Central player in ensuring amicable split from Malaysia

This is an excerpt of a speech by Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Wednesday, at the launch of a new book on Mr E. W. Barker, Singapore's first law minister, who drafted the legal documents that led to Singapore's separation from Malaysia and its independence

At the launch of the book, E. W. Barker: The People's Minister, Law Minister Shanmugam praised Mr Barker's ability in crafting the Separation Agreement that has stood the test of time and has never been challenged in court or in an international tribunal.
At the launch of the book, E. W. Barker: The People's Minister, Law Minister Shanmugam praised Mr Barker's ability in crafting the Separation Agreement that has stood the test of time and has never been challenged in court or in an international tribunal. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Eddie Barker was a pivotal figure in our history. To begin with, he was our longest-serving law minister. Twenty-five years to be exact. Nobody in our history has helmed any ministry - apart from Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the premiership - as long as Mr Barker has helmed Law. He also helmed other ministries, like National Development at a crucial time in our history, where he made an especial mark.

Despite his various portfolios, all of which he handled successfully, it is his stint in Law that I think Mr Barker is remembered most for. Even among the generation of huge historical figures, Eddie Barker defined the Law Ministry more than most other ministers defined their ministries in their generation. He is the template of what a law minister should be; the ideal as a model.

In addition to his tremendous contributions to politics and government, Eddie Barker will personally be remembered as a great sportsman, a bon vivant. Indeed, simply, a very nice man. I think Mrs Lee Kuan Yew recalled somewhere that Eddie Barker and Mr (S.) Rajaratnam were the two most popular ministers in her husband's Cabinet, someone whom all civil servants liked serving under.

Mr Barker was awarded a Queen's Scholarship to Cambridge University, and married his sweetheart, Mrs Gloria Barker, before he sailed for England. He returned to Singapore in 1956 and began to build a successful legal career. He would easily have been among the top lawyers and top-earning lawyers in Singapore for decades if he had remained in practice. He could have become chief justice. He could have done anything that he wanted. His abilities were not in question.

Why did he give up all this? For politics? In 1963, it was not at all certain that the PAP would survive or whether Singapore would fall into the hands of the communists and the communalists.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew noted in his book that he convinced Mr Barker to become a candidate for the PAP in the 1963 election. Mr Barker explained why he agreed: "I joined for Singapore." He said very simply: "I was born, bred and educated here. There's a feeling of attachment and loyalty."

At the launch of the book, E. W. Barker: The People's Minister, Law Minister Shanmugam praised Mr Barker's ability in crafting the Separation Agreement that has stood the test of time and has never been challenged in court or in an international tribunal. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

When you read this, there is a lump in your throat. It is a pity that we have not emphasised his story as much as we should have.

But Mr Barker considered his involvement in politics a patriotic duty. And once he had committed himself to the cause - that was what politics was about then, and what it should be now - it became the purpose of his life.

He had the ability to look at things objectively, analysing problems, including legal and constitutional conundrums, coolly and dispassionately. He was in many ways the ideal law minister, especially for a young nation. He was able to see legal issues in their full social, economic and political contexts. He was able to decipher both the political and policy implications of the law. These traits were most sharply displayed when he became the draughtsman of our Separation Agreement, the draughtsman of our Independence.

He became law minister as we merged with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. But merger with Malaysia, a cherished dream, didn't turn out as our founding leaders had intended.

Mr Barker played a central role in the efforts to ensure an amicable separation. His friendship with key Malaysian leaders - in particular Tun Abdul Razak (who was then deputy prime minister), a friend from Mr Barker's hockey-playing days - certainly helped. But it was above all, Mr Barker's cool professionalism, his absolute loyalty to Singapore, his grace under pressure that enabled our founding fathers to successfully carry through what Mr Lee called "a bloodless coup".

Mr Lee had entrusted Mr Barker with the sole responsibility of drafting the Separation Agreement. Mr Barker did it with such perfection and skill that the agreement has stood the test of time. Not once has it been challenged in a court of law or any international tribunal. For this one singular, all-important achievement, Singaporeans forever are indebted to Mr Barker.

Many men contributed to the building of this country. But Separation itself we owe to three men. One, obviously, is Mr Lee, whose decision, at great personal risk to himself, to compel the Malaysian leadership to either accede to Singapore's demand for a nation that transcended racial, religious and linguistic identities, or consider alternative constitutional arrangements. This approach forced the Malaysians to consider separation, or "hiving off", as they called it.

E W Barker: The People's Minister by Ms Susan Sim is a 428-page biography of Singapore's first post-independence Law Minister. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Two, Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was rightly described as the "architect of Separation" by Mr Barker. He was clear-eyed. He saw that Singapore had to separate when everyone else thought that we will be doomed if we went our own way. I mean, who would have thought that the heart can survive outside of the body? Dr Goh did.

Third and finally, Mr Barker, the only man at that point in time in our history who could have produced the Separation Agreement at such short notice or negotiated the final terms with the Malaysians in so amicable a manner.

But it is almost impossible today to describe the extent of the achievements of these men - to get a clean break, to come out relatively unscathed, and to have the arrangements that we had. In case we forget the small matter of the water agreement - to have it enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution and register it in the United Nations as an international agreement.

Eddie Barker is in the first rank of the pantheon of our founding fathers, his place forever immortalised through the Separation Agreement and his many other contributions.

A sportsman, a scholar, a statesman - Eddie Barker was an exceptional man. That genetic formula also reflects the talent, commitment and loyalty of the Singapore Eurasian Community.

It is an essential part of the fabric of Singapore.

Where contributions to the State are concerned, Eurasians have served in all areas, including the uniformed services: the army, air force, navy, Home Team.

John Le Cain was the first Asian commissioner of police; James Aeria the commander of the Singapore navy; George Bogaars headed the civil service; Herman Hochstadt served as permanent secretary at various ministries.

And in sports, we have our latest icon, Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling, and almost all of us will remember those 50-odd seconds this year for the rest of our lives.

In the genetic lottery, the Eurasian community wins big - so much talent, intelligence is concentrated there.

Eddie Barker embodied so much of the Singaporean Eurasian community - passion, his steely resolve to make the idea of Singapore work and courageous humour in the face of adversity, a will to overcome despite one's size.

In many ways, the book reflects not only the ideals of a Singapore son, and the community which he belonged to. Singapore's great luck is that we have a diverse country, including the Eurasian community which itself, within it, typifies how diversity helps people succeed.

But Mr Barker would not have been able to do what he did without the support of Mrs Gloria Barker and her unstinting support for his work in the very difficult and dangerous times of Singapore's post-Independence years.

There is a delicious irony in my being present here. There was quite an odd suggestion recently that I said Eurasians and Indians are the same. It's so absurd that I had to deny saying something so stupid. I don't know that anyone in Singapore would have said that; though I think we can say there is considerable affinity and bond between the two communities.

If you look at the schools in the 50s, 60s, 70s (I can't say the 80s because I'd left by then): you had the studious boys who were naturally smart and then you'd have those who were rascals.

For a smart and rascally bunch, you'd have a fair representation of Indians and Eurasians in that category: bright but totally uncontrollable, born with the gift of the gab, the ability to talk their way out of trouble in any situation, and charm - natural soulmates between the Indians and the Eurasians.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2016, with the headline Central player in ensuring amicable split from Malaysia. Subscribe