Jean Mary Gray, a former social work lecturer, when he was 53. They have three daughters and a son.


Was in private legal practice before he led the new Labour Front in 1954.

April 1955: Singapore's first Chief Minister.

June 1956: Resigned from the post.

1959-1963: Lost legislative seat in 1959 polls. Won Anson by-election in 1961.

Lost in 1963 election. Returned to law. But remained active in opposition politics till 1972.

1978-1993: Served as Singapore's Ambassador to France, then Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.

Oct 1993: Retired from diplomatic corps, worked as consultant to law firm Drew and Napier.

"Shooting star of S'pore a legend in his lifetime", by Susan Sim
First published in The Straits Times on Dec 13, 1995

167,000 want independence


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