Singaporean general election, 1959
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The 1959 Singaporean legislative assembly general election was a general election held in Singapore on 30 May 1959 to choose the members of the Legislative Assembly of Singapore. The election was distinctive in being the first election in which all the seats were completely determined by the population as per the new Constitution of Singapore of 1959; in previous elections, some seats had always been chosen by Singapore's colonial authorities. As with other parliamentary elections, the party or coalition with majority of seats won would go on to form the new government.
The 1959 general election marked the first time in history the PAP became the ruling party of Singapore. Presently it continues to be the ruling party of Singapore, and has never lost control of the Singaporean legislature since the 1959 elections. The 1959 election is strongly linked to Singapore's gain of self rule that followed soon after.
An election of firsts
The 1959 general election was also the first election to be held since full internal self-government was granted by the British government in London, which Singapore was part of the British Empire at the time. Compulsory voting was also implemented for the first time.
Singapore was not yet fully independent, as the British still controlled external affairs such as the military and foreign relations. However, Singapore was now a recognised state and the entire Legislative Assembly for the first time was wholly determined by the local population. Previously under the Rendel Constitution, which was a 1955 reform of the Constitution of Singapore drawn up by a commission led by Sir George William Rendel, the legislature and its leaders could not fully be determined by the population. The British government instead appointed 7 of the 33 total members, although the rest was by election with limited suffrage. This itself was an improvement from the pre-1955 Legislative Council of Singapore when only 6 out of over twenty members were elected. Then, Singapore tried to grant independence from the British by merging with Malaya.
Campaign issues and platforms
Discontent with the incumbent government
The ruling party at the time was the Labour Front, which had won the general election of 1955. David Saul Marshall, who headed the Labour Front in 1955 and was chosen as Chief Minister, had since resigned in 1956. By 1959, the Labour Front was in turmoil, although they had been very successful at campaigning in 1955. Much of the issues resounded around the topic of independence as well as political issues such as the communist insurgency led by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) which had been causing the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960).
During the 1955 election, the PAP protested against the existence of appointed members as set forth by the Rendel Constitution, and become the main opposition party following the election, and the Singapore Progressive Party (SPP) which had been one of the most dominant parties in the 1948 election and the 1951 election had become increasingly displaced at this point. The desire for independence and self-government epitomised by the Malay term Merdeka, had started to become immediate. This was reflected when the cry of "We want Merdeka now!" was taken up by those demanding immediate independence. The SPP fell out of favour as it was perceived by much of the electorate by working for reform too slowly.
David Marshall was vocally anti-British and anti-colonialist, and the British found it difficult to come to an agreement or a compromise. Eventually after failing to reach any agreement about a definite plan for self-government he resigned in 1956, following a pledge that he would achieve self-government or resign. Lim Yew Hock, another Labour Front member, took his place. He pursued an aggressive anti-communist campaign and manage to convince the British to make a definite plan for self-government. The Constitution of Singapore was revised accordingly in 1958, replacing the Rendel Constitution with one that granted Singapore self-government and the ability for its own population to fully elect its Legislative Assembly.
However, Lim's tactics against the communists alienated a large part of the Chinese Singaporean electorate, the demographic targeted most during the anti-communist campaign. There were also allegations of civil rights violations as many activists were detained without trial with the justification of internal security and tear gas were used against demonstrating students from several Chinese schools, both anti-colonialist and anti-communist alike.
Lim's government was also ridden with corruption. By the time Labour Front's term was up, its credibility was in tatters. To face the polls with a fresh new image, Lim led a large group to abandon LF and form the SPA. Labour Front was left in the hands of backbenchers.
The opposition People's Action Party led by lawyer and assembly member Lee Kuan Yew, ran a campaign against corruption. To make his point, he had all his party members and candidates wear a distinctive outfit of white shirts and pants, to represent "cleanliness" in government.
Days before polling day on 30 May, the press had predicted that the presence of multi-cornered fights would only split the anti-PAP vote, raising chances of a PAP victory. "
The voter turnout for the election was 527,919 out of a total 586,098 voters, or 92.9% of the total eligible voters. This was a huge turnout, especially when compared to the 1955 general election in which only 158,075 of 300,199 voters turned out, or 52.7% of the total eligible voters. There were two historical attributions for this. One was the implementation of compulsory voting, the other the removal of suffrage restrictions that had previously limited voting rights to those born in Singapore, or those who had lived there for a certain amount of time.
The election was a landslide win for the PAP. The incumbent SPA lost in 35 of the constituencies it constested, and were just left with 4members in the new assembly. The winner of the last election, the Labour Front, saw their vote share decrease by 27 percentage points from 1955 and were left with no seats. The election was a disaster for the right-wing Liberal Socialist Party (LSP) formed by a merger of the Democratic Party and Progressive Party. It saw 20 of 32 candidates lose their election deposits with no candidates elected. The LSP wound up a few years later.
Over 51 seats were available for contesting during the election, which was almost a 50% increase from the total seats at the 1955 general election, and more than double of the seats if only elected seats are considered. In contrast to the elections that would follow in the future after the 1963 general election, there were no walkovers.
|Parties/alliances||Leader||Candidates||Seats won||Popular vote||Percentage||Swing
|People's Action Party||Lee Kuan Yew||51||43||281,891||54.1%||+45.4%|
|Singapore People's Alliance||Lim Yew Hock||39||4||107,755||20.7%||-|
|United Malays National Organisation||Tunku Abdul Rahman||8||3||27,448||5.3%||-|
|Liberal Socialist Party||E. H. Holloway||32||0||42,805||8.2%||-|
|Workers' Party||David Saul Marshall||3||0||4,127||0.8%||-|
|Labour Front||Francis Thomas||3||0||3,414||0.7%||-26.4%|
|Did not vote||58,179||7.1%|
|Total voting electorate||586,098||100.0%|
With the successful conclusion of the election, all the members of the Parliament were now elected, and thus theoretically achieved full consent of the governed.
The PAP as ruling party was able to form a new government of Singapore that was fully elected which could now adopt domestic policy without oversight from the colonial administration. The United Kingdom still however controlled the military forces, foreign affairs and had a joint responsibility in internal security under agreement. However, the year of the conclusion of the elections and the formation of the new government – 1959 – is generally the date specified by historians for the achievement of self-government for Singapore, even though the Constitution had been amended in 1958.
Before taking over the governance of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew secured the release of several PAP members, who were arrested under the Emergency Regulation in 1956 and 1957, including left-wing leader Lim Chin Siong. During the election campaign, Lee had advocated for their release as part of his election platform, and thus was able to mobilise the support of many trade union members.
After their release, Lim Chin Siong and his affiliates would later challenge Lee's leadership in the PAP, leading to the expulsion of most of the left-wing members from the PAP in 1961. The expelled members formed the Barisan Sosialis, and would contest the 1963 general elections against the PAP. Although having been crippled by Operation Coldstore, they put up a fight that to date, is the only election that threatened to remove the PAP from power while it was an existing ruling party. It however lost and went into a decline, affirming the PAP as ruling party.
During the course of the parliament, two by-elections were held:
- pressrun.net "Straits Times report on 1959 election day". Retrieved 21 September 2011.
- Singapore elections: 1959
- Documentation of the districts for Singapore during the 1959 elections
- David Marshall and Merdeka