10 Men, 10 Years: A Decade of Nation-Building
By Michelle Tay, Assistant Archivist
Lee Kuan Yew • Toh Chin Chye • Goh Keng Swee • S Rajaratnam •
Ong Pang Boon • Yong Nyuk Lin • Lim Kim San •
Jek Yeun Thong • Othman Wok • E W Barker
Launch of the "10 Years That Shaped A Nation" travelling exhibition at National Museum of Singapore on 28 July 2007.
Source: National Archives of Singapore
Mention the names of E.W. Barker, Lim Kim San and S. Rajaratnam to the younger Singaporeans and it is likely that they may not know who they were and what role they had played in Singapore’s nation building. The passing of several of the First Cabinet members in recent years has evoked calls from the public to document the contributions of this founding team of political personalities who stepped forward at a crucial period to serve as leaders of a new Republic. “10 Years That Shaped A Nation”, a travelling exhibition by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) and its accompanying exhibition catalogue (shown below), were developed by the National Archives with this aim.
Source: National Archives of Singapore
The exhibition highlights the themes of political survival, economic viability and social unity, and anchors heavily on primary resource materials within NAS’ collection. These include photographs, posters, interesting anecdotes and extracts of speeches, oral history interviews, official government records and audio-visual footage.
As Singapore celebrates its 43rd birthday, let us look back at the contributions made by the pioneer leaders who laid a solid foundation and established the fundamentals of good leadership for the nation state. As a post-65 staff within the curatorial team, it has been an enlightening experience to see how infrastructure, schemes and developments which are taken for granted today actually trace their roots to policies formulated some 40 years ago. The learning points derived over the course of research quickly formed the framework of the exhibition.
The First Cabinet faced seemingly insurmountable problems when it assumed office – a newly independent small country with no natural resources, facing high unemployment rates, Communist threats and turbulent relations within the region. Lee Kuan Yew, who was founding Prime Minister and remained as PM for the next three decades at the helm of Singapore’s evolvement from a fledgling Third World republic to a First World nation, likened it to “a journey along an unmarked road to an unknown destination”.1
Following Self-government in 1959, Singapore had created its own National Flag, Anthem and State Crest, largely though the efforts of Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye.2 And after August 1965, the immediate priority was to gain international recognition for Singapore’s independence. S. Rajaratnam took up the portfolio of Minister for Foreign Affairs and established new international ties and strengthened existing friendships through overseas missions and memberships with international bodies such as the United Nations, Commonwealth and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). President S.R. Nathan paid this tribute to Rajaratnam upon his passing in 2006: “His greatest asset, apart from his knowledge and insight, was his boundless energy in nurturing relations with other nations, and his wit and personal charm in making friends for Singapore, or if that fails, to at least neutralise enmity.”3 Dr Toh as DPM also played a major role in representing Singapore on foreign shores. One of their first missions was a non-stop Goodwill Mission from September to November 1965 to forge ties with 16 Afro-Asian countries.
The countries visited by Dr Toh, Mr Rajaratnam and Minister of State for Education, Rahim Ishak, during their Goodwill Mission included Algeria, Belgrade, Burma, Cairo, Cambodia, London, Malawi, Moscow, New Delhi, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.
Source: Toh Chin Chye’s Personal Albums
As an independent nation, Singapore also needed its own defence strategy. Dr Goh Keng Swee stepped in as Minister of Defence and implemented National Service in 19674 and established the Singapore Armed Forces. Training institutes for various branches of the armed forces together with investments in the latest weaponry technology ensured a competent and equal defence network.
Dr Goh viewing exhibits at the opening of the School of Signals at SAFTI on 22 July 1967.
The next pressing task was to restore trade with neighbouring countries, create jobs and build up Singapore’s economy, in light of the impending British military withdrawal. Dr Goh, who was Minister for Finance from 1959-1965 and 1967-1970, and his successors, Lim Kim San and Hon Sui Sen, aided by Singapore’s economic advisor from the Netherlands, Dr Albert Winsemius, became key players in Singapore’s economic transformation from Third World to First. Dr Toh Chin Chye as Minister for Science and Technology from 1968-1975 also initiated tertiary-level technical education to boost Singapore’s drive towards industrialisation.5
Dr Goh became known as Singapore’s “economic architect” for creating a conducive climate for investors, multi-national companies (MNCs) and start-up companies in Singapore. One of his first projects was to spearhead Singapore’s industrialisation by transforming Jurong swampland into a thriving industrial estate.6 In his Letter of Appreciation to Dr Goh dated 28 December 1984, MM Lee wrote, “A whole generation of Singaporeans take their present standard of living for granted because you had laid the foundations of the economy of modern Singapore. And you catered for more than bare living. Singaporeans who bring their children to the Bird Park, Chinese Garden, Japanese Garden, Jurong Golf Club, or Sentosa, or who listen to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, owe their pleasure to you.”7
Dr Goh officiated many foundation-laying and opening ceremonies for new factories to create publicity opportunities for them.
During his tenure as Minister for Finance, Lim Kim San oversaw the setting up of the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore (BCCS) which issued the Republic’s first currency, and the establishment of an Asian Dollar Market which facilitated foreign currency transactions between local and foreign banks.
Besides strengthening the Republic’s political and economic backbone, the health of the nation could not be neglected. As Singapore’s first Minister for Health, Yong Nyuk Lin set up the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board in 1965 to address the problems of an increasing population.8Health campaigns educated the people on emerging “urban” ailments such as cancers and heart diseases, while hospital facilities were reorganised and investments made in research and training which propelled Singapore’s standing in healthcare services.
Minister for Health, Yong Nyuk Lin (second from left), touring the new Nurses’ Training School at the General Hospital during its opening in February 1968.
For Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a clean and green city reflected a community-conscious people of high social and educational standards. The Anti-Pollution Unit under the Prime Minister’s Office introduced new environmental control legislations, while residents were educated and roped in for public cleansing campaigns. PM Lee’s vision for a “garden city” triggered the Clean and Green movement and the tree-planting initiative which have lasted to this day.
PM Lee during Tree-Planting Day on 4 November 1973.
While all these improvements were taking place, one underlying issue that could not be glossed over was the necessary cohesion of a people bearing the new Republic through its nascent stages. Minister for Education, Ong Pang Boon, and S. Rajaratnam came up with the Singapore Pledge to inculcate national consciousness and patriotism in schools.9 Meanwhile, Minister for Law and National Development, E.W. Barker, headed a Constitutional Commission to draft the Republic of Singapore’s new Constitution to safeguard the rights of its multi-racial citizens.10
Singapore's cultural and social fabric is woven around racial harmony. As this had been severely tested by the 1950s-60s race riots, Ong Pang Boon, Lim Kim San, E.W. Barker, Jek Yeun Thong and Othman Wok worked to foster social bonds and a sense of nationhood through education policies, public housing plans, and cultural and sporting activities.
As one of the Chinese-educated members in the Cabinet, Ong Pang Boon was instrumental in reaching out to the Chinese-speaking crowd. He advocated using education to foster national unity and racial and religious tolerance. Bilingualism was emphasised through compulsory study of a second language in schools from 1966,11 while schools were integrated to allow students from different language streams and ethnic backgrounds to learn together. He also identified extra-curricular activities as a means of inculcating moral values and citizenship.
Minister for Education, Ong Pang Boon (left), touring various schools in February 1966 with Minister of State for Education, Abdul Rahim Ishak, to observe how schools were run.
Lim Kim San, who was concurrently Chairman of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the early 1960s, was popularly known as “Mr HDB” for providing affordable public housing as well as a “Home Ownership for the People” scheme in 1964 for lower-income families to purchase their own homes. Upon Mr Lim’s passing in 2006, President Nathan noted in his condolence message: “No monument can be more appropriate for Mr Lim Kim San than the HDB apartments that have sprung up all over Singapore, where more than 80% of our people live.”12In post-Independence Singapore, E.W. Barker as Minister for Law and National Development carried through the housing programme which also provided public spaces and recreational facilities in housing estates to encourage interaction amongst multi-ethnic neighbours.
Minister for Law and National Development, E.W. Barker, drawing lots for the balloting of Toa Payoh flats in 1966.
Meanwhile, Jek Yeun Thong as Minister for Culture in the late 1960s-70s and Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association raised the profile of cultural activities and supported efforts to promote art, photography and calligraphy. In his words, “Music and drama as art forms are also effective media of communication for the people as a whole, whatever their literacy levels may be. …The performing arts have this ability to transcend barriers of race, language and culture.”13
Minister for Culture, Jek Yeun Thong (left), opening the Young People’s Art Gallery at the National Museum in April 1973.
Minister for Social Affairs, Encik Othman Wok, in turn promoted sports as a way of building a healthy population and creating social cohesion: “Although it is a recognised fact that sporting activities help to build stamina, sport is also known to engender a strong sense of national pride. The twin objectives of a rugged society and national pride will therefore be served in our multi-society through active encouragement of sports.”14 This was emphasised through the setting up of a Sports Division under his Ministry in 1966, the construction of the new National Stadium at Kallang15 and the formation of the National Sports Promotion Board in 1971.
Minister for Social Affairs, Encik Othman Wok (centre), taking part in the Pesta Sukan (Festival of Sports) National Jog in August 1975.
Jek Yeun Thong participating in the Pesta Sukan mass cycling event at Queenstown Sports Complex, 24 August 1975.
Source: National Archives of Singapore
The changes wrought by the First Cabinet in the first ten years of Independence were summed up by PM Lee during his National Day Rally speech in 1975:
“The past decade was probably the most spectacular of all the ten years of Singapore’s history. There has never been such rapid transformation in any ten years. The physical landscape changed with new buildings, new roads, fly-overs, traffic jams, homes, new factories. Our GDP went up, at factor cost, nearly three times, between 1965 and 1975. … We seized every opportunity to develop as fast as we could because ten years ago, you will remember, there was massive unemployment – at least over 12%. Ten years after, with the new standards of incomes, we have got ourselves into a different mood, the younger generation especially – people who were not old enough in 1965 to understand what hardship and unemployment meant.”16
Today, 33 years after this speech was made, this gap in Singaporeans’ awareness of our path to nationhood has widened even more. This exhibition and catalogue, in attempting to bridge past policies and decisions with the tangible returns in the present and future, allow Singaporeans to better appreciate the contributions of the First Cabinet and establish a sense of rootedness and collective consciousness in our national identity.
To view interesting highlights of the travelling exhibition and catalogue, please visit www.nhb.gov.sg/NAS/1stcab/index.htm. Here you may also view the Chinese, Malay and Tamil translations of the exhibition text, make booking enquiries, as well as view Live Notes to the catalogue.
1Lee Kuan Yew. From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000 Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (2000).
2View the transcript of Dr Toh Chin Chye’s Oral History Interview, in which he recalled his involvement in the design of the Singapore State Flag and Crest. In English, 1989, Acc 001063, Reel 1. Also look back at the “National Anthem” and “State Symbols” articles featured in 2007’s issue of ETC Newsletter for more information.