PM Lee marks swearing-in of Singapore's first Cabinet 60 years ago

Top: (From far left) Mr Yong Nyuk Lin, Mr Ong Pang Boon, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Ong Eng Guan, Mr Ahmad Ibrahim, Mr S. Rajaratnam and Mr K.M. Byrne at the first Cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony held at City Hall on Jun
Top: (From far left) Mr Yong Nyuk Lin, Mr Ong Pang Boon, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Ong Eng Guan, Mr Ahmad Ibrahim, Mr S. Rajaratnam and Mr K.M. Byrne at the first Cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony held at City Hall on June 5, 1959. Above: The weekly meeting of Singapore’s 14th Cabinet yesterday, save for a few ministers who were unable to attend.PHOTOS: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

Sixty years ago on June 5, the first Cabinet after Singapore became self-governing was sworn in at City Hall.

Describing it as one of the milestones that made possible the country's independence and all that has followed since, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "We owe a deep debt of gratitude to this pride of lions who took office 60 years ago, and to the people they led.

"As I told my colleagues, the fight continues. The dream of an ever better Singapore is alive and well. Our pledge to be one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, endures."

PM Lee was writing in a Facebook post, in which he shared two photos taken six decades apart - one of the first Cabinet and one of the current 14th Cabinet.

The People's Action Party (PAP) formed the first fully elected government of Singapore after it won 43 of the 51 seats in the 1959 General Election.

The election, held on May 30 that year, was to bring into effect Singapore's own Constitution, which would establish its own head of state as well as give it control over its legislative assembly.

After the election, Singapore, then a British colony, gained internal self-rule on June 3, though the colonial government still retained control of defence and foreign affairs.

The nine-member Cabinet sworn in on June 5, 1959 comprised Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye, Minister for National Development Ong Eng Guan; Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee, Minister for Home Affairs Ong Pang Boon, Minister for Labour and Law K. M. Byrne; Minister for Health Ahmad Ibrahim, Minister for Education Yong Nyuk Lin and Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam.

Yesterday, the 14th Cabinet took a photograph at its weekly meeting - postponed from Wednesday due to Hari Raya Puasa - to mark the 60th anniversary of the swearing-in of the first Cabinet. A few ministers were unable to attend.

PM Lee said the first Cabinet had taken their oaths of office in 1959 wearing white shirts and trousers, with no suits and ties, as a signal that times had changed.

Similarly, the former governor and newly appointed Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Sir William Goode, had officiated at the ceremony - held behind closed doors - in a fawn-coloured suit and not the regalia of empire, he added.

Quoting his father, the late Mr Lee, PM Lee said: "As Mr Lee declared at a huge rally at the Padang on June 3, two nights earlier, 'Once in a long while in the history of a people, there comes a moment of great change. Tonight is such a moment in our lives... We begin a new chapter in the history of Singapore'."

The PM added that governing was not plain sailing then, and that the PAP had nearly been defeated and perhaps even extinguished in the struggles that followed.

The first PAP government had to battle the communists and their supporters, he said.

"Mr Lee had insisted that the British release eight left-wing detainees from Changi Prison before he would take office. Two years later, all but one of them split from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis," added PM Lee.

After the Barisan lost the September 1962 referendum on Singapore's merger with Malaysia and the 1963 General Election, Singapore spent two years in Malaysia, said PM Lee.

"Mr Lee and his key colleagues fought tenaciously for a multiracial society, risking arrest or worse," he said, adding that Mr Lee's core team - which included Dr Goh, Dr Toh, Mr Rajaratnam and Mr Ong Pang Boon - had held through it all.

He added: "If Singaporeans of that generation - the Pioneer and Merdeka generations - had not united behind the PAP's leadership, (Malaysian Prime Minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman would never have let Singapore leave Malaysia to become a sovereign independent country."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2019, with the headline 'PM Lee marks swearing-in of S'pore's first Cabinet 60 years ago'. Print Edition | Subscribe