The Eurasian who drafted Singapore's separation documents

E.W. Barker is best remembered for being independent Singapore's first law minister. But he also helmed other portfolios, and was an avid athlete.

He was the first Singapore minister to sign the Separation Agreement with Malaysia in the early hours of Aug 7, 1965. Mr E. W. Barker, however, left space at the top for his senior colleagues and so became the fourth of the 10 Singapore names appended to the treaty we now know as the Independence of Singapore Agreement, 1965.

Barely nine months earlier, Mr Edmund William Barker had been practising law. Then, suddenly, he was law minister, and sharing a closely guarded secret with five other men in Singapore: Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee, head of the civil service Stanley Steward, head of Special Branch George Bogaars, and Cabinet Secretary Wong Chooi Sen.

By then, it would have been obvious, except to the most optimistic, that merger with Malaysia was not working. No, the secret was that both countries were negotiating an amicable separation. While Dr Goh engaged in shuttle diplomacy to convince the Malaysians that Singapore wanted to secede as an independent nation, it was Mr Barker's job to draft the legal papers.

It took 10 days for Mr Barker to draft, circulate, amend and finalise three documents - an agreement to separate, an amendment to the Malaysian Constitution to allow Singapore to leave since the Constitution provided only for states to join but not to leave, and a proclamation of independence.

Mr E.W. Barker took on five ministerial portfolios in addition to being the longest-serving law minister in Singapore. He was also a champion athlete and sportsman who represented Singapore in hockey. ST FILE PHOTO

Yet that was the easy part. He and Dr Goh then had to take the drafts to Kuala Lumpur and persuade the Malaysian government to sign them without too much quibble.

"The agreement I drafted was in fact a longer agreement," Mr Barker revealed in 1982, "but the Prime Minister wanted to keep it as short as possible lest the Malaysians would be afraid of signing it."

On his part, Dr Goh knew that for the last round of talks with the Malaysian Tunku and his colleagues on Aug 6, 1965, "Barker would be the principal actor on our side". And he was, drafting on the spot two new clauses in the separation agreement to satisfy new demands by the finance ministers of both sides. The Malaysians wanted to be released from liabilities and obligations under agreements they had previously guaranteed on Singapore's behalf while it was part of Malaysia, and Dr Goh wanted a clause to provide that both countries would after separation cooperate in economic affairs for mutual benefit.

It probably helped that Mr Barker had played on the same hockey and rugby teams in school as two of the key players on the Malaysian side - Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak and Attorney-General Kadir Yusof - and each considered the other an old friend. For he was acutely aware that if things did not go well, he and Dr Goh could be accused of treason and the drafts produced as proof of their guilt. "But I trusted them completely. I knew that they would not do that to us. These were my old friends," he said in an oral history interview that has become the definitive Singapore account of the events that took place 50 years ago.

And so it came to pass that shortly after midnight on Aug 7, Mr Barker handed over the signed documents to Prime Minister Lee, who said: "Thank you, Eddie. This is a bloodless coup."

As Mr Lee explained in his memoirs: "It was a coup against the British government and their vigilant proconsul Head, a constitutional coup engineered right under the noses of the British, Australians and New Zealanders who were defending Malaysia with their armed forces.

"At very little notice, we had thought of a way to achieve what the Tunku could not accomplish with his own staff because it had to be carried out in great secrecy and the shortest time possible, including three readings of the Bill in one session of Parliament on a certificate of urgency, or it could never have succeeded." 


Nations that have to struggle for independence tend to celebrate their founding fathers. The criteria for inclusion in this rarefied group vary, but usually require "conspicuous contributions" to the attainment of nationhood.

For his part in drafting the separation documents and securing the Malaysian signatures, Mr Barker surely qualified for founding father status and should be a household name, especially in this Golden Jubilee year. Yet he is not.

Is Barker Road named after him? One Singaporean in his early 30s asked me this when I said I was writing the biography of E. W. Barker. The young civil servant did not know who Mr Eddie Barker was, but he had gone to a school located in Barker Road.

No, the road was named after Mr Arthur Barker, a British businessman and municipal commissioner who left Singapore in 1932, and was not related to the Eurasian who was Singapore's law minister for 24 years.

Mr Eddie Barker had an academic background not dissimilar to that of the other founding fathers of Singapore or, for that matter, present-day Cabinet ministers. He was head prefect at Raffles Institution and won a Queen's Scholarship (today's President's Scholarship) in 1946 to study law at Cambridge University in Britain.

But the man who took on five ministerial portfolios in addition to being the longest-serving law minister in Singapore was not just a prototypical Singapore leader who excelled academically. He was also a champion athlete and sportsman who represented Singapore in hockey and captained the Cambridge University badminton team.

During World War II, he survived a year on the Death Railway in Thailand working as a medical orderly, stricken more than once by malaria. He was lucky; more than half of the estimated 270,000 Asians press-ganged into service by the Japanese army never returned home, succumbing to disease and ill-treatment.

Mr Barker was a relative latecomer to politics, compared to his colleagues. He was not a founding member of the People's Action Party that has ruled Singapore since self-governance in 1959, entering politics only in 1963, when he won a seat in Tanglin and held it without contest until 1988.

But he was not a reluctant politician, as sometimes painted in the media. He contested the 1963 elections because then PM Lee Kuan Yew asked him to. But his personal reasons were deeply patriotic. "I joined for Singapore. I was born, bred, educated here. There's a feeling of attachment and loyalty," he told legal historian Kevin Tan after he retired from politics.

Mr Barker took a steep pay cut to join the Cabinet. His first pay cheque as law minister in 1964 was $2,500, not enough to pay his mortgage - which had been pegged to his previous income as a lawyer - and support his family of four school-going children. He asked to leave to return to law practice a few times, PM Lee later told Parliament, because he was struggling to meet his family commitments. In 1970, when ministerial salaries were raised to $4,500, his peers were earning $20,000 a month.

Yet Mr Barker stayed on because he enjoyed serving the nation, making a difference in the lives of Singaporeans. Some might recall that he pushed for the abolition of jury trial in Parliament with the famous comment that "the administration of justice should not be left in the hands of what are, after all, seven laymen, but rather, should be left solely in the hands of the professional judges who would, to say the least, be able to dispense justice in a more predictable manner".

Few, however, remember now that he also took on the National Development portfolio in the first post-separation Cabinet in 1965, and held it for 10 years.

In that role, he oversaw the Housing and Development Board and its affordable home ownership programme as well as the building of roads and ports, the transformation of the urban landscape, the greening of parks and the reclamation of land.

His children remember that whenever they went to Punggol for dinner on Sundays, they always had to detour along Lorong Buangkok because Mr Barker had made the decision to pave the road and was proud to have made life a little easier for the residents of what is today the last remaining kampung in Singapore. And nothing delighted him more than to be greeted by children in his Tanglin ward calling out, "Mr Barker, datang ("coming" in Malay). Mr Barker, datang."

Mr Barker, it has to be said, was a colourful character. My favourite soundbite about him is from the redoubtable S. Rajaratnam, who in 1992 told a reporter: "Barker is an old-fashioned gentleman who likes to use four-letter words if necessary. And he likes horse-racing, poker, dancing and drinking." Mr Rajaratnam also noted that Mr Barker "never went out of his way to curry favour with the government or anybody else".

He was a good friend of Mr Lee and his wife Kwa Geok Choo - having met them in Raffles Institution in the late 1930s and joining their law firm Lee & Lee in the 1950s - but he was never afraid of telling truth to power. "When I think Mr Lee is wrong, I say so. Sometimes he agrees, sometimes no. But the point must be made," Mr Barker said in a rare interview with The Straits Times in 1988, shortly before he retired from politics.

Those who knew Mr Barker consider themselves fortunate to have known a rare breed of politician who carried his office lightly but with stature. The late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan called him "truly the people's Minister" who liked sitting with the common man, shooting the breeze over a beer.


Perhaps the reason why few remember Mr Barker is that what he did for Singapore was not as visible as building up the Singapore military or Jurong (that was Dr Goh). Nor did he build the first HDB flats (Mr Lim Kim San), tame the trade unions (Mr Devan Nair), or write the Pledge (Mr Rajaratnam).

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is the sports community that best remembers Mr Barker. His many Cabinet portfolios never included sports. But for more than two decades until 1990, he dominated the field as president of the Singapore National Olympic Council, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to grooming elite sportsmen and women. He was the driving force behind the building of the National Stadium in 1973, using his control of the Public Works Department (then under the Ministry of National Development) to make sure it was built in time for the 1973 South-east Asian Games, Singapore's coming-out party as it were.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there are today various sports scholarships and facilities named after Mr Barker at the National Institute of Education, the Nanyang Technological University, and Raffles Institution, his alma mater.

But when it was suggested that the National Stadium in Singapore's new $1.33 billion Sports Hub, which opened last year, be named after Mr Barker, some people interviewed by the media thought  he did not fit their definition of a well-known sportsman who inspired and touched the hearts of people. They forgot that when Mr Barker died in 2001, The Straits Times devoted an entire sports page to eulogising his unequalled contribution to Singapore sports as an athlete and "the first principal guardian of its place in the Singapore sun". 

How do we honour the service of our founding fathers? If we can name hospitals, museums and university buildings after entrepreneurs for multimillion- dollar endowments - a widely accepted practice in many developed nations - would it still be crass to put a dollar value on the sacrifice of those who gave their most productive years to governing Singapore in the early years?

Mr Lee always said of his good friend Eddie that he "robbed him of at least $30 million, had he stayed in Lee & Lee". Is $30 million not enough to buy naming rights to a stadium?

It probably is. But we should not go down this road because such a move would despoil the memory of our founding fathers. They served for Singapore and are content simply not to be forgotten.

At two Home Team events to honour the pioneer generation in the lead-up to National Day, I was reminded once again of what loyalty and service truly meant to those who dedicated themselves to keeping Singapore safe and sovereign. The pioneer officers were delighted simply to be remembered, to have someone shake their hands and say thank you for your service. Surviving family members were thrilled to be presented with medallions honouring the service of their loved ones. One son took a photo to send an image to his mother. A widow told her daughter she would inherit the medal on her passing. To be remembered was an unexpected joy.

For our founding fathers, whether we name the National Stadium after Mr Barker or not, we should remember his words: "Every time I look at these Agreements, I'm happy, I have a sense of pride, having contributed to a major change - the separation of Singapore from Malaysia."

• The writer is writing a biography of the late Mr E. W. Barker. A former Singapore diplomat and journalist, she is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'The Eurasian who drafted Singapore's separation documents'. Print Edition | Subscribe