David Marshall (Singaporean politician)

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The Honourable
David Saul Marshall
1st Chief Minister of Singapore
In office
6 April 1955 – 7 June 1956
Governor Sir John Fearns Nicoll (1952–55)
Sir William Goode (1955)
Sir Robert Brown Black (1955–57)
Preceded by Newly Created
Succeeded by Lim Yew Hock
Personal details
Born 12 March 1908
Straits Settlements (Singapore)
Died 12 December 1995(1995-12-12) (aged 87)
Nationality Singaporean
Political party Labour Front (1954–1957)
Workers' Party of Singapore (1957–1963)
Independent (1963–1995)
Spouse(s) Jean Mary Gray
Children Jonathan Mark
Ruth Ann
Sarah Farha
Joanna Tamar.[1]
Alma mater University of London
Profession Politician and diplomat
Religion Judaism
David Marshall, wearing his political uniform of white bush-jacket and grey trousers, with a hammer

David Saul Marshall (12 March 1908 – 12 December 1995) was a Singaporean politician and lawyer who served as Singapore's first Chief Minister from 1955 to 1956. He was the founder of Workers' Party of Singapore, one of the two dominant parties in Singapore. He served as the president of the party, which was the highest post before the creation of the secretary-general. He was also instrumental in the negotiations leading up to the independence of Malaya.

Early life[edit]

Marshall was born in 1908 into a Baghdadi Jewish family based in Singapore. His family name was originally Mashal but was anglicised to become Marshall. His brother, Joseph Saul, died in 1945 in Sydney, Australia under odd circumstances which were potentially connected to the Taman Shud Case.


Marshall was educated at Saint Joseph's Institution, Saint Andrew's School and then Raffles Institution.[2] He became interested in politics and the independence movement at an early age. After graduating from the University of London, he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1937.


Marshall volunteered as a British soldier in Singapore following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and was made a prisoner-of-war following the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1941.[3] Reflecting later on his experience as a prisoner:

[The Japanese Occupation] taught me humility ... Three and a half years as a prisoner taught me humility ... I realized [as a Japanese prisoner-of-war] that man is capable of cold-hearted cruelty. I can be angry, and I have no doubt I can be cruel for five, ten minutes. But the Japanese cruelty was cold-blooded, permanent and eternal. Man's inhumanity to man in fact, in real life, made its presence really known to me when I became a prisoner, and saw it in action. Of course, I have known cruelty before. But wide-spread, long-term, cold-blooded, permanent cruelty, I've never experienced before, not even from the British Imperialists no matter how arrogant they were. That was a major shock, the feeling that here were human beings who were not on the same wavelength as me at all, who were not even human from my point of view.

He later became the most successful criminal lawyer in Singapore, with a reputation that "Marshall never loses". Known for his sharp eloquence and imposing stance, he claimed that he had secured 99 acquittals out of 100 cases he defended for murder during Singapore's period of having trial by jury. When Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first Prime Minister, abolished the jury system in 1969, he quoted Marshall's reputation to illustrate its "inadequacy".

Political career[edit]

In April 1955, as a colourful and stirring orator, Marshall led the left-wing Labour Front to a narrow victory in Singapore's first Legislative Assembly elections. He formed a minority government and became Chief Minister. He presided over a shaky government, receiving little co-operation from either the British colonial authorities or the other local political parties. In May 1955, the Hock Lee Bus Riots broke out and four people were killed.

In April 1956, Marshall led a delegation to London to negotiate for complete self-rule, but the talks broke down over British concerns about worker unrest and communist influence. After the failed meeting, Marshall resigned, saying "I have failed in my Merdeka mission". Replacing him as Chief Minister was Lim Yew Hock, who would later take very tough action against the labour unions. However, Lim, like the subsequent People's Action Party (PAP) government, also built on many of Marshall's ideas and reforms.

After resigning, Marshall visited China for two months at the invitation of Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier. Contacted by a representative of a group of over 400 Russian Jews who were being refused exit from Shanghai by the Chinese authorities, Marshall spoke with Zhou and managed to have them released.[4]

After returning from China, Marshall stayed on the backbenches before quitting the Labour Front and as a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1957, and founding the Workers' Party of Singapore (WP).

On 7 November 1957, he founded the Workers' Party. He won a by-election in Anson on 15 July 1961.[5]

He lost his seat in Cairnhill Single Member Constituency to Lim Yew Hock, the Chief Minister, in the 1959 general election as a WP candidate, but won in Anson Single Member Constituency in the 1961 by-election. After losing his seat again in the 1963 general election as an independent candidate, he returned to practise law and remained active in politics even after J. B. Jeyaretnam became the leader of the WP in 1972.

Peter Lambda's bust of Marshall, created in 1956, at the School of Law, Singapore Management University

From 1978 to 1993, Marshall served as Singapore's Ambassador to France, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. As an ambassador, Marshall always defended his Singapore's interests, despite his differences with Lee Kuan Yew's government. He retired from the diplomatic corps in 1993.[6]


Marshall died in 1995 of lung cancer.

In 2011, the Marshall estate donated a bust of Marshall created by Hungarian sculptor Peter Lambda to the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Law's moot court, which would be named after Marshall. Marshall's widow expressed the hope that the tribute would inspire all law students at SMU to pursue the qualities of passion, diligence, courage and integrity that had distinguished her late husband's remarkable achievements.[7]


  1. ^ "David Saul Marshall". Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board. 2008. Archived from the original on 18 March 2015. 
  2. ^ "David Saul Marshall". Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board. 2008. Archived from the original on 18 March 2015. 
  3. ^ Kevin Khoo (2008). "David Marshall: Singapore's First Chief Minister". Archives Online, National Archives of Singapore. Archived from the original on 3 February 2015. 
  4. ^ Vadim Bytensky & P. A. (2007). Journey from St. Petersburg. ISBN 978-1-4259-9935-3. 
  5. ^ "David Saul Marshall". Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board. 2008. Archived from the original on 18 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "David Marshall: Singapore's First Chief Minister". Headlines, Lifelines, AsiaOne. 1998. Archived from the original on 7 February 2015. 
  7. ^ Leonard Lim (11 November 2011). "Bust of David Marshall to grace SMU court named after him". The Straits Times. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Newly Created
Chief Minister of Singapore
6 April 1955 – 7 June 1956
Succeeded by
Lim Yew Hock
Parliament of Singapore
Preceded by
Newly Created
Member of the Legislative Assembly for Cairnhill
Succeeded by
Lim Yew Hock
Preceded by
Mohamed Ariff bin Baharuddin
Member of the Legislative Assembly for Anson
Succeeded by
Chiang Seok Keong