As Singapore went gaga over PAP’s youngest candidate Tin Pei Ling in the election line-up, less attention was paid to the candidate at the other end of the scale. The party’s oldest candidate at 87 years is in the league of world’s oldest parliamentarians; he has served his constituency faithfully for more than half a century and has indicated his intention to run again. For our battle-hardened Minister Mentor, the upcoming general elections would be his 14th; for new candidates like Tin Pei Ling they would be facing their baptism of fire. As I look back at MM Lee's first elections in 1955, I could not help but feel amused and yet am full of respect for the man.
The 1955 General Elections was not Singapore’s first - there were elections in 1948 and 1951 - but it was a landmark one thanks to the Rendel Constitution; for the first time the majority of seats were to be contested and a Chief Minister would emerge among the elected. The PAP fielded in four candidates to contest the 25 seats: one lost (Devan Nair, the future President); one had a "strong mandate" at 78% (no prize for guessing); the other two just scrapped through at 55% or less.
Supporters of Lee Kuan Yew during the 1955 General Elections (source: NAS). Can anybody identify the building behind? The ethnic make-up of the supporters (Malays and Indians) suggests they could be from the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union .... just a wild guess.
In Tanjong Pagar the PAP fielded their Secretary-General Lee Kuan Yew. It was to be a 3-cornered fight, against Progressive Party’s Peter Lim Seck Tiong and Democratic Party’s Lam Thian. If you think 3-cornered fights are bad, consider the 1955 elections had 14 of them out of 25 seats; there were even six 4-cornered fights and one 5-cornered (faint!) fight. The political landscape was so different then with no need for any "opposition unity".
It is hard to imagine our Minister Mentor at 87 years of age started his campaigning in Tanjong Pagar at 32 years old. That is 55 years of service - connecting and bonding with the residents in the estate. His opponents were not any older; between the three of them the average age was just over 30. The youngest, Lam Thian, was 28 which makes him just one year older than Tin Pei Ling.
List of candidates battling for the constituencies. In the yellow box are the three contenders for the Tanjong Pagar seat.
Thus the 1955 elections marked MM Lee's formal entry to politics. As one of the PAP founders and with campaigning experience from his university and working years, he was neither a greenhorn nor a candidate seconded from the (colonial) establishment. For the next General Elections in 1959, his party would emerge the majority and he, the first Prime Minister of Singapore.
There is a very important piece of heritage, a paper artifact from the 1955 elections which the younger generation may not be aware but should be mandatory exhibit if the relevant authorities decide to set up a political history museum in future. A defining moment for our Minister Mentor is a defining one in our political history; it was during the election rally in 1955 that MM Lee first made a speech in Mandarin! For a long time I wondered what was on that sheet of paper mentioned in his tribute to Jek Yeun Thong. From the Straits Times of 15 March 1982:
Amongst my documents, I treasure one sheet of paper in simple Chinese, the first and simplest speech I have ever made in Mandarin for General Elections in April 1955 at the Bandar Street square. It was before the biggest crowd Singapore had ever seen, around 60,000. With Jek's one sheet of paper, I tried to prove I was Chinese and Jek kept on writing speeches and pamphlets. Now, it does not matter much. Then, when I could not speak Chinese, he was crucial.
Jek Yeun Thong, the reporter and future minister in the cabinet. He drafted MM Lee's first speech in Mandarin.
The same incident is also recorded in MM Lee's memoirs The Singapore Story:
I made a supreme effort to say a few words in Mandarin at my biggest rally in Banda Street, another Cantonese area. A friendly Sin Pao reporter called Jek Yeun Thong drafted two paragraphs for me, and then spent several hours coaching me to read a speech that took only three minutes to deliver.
The closest I got to find out what was written on that elusive sheet of paper was in a book published in 2005 on MM Lee's language learning experience. As it is a Chinese book, the quotes would not be a translation and could very well be the real deal.
Here is an excerpt:
The Chinese book revealed just one sentence out of a speech that was possibly a page long, contained in two paragraphs and took about three minutes to deliver. Still very much intrigued but undaunted, I searched the old Chinese newspapers for clues. Initially I thought I found it, in the report on the rally.
Newspaper report on the rally and the speech by our Minister Mentor. Might this be the actual Mandarin speech?
The report tells us the speech made by the PAP candidate Lee Kuan Yew during the rally. It was a sincere speech though Lee wasted no chance to blast his two contesting opponents. Still our Minister Mentor comes across as one who is humble yet confident. As you read this excerpt, you can almost feel these simple words are the real deal:
If this is the real deal, then we'd expect to find the exact sentence from the Chinese book in the news report but - and this is when my search turned anticlimax - I could not! Despite searching high and low in the report, I failed to find the damning evidence. Note the report is longer than what you see in the newspaper clipping above (I forget why I did not include the whole report); on second thought I think the entire speech in the report may be longer than the "two paragraphs and three minutes delivery" real deal.
I also found a document in the archives released by the Ministry of Culture titled "Election Speech - Why I Chose Tanjong Pagar" with Lee Kuan Yew as the speaker. Coincidentally the content is very similar to the Chinese speech in the report which leads me to wonder whether the Chinese speech was a compilation of the English, Malay and Chinese speeches during the rally. According to the report, Lee Kuan Yew spoke in all three languages.
Snapshot of the document found in the archives. Why did our Minister Mentor choose Tanjong Pagar to contest?
Do inform me, if you have any clues on the maiden election speech in Mandarin by our Minister Mentor. Hopefully that sheet of paper is still around, this paper heritage well deserving a place in our political history.