Nation Building and Singapore's People's Association

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Nation Building and Singapore's People's Association

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By: Lee Kuan Yew

Date: 1980

Source: Yew, Lee Kuan. "Nation Building and Singapore's People's Association." The First Twenty Years of the People's Association. 12 (1980): 7–17.

About the Author: Lee Kuan Yew was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, taking office in 1959. He guided the nation's economic and political growth and was repeatedly re-elected, holding office until 1990.


Singapore, an Asian city whose history extends back many centuries, first became involved with the western powers in 1819. In that year, the British established a trading post in Singapore to refit and resupply their far-ranging merchant fleet and to serve as a military buffer against possible expansion by the Dutch. The settlement proved to be almost immediately profitable for the British and two treaties soon formalized the relationship between the Crown and its new possession.

By the middle 1800's, Singapore had become a major trading port, with a population of over 80,000, and had also became the world's leading processor and exporter of natural rubber. The city's prosperity was interrupted when the Japanese bombed and invaded it in 1941, occupying the area for more than three years. After British forces retook it in 1945, the British military governed until the following year, when Singapore was designated a Crown Colony of Great Britain. Singapore was then led by regimes incorporating both British and local elements until 1959, when the colony elected its first Parliament and Prime Minister and became a sovereign nation.

Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's first elected prime minister, faced numerous challenges. While Singapore was technically independent, Great Britain retained control of the nation's foreign policy, creating resentment among some of Singapore's citizens. In the years following his election, Lee worked diligently to secure his nation's complete independence from its former colonial master.

While Singapore jostled with Great Britain over its independence, a larger conflict was engulfing Asia as communists battled for control of numerous countries. In Singapore itself, communist sympathizers held important political positions, and Lee's own political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), consisted of a moderate wing, which Lee headed, and a strongly pro-communist wing. Following the PAP's election victory, numerous other nations expressed concern that the win might empower communists in Singapore, and some businesses relocated their operations to other Asian locales.

While the two wings of the PAP had joined forces to win control of the nation, their ultimate objectives were incompatible. Lee and the moderates foresaw an inevitable union between Singapore and Malaya, resulting in complete autonomy from Britain for the newly joined countries; the communist wing of the party hoped to achieve a takeover of Singapore and closer ties to other communist nations. With the two sides hopelessly at odds over the future of the nation and the party, the communists eventually chose to leave PAP and form their own party in 1961.

Beyond political concerns, Lee also faced economic problems. Though relatively prosperous, Singapore remained a tiny nation with little land and few natural resources. One of Lee's early initiatives proposed merging Singapore with its larger neighbor Malaya and two other colonies to form the new nation of Malaysia; the agreement created central control for matters such as defense and trade but allowed local autonomy for regional issues. In addition to vastly expanding Singapore's resource base, Lee believed the merger would allow Malaysia to finally and completely throw off all vestiges of British control. With overwhelming public support, the merger was approved in 1963.

Lee's achievement proved to be short-lived. The marriage between Singapore and its Malaysian partners proved difficult to consummate, as political and racial tensions led to conflict and violence. The distribution of power within the new nation was also a point of contention, and food shortages resulting from the riots exacerbated an already tense situation. In 1965, Lee appeared on television to announce Singapore's exodus from Malaysia. The smaller nation would now be forced to survive on its own, without the benefit of a much larger marketplace and resources.


Few people know how crucial a role the People's Association has played in Singapore in the last twenty years, and what a key institution it still is. When we took office in 1959, we knew that the average person in Singapore did not want to be openly identified with any political party, whatever his personal feelings or loyalties may be. He was more fearful than apathetic. The communists were all-powerful and intimidating and most people, especially the Chinese, believed with good reason that if they were seen opposing the communists, then if the communists won, retribution would be inevitable.

Hence the Government decided to set up the People's Association with forty-five founder institution members. It inherited some twenty-nine community centers and five youth clubs. People need not be openly identified with a political party like the PAP, or a government department like the Social Welfare Department, but with a semi-independent, semi-government statutory board. The PA's objective was to get the discrete, almost self-contained, social and communal groups to meet across racial, language, religious, and cultural barriers. The PA had to bring these diverse groups together in joint recreational, social, and educational activities, all of a non-political nature.

The PA recruited some fifty highly politicized Chinese-educated young men as community centre organizers. They were the activists to form the nucleus as ground workers in these community centers. They had run PAP literacy and recreational activities in PAP branches. They were therefore familiar with the habits and preferences of the young boys and girls from poor working-class homes. Many of these youths were early school leavers and worse, they were unemployed. The community centers began to spring to life with literacy classes, cooking lessons, chess games, basketball, ping-pong, and other simple pleasures.

In June 1961, the pro-communists in the PAP broke off. Most of these fifty organizers in the PA also broke off to support Barisan Sosialis. They believed Barisan would win and topple the PAP. They deliberately disrupted the activities and programs in the community centers. Nevertheless, these new activities carried on, although at a reduced pace. The Ministers and Assemblymen were too busy rallying the ground against the communists to do much about repairing the damage in the PA. This phase, a daily ding-dong propaganda, life and death struggle between the PAP and the communists, fought in desperate earnestness, ended with a decisive seventy-one percent vote for merger in a referendum in favor of Malaysia in September 1962. Once this battle was over, we set out to rebuild the ground organization for the next round against the communists.…

At first, it was a slow and tentative regrouping of the ground. Our strategy was simple. Once we showed that the communists were not invincible, we were able to get some local leaders to come forward and identify themselves openly with the PAP government. The first three constituency tours got off the ground with warm and even enthusiastic responses, despite silent communist intimidation in rural constituencies where their influence had always been strong. Then more and more influential leaders volunteered to "welcome" my visits, arranging more welcoming committees in more stops in a constituency to attend receptions and functions. During those stops, speeches of support and requests for government action were made. Invariably, I had to reply impromptu. Often I made as many as twenty speeches in one day, some nearly one hour long.…

The constituency tours gathered momentum. People watched on TV the spontaneous response of the crowds to the speeches made. The visits gathered steam. The ground swell surged in the government's favor. I could feel the tide turn against the communists. People were no longer so afraid of Barisan Sosialis. Communist intimidation lost its chilling fear since they were unable or unwilling to risk violence and assassinations. Masses of people openly supported the government and welcomed me on those tours. More and more leaders came forward, prepared to stand up against the communists and be counted.

The communists set out to disrupt the tours. The first attempt was on 12 January 1963 at Kampong Kembangan. Along Jalan Eunos, the members of the communist-controlled Rural Residents' Association held up banners and posters criticizing the government and shouting protests as we passed by their premises. On 19 January 1963 in Jalan Kayu, three women affected by resettlement, were instigated by the Country People's Association to create a scene. They vociferously confronted me and demanded increased compensation.

On 2 February 1963, a revolt took place in Brunei. Barisan Sosialis leaders were involved in the conspiracy with Azahari. A sweep was made of the pro-communist leaders. Operation Cold Store was ordered by the Internal Security Council. It was supported by the Singapore Government.

A month later, on 10 March 1963, I toured Nee Soon, another rural constituency with many blank votes. Barisan wrote up "blackboard news" viciously attacking the government and condemning me for the detentions. They placed the "blackboard news" where I had to see it on my way to a reception at the Lim Clan Association. But after Operation Cold Store, they were careful not to use force.…

There were many such incidents of protests and disruptions. On 8 September 1963 at Towner Road (now renamed Whampoa Drive), when I passed the premises of the Singapore School Canteen Vendors' Union, the Hawkers' Union, and the Singapore business Houses Employees' Union, (adjacent to one another), they booed and jeered at me. They started to jostle me as I passed by. They pressed on me and tried to push me into the drain. Fortunately, my alert and attentive security officer, Ng Choon Soon (retired recently), strenuously interposed himself between them and me. He absorbed he jostle and enabled me to jump across, instead of falling into, the one-meter deep monsoon drain.…

Ten months after my first tour in Jurong, I toured Mountbatten, completing the last of the fifty-one constituencies. I remember that I finished my last tour in the dawn hours of the morning of nomination day, 12 September 1963. The newspapers recorded that I finished my tour of Telok Blangah at 2:15 a.m. of 12 September, then went on to Mountbatten and finished my visit at 6:15 a.m. I wanted to finish all visits before the general election campaign began. I went home to Oxley Road to doze for a few hours. Then I changed, and presented myself at the nomination centre at the Polytechnic that same morning at about 11a.m.

Polling day was on Saturday, 21 September 1963. The PAP won the elections with 46.5 percent of the votes, winning thirty-seven seats. Thirteen seats went to Barisan. The last seat went to Ong Eng Guan in Hong Lim. But his majority was much reduced compared to what he had in the by-election in May 1961.

In October 1964, we formalized the functioning of management committees for sixteen community centers, including Duxxton Plain in Tanjong Pagar. These men who formed the earliest management committees had carried on working actively after my constituency tours. We drew upon this reservoir of active community leaders. These men had formed the various Welcoming Committees in each constituency.

In June 1964, there were communal riots in Singapore. We formed Goodwill Committees in many areas, especially in Geylang Serai, Geylang, Nee Soon, Sembawang and Jalan Kayu. They helped to dampen inter-communal fears and panic. They provided ground leadership.

By 26 January 1965, the PA formed another twenty-one management committees; and by 3 August 1965, another forty-four management committees.

Those who did not want to have daily involvement in the work of the community centers were brought into the Citizens' Consultative Committees. The first four Citizens' Consultative Committees were formed on 24 March 1965 for Nee Soon, Punggol, Sembawang and Serangoon Gardens.

These men were already established leaders of the communities they lived in. Through them, we explained our policies to the people. Through them, we received accurate feedback on how people were affected, and what needed to be modified. Without this network of local community leaders throughout every constituency, the government would not have had so sensitive a feel of the ground. Without our fingers on the pulse, we could not have made swift modifications to policies to minimize upsetting our people's lives. We did not abandon our policies for economic development and urban renewal, but we mitigated the upsets caused to people's lives.

I cannot adequately express my abiding gratitude to all those officers who sacrificed so many weekends to accompany me on all the tours through the fifty-one constituencies.…

They were dedicated men. They understood what was at stake. They slogged with me to help the government win over the ground. Had the PAP lost in September 1963, the history of Singapore would have been different. Singaporeans are indebted to these public officers and to these community leaders. They were the interface between the administration and the people whose lives were affected by the rapid changes set in motion by the government's economic and social policies. These officers and community leaders became something like a clutching system that enabled the government to change gears without wrenching the gear box. They were not great public figures known to the press. They were known only in their own villages, known to people only in their own streets, known to members of their own clans. They had lived amongst their followers for decades. Only trustworthy men became leaders in such close and intimate situations. Without such men in the Management Committees and the Citizens' Consultative Committees, the PA would have been just another paper organization, running the headquarters in the old Kallang Airport building, with 186 community centers it had at its maximum in 1969, as so many symbols marked on a chain-of-command chart. Now, there are only 158 community centers as some small under-utilized rural centers have been closed.

The future types of community leaders will be different. Whole communal groups have moved out and are spread throughout the different new towns and housing estates. All dialect, religious, and ethnic groups are now mixed in the new towns. Nevertheless, new leaders will emerge. The PA must facilitate the identification, selection and training of trustworthy men who will become the accepted leaders of these new communities. If we do not actively create social situations for such leaders to emerge, they will nevertheless emerge, but more gradually over a longer time frame. They will be the modern day counterparts of the old kepala kampung, or the penghulu, or the ketua, or the zhu xi of the huay kuan, in the Residents' Committees. As they prove their worth, we must absorb the most reliable and active of them into the Management committees and the Citizens' Consultative Committees. In this way, we can ensure that the government remains sensitive to the changing needs of the people.

This is the key task of the PA. It is not the lavishness of the modern amenities in impressive "new generation" community centers that guarantees success. Success depends on the quality and dedication of the men on the ground; men who command respect; men who are trusted by their fellow citizens; men who will give the government honest feedback so that modifications and amendments to government policies are made in time to minimize the adverse impact of these policies. Those who are naturally active and socially committed are bound to be noticed and selected for the Residents' Committees. The most effective members of the Resident's Committees will go on to serve on the Management Committees and Citizens' Consultative Committees. Then people will always have clear channels up to the government.


Singapore today is among the most impressive economic success stories in Asia, a democracy that enjoys low levels of corruption and a booming economy based primarily on electronics manufacturing and export. The nation's Gross Domestic Product per person is roughly equal to that of the largest nations in Europe, making it a highly competitive producer in international markets. In 2005, Singapore's economy experienced an inflation rate of just one percent, while its industrial production grew by more than eight percent.

After choosing not to run for Prime Minister in 1990, Lee remained active in the PAP and in national politics. Today, he is a respected elder statesman and is widely viewed as one of the primary forces behind Singapore's rise to prosperity. By 1999, the ruling PAP had developed such a stranglehold on national politics in Singapore that its leaders seriously considered dividing it into two parties in order to create a more credible opposition. In 2004, Lee's oldest son, Lee Hsien Loong was chosen as Singapore's third Prime Minister.



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Vasil, Raj. Governing Singapore: A History of National Development and Democracy. Eastern University Press, 2004.

Yew, Lee Kuan. From Third World to First : The Singapore Story: 1965–2000. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.


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Straczek, J. H. "Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited." International History Review. 24(2004):893-895.

Wong, Ting-Hong and Michael Apple. "Rethinking the Education/State Formation Connection: Pedagogic Reform in Singapore, 1945–1965." Comparative Education Review. 46(2002):182–200.

Web sites

Central Intelligence Agency. "World Factbook: Singapore." < sn.html> (accessed June 29, 2006).

University of Texas International Information Systems. "Singapore: History." 1994 < asnic/countries/singapore/Singapore-History.html> (accessed June 29, 2006).

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Nation Building and Singapore's People's Association

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