At a crucial moment in PAP's history, he made all the difference
By Sonny Yap
In the beginning there was Toh Chin Chye.
He was there at No. 44 Bryanston Square in London where he joined a group of fellow university students in the Malayan Forum questioning British rule and seeking independence for a united Malaya and Singapore.
He was there in the basement dining room of No. 38 Oxley Road in Singapore where he huddled with the house owner named Lee Kuan Yew and other professionals, trade unionists and workers to hatch plans for a new left-wing political party.
He was at the Victoria Memorial Hall now known as the Victoria Concert Hall where he chaired the inauguration meeting which introduced the People's Action Party (PAP) and its white-garbed leaders to Singapore.
And he was right there at the Raffles Institution counting centre at Bras Basah Road when the final votes were tallied for the May 30, 1959 General Election which saw the PAP capturing 43 out of 51 seats to form the government of self-governing Singapore.
Dr Toh Chin Chye, a man of small stature, quick temper and sharp mind, had seen it all. As party chairman from 1954 to 1981 and as deputy prime minister and Cabinet minister from 1959 to 1981, he was a key member of the team that formed the PAP and led the PAP Government through the trials and tribulations of Singapore in its formative years.
Together with former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee and former senior minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Dr Toh Chin Chye is among the founding fathers of Singapore who steered the island through a short-lived and ill-fated merger with Malaysia and then as an independent state struggling to make a living in a volatile and unpredictable world without natural resources, hinterland and market.
Dr Toh Chin Chye was the very personification of the values and virtues of the pioneering generation of leaders who grew up in the hardscrabble years of pre-war and Japanese-occupied Malaya and Singapore - thrift, frugality, self-sacrifice, hard work and discipline.
His socialist convictions sprang from his poor and difficult growing-up years in Taiping, Perak.
The son of a bicycle-shop owner and a housewife studied in St George's Institution, Taiping, then at Anglo-Chinese School in Ipoh before attending Raffles College in Singapore where he read for a Diploma in Science.
When his education on the island was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation, he became a hawker's assistant at a vegetable stall and later at a coffee stall.
To feed himself, he grew tapioca and potatoes.
His political awakening was triggered by the abominable inequalities and injustices he witnessed during the colonial years.
His beliefs were reinforced during his studies in London by exposure to Fabianism and a socialist Britain under Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee. He was especially impressed by the National Health Service which provided free medical services for all citizens.
Pure as PAP white
Mention Dr Toh Chin Chye in any conversation with former PAP stalwarts and political foes, and his name will be liberally laced with adjectives ranging from honest and genuine to sincere and principled.
Those who had worked with him might have been at the receiving end of his legendary short fuse and acidic tongue and faulted his occasional poor judgments and other shortcomings. But they would never breathe a single word to impugn his integrity. Not a whiff of scandal or skulduggery had ever surfaced around him.
People interviewed for Men In White, The Untold Story Of Singapore's Ruling Political Party, published by Singapore Press Holdings in 2009, spoke profusely about his sense of morality and integrity. Former Straits Times news editor Felix Abisheganaden, who knew him and used to cover the PAP in the 1950s and 1960s, described him as 'very ethical'.
If the lightning in the PAP symbol represented Lee Kuan Yew, then the white background referred to Dr Toh Chin Chye, said Dr Sheng Nam Chin, a former PAP legislative assemblyman who later defected to the Barisan Sosialis. As he put it, 'Lee Kuan Yew: action. Toh Chin Chye: purity'.
Certainly no one would question his sense of duty and obligation. He would have given short shrift to today's scholarship bond-breakers, as this anecdote shows.
After obtaining his diploma in science (first class) from Raffles College in 1946, he bagged the Singapore Colonial Development Scholarship in 1949 to pursue his doctorate in physiology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London.
When he was advised to go to the United States in 1953 to continue his research, he said it would have been morally wrong to break his bond. He told this writer that he was always conscious of his obligation as a scholarship-holder and that he felt duty-bound to complete his studies.
Penang lawyer Philip Hoalim Jnr, who knew Dr Toh Chin Chye in London, remembered he was involved in ground-breaking research, noting that if Dr Toh Chin Chye had continued his work in physiology, he might have carved a name for himself in international science.
Dr Toh Chin Chye turned his back on America and the dizzying world of physiological research to return to Singapore to serve out his bond as a lecturer at the University of Malaya in Singapore. But that did not stop him from plunging into the uncharted world of politics.
It is his pivotal role as founding chairman of PAP that could well form his enduring legacy. He is best remembered for helping to see the party and Singapore through the political turbulence of the 1950s and 1960s.
He played a crucial role guiding the party through its darkest hour - the Big Split of July 1961 when 13 PAP dissident assemblymen opposed Singapore's proposed merger with Malaya and defected to form the Barisan Sosialis. This resulted in the PAP Government hanging on to power by a 26-25 margin.
Earlier, in the 1950s, Dr Toh Chin Chye held the fort in Mr Lee's absence and foiled all attempts by the leftists to undermine or unseat the leader. The party was dealing with radical activists, he said, and 'you can't have them running circles around you'. He had to navigate the beleaguered PAP through its incessant internal struggles between the pro-communist and non-communist members.
In one marathon meeting on March 24, 1957, he was locked in a bitter battle of will and stamina with strident representatives of 19 Middle Road trade unions. The pro-communists wanted to push through their resolutions and get Mr Lee out of the Merdeka constitutional talks in London. But Dr Toh Chin Chye held his ground and never flinched in a meeting that began at 8pm and ended at 3am. To this day, those who were at the meeting continue to express their admiration for his steely resolve.
During the Big Split, Dr Toh Chin Chye soldiered on valiantly even when his Rochor branch broke away and his branch secretary deserted him. He kept the spirits up when all around people were losing their heads. Dr Goh Keng Swee, for instance, recalled Dr Toh Chin Chye visiting him in his Fullerton Building office in 1961, after seeing Mr Lee, saying: 'I have just come from Harry's office. He was staring at the ceiling just like you did. You should snap out of this mood. The fighting has just begun. It is going to be long and nasty. But if we keep wringing our hands in anguish, we are sure to lose. We should start thinking immediately of our next moves - how to rebuild the party, rally the loyal party members and how to carry the fight into the enemy camp.'
As Mr S. Rajaratnam once described him: 'A simple man, but not a simpleton. A man who does not look for a fight, but once in a fight, where honour is at stake, he fights unto the death.'
History will record that Dr Toh Chin Chye's unswerving loyalty to Mr Lee made a critical difference to Singapore's political history. According to an account in Men In White, the party's 12-member Central Executive Committee was evenly split over who should be prime minister after the PAP won the 1959 elections. Six votes went to Mr Lee and another six to former mayor Ong Eng Guan. As chairman, Dr Toh Chin Chye broke the deadlock with his casting vote and Mr Lee went on to assume the premiership.
There were at least two occasions when Mr Lee submitted his letter of resignation as prime minister to then party chairman Toh following humiliating reversals. If he was ambitious and power-hungry, he could have exploited the divisions and taken over the premiership by accepting Mr Lee's resignation.
As he told this writer, he believed in the principle of collective leadership and the thought of usurping Mr Lee never crossed his mind. He noted that he was so fervently anti-communist that no leftist would ever dream of approaching him.
It was Dr Toh Chin Chye who started the PAP election campaign in 1959 which led the party to a landslide victory. He lit the election fireworks by exposing Education Minister Chew Swee Kee in the Labour Front-led government in a money scandal at a mass rally on Hong Lim Green on Feb 15. The scandal destroyed people's confidence in then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock's government.
In the do-or-die battle in the 1963 elections, Dr Toh Chin Chye went head to head with Barisan leader Lee Siew Choh in the working class ward of Rochor. He won by a razor-thin 89 votes. Former PAP MP Chan Chee Seng remembered Dr Toh Chin Chye as a meticulous campaigner who carried a detailed map of the ward indicating all the places where he would walk, distribute his leaflets, knock on doors, meet the voters and deliver his speeches.
Dr Toh Chin Chye would also go down in history as the man who announced the party's controversial decision to field a team of 10 parliamentary and 15 state candidates in the 1964 federal elections while Mr Lee was leading an overseas delegation. The fateful polls, which came after Singapore joined Malaysia, marked PAP's biggest electoral defeat as it lost all but one of the seats it contested, with only Mr C.V. Devan Nair winning narrowly the parliamentary seat of Bungsar. This debacle started a chain of events that led eventually to Singapore's expulsion from the federation.
Explaining the debacle in Men In White, Dr Toh Chin Chye said that most Malaysian people 'had no affinity for the party' as it had no roots in the mainland compared to United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). Although he and other PAP leaders were born in Malaya, he said, they spent most of their time in Singapore and had lost touch with the voters.
Later, amid rising acrimony between PAP and the Umno-led Alliance, he and Mr Rajaratnam pushed for the formation of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention (MSC) to propagate the ideal of Malaysian Malaysia as opposed to the Alliance's policy of Malay supremacy and Malay special rights. MSC comprised the PAP and four other political parties based in East and West Malaysia.
When Separation came on Aug 9, 1965, following increasing communal tensions, Dr Toh Chin Chye felt it was terrible to let down the convention. Some people saw it as a betrayal, he said, and 'people in Sabah and Sarawak thought we betrayed them'.
On the personal level, Separation came as a devastating blow to him as the Taiping-born former deputy prime minister had always believed in a united Malaya and Singapore, right from his Malayan Forum days in London.
His reluctance to sign the Separation agreement pointed to the ominous possibility of a Cabinet split. He agreed only when he was shown a letter by then Malaysia's Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman stressing that 'there is absolutely no other way out'.
While Dr Toh Chin Chye was a man of discipline and self-restraint, he had always exhibited a strong streak of independent-mindedness. Former PAP veterans noted that Dr Toh Chin Chye, Dr Goh and Mr Eddie Barker were the only PAP Cabinet ministers who dared to talk back and argue with Mr Lee whom they called Harry.
How do you sum up the political contributions of Dr Toh Chin Chye who gave the best years of his life to Singapore at great sacrifice to his career and prospects?
Perhaps the best tribute came from Mr Lee at a valedictory dinner for retiring MPs in 1981 when he said: 'How can we say, who contributed more? Without Dr Toh holding the fort in the PAP, we might never have held the party together.'
What if PAP had fallen apart then? What if there had been no Toh Chin Chye?