Friday, December 18, 2009

Recalling S'pore's other birthday

Dec 18, 2009

PAP leaders at a victory celebration in City Hall after winning the 1959 elections. -- ST FILE PHOTO

TO MANY, Singapore's birth can be marked either in 1965 when it broke away from Malaysia to be an independent republic, or in 1819 when it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles.

This year came a jolting reminder that there is one more year that also qualifies as a birth year: 1959.

Singapore was granted self-government by the British in that year, which meant that the island was being ruled by a fully elected government for the first time in its history.

As this year marked the 50th anniversary of self-rule, which coincided with 50 years of People's Action Party (PAP) rule, it was no surprise that it would be a recurring theme in major national events such as the May Day Rally and National Day Rally.


THE auspicious date that compelled all this interest and attention was June 3, 1959.

Just past midnight on that day, British Governor William Goode came on the radio to proclaim Singapore a self-governing state.

Mr Chor Yeok Eng, who was a PAP legislative assemblyman then, recalled staying up with his wife and three small children to listen to the message. Now 79, he told The Straits Times earlier this year that the day was important because it marked 'the first step of our journey towards independence'.

Later that evening, between 50,000 and 80,000 people gathered at the Padang for the celebrations.

Evoking the atmosphere, lawyer Tan Kok Kiong, 68, then a student, said: 'We were excited because we were going to rule our own country, and we could have our voice.'

The highlight of that rally, of course, was when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the PAP to victory in the 1959 elections, addressed the crowd and roared 'Merdeka', which means independence in Malay.


AS WITH most anniversaries, the 50th year of self-government was commemorated with flashbacks into history.

The Straits Times produced a nine-page special feature on May 30 which, among others, retraced what happened in the 24 hours starting just after midnight on June 3.

Headlined 'Merdeka', it featured former PAP politicians as well as ordinary Singaporeans who were present at the Padang celebrations reminiscing about the momentous occasion.

In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted almost half an hour of his National Day Rally speech to a slideshow of images from Singapore's past.

But this look back also came with a look forward. The milestone was seen as an opportune time to get Singapore to take stock of where it had been and where it was going.

During his rally speech, PM Lee highlighted the remarkable change Singapore had gone through in the past 50 years, using it to underscore just how promising the future would be.

'As one united nation, we can continue to upgrade this city and make this place our home, our future and our Singapore,' he said.

It was a rare sight when several PAP legislative assemblymen elected in 1959 turned out for the launch of Men In White on Sept 8. They included Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Lee Khoon Choy, Mr Chan Chee Seng and Mr Chor Yeok Eng.


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