Thursday, 13 March 2008

WP's founder


He made us 'dream of independence'

AFTER the late David Marshall was elected Singapore's chief minister in 1955, he wore a safari jacket to his first meeting with British governor John Nicoll - unacceptable wear for the occasion.

'Marshall insults the Queen,' trumpeted The Straits Times the next day.

Following in his footsteps, another minister wore sandals, and no socks, to the opening of the Legislative Assembly.

'So clothing became our anti-colonial protest,' recounted Professor Chan Heng Chee, a political scientist, author of a biography on Mr Marshall and currently Singapore's Ambassador to the United States.

While many criticised the burly lawyer-turned-politician for his 'histrionics', he felt that this was what the average man could grasp. 'He could mobilise them and inspire them to join his nationalist movement,' said Prof Chan of Mr Marshall, who led talks with London to bargain for Singapore's independence in the late 1950s.

President SR Nathan described him thus: 'Under colonial domination, he made us aware of who we were and made us dream of independence. He was a giant of a man, in that he sought to inspire in us a sense of hope, and what we needed to be.'

These descriptions of Mr Marshall came during a one-day symposium yesterday to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Mr Marshall, who died in 1995.

In his time, Mr Marshall had been at turns Singapore's most formidable criminal lawyer, its first chief minister, founder of the Workers' Party (WP), a respected diplomat, a Jewish community leader, and a passionate advocate of liberal democratic values.

Apart from his family, others present among the audience of 300 included his old political comrade Ameer Jumabhoy, a founding member of the WP, and lawyer and Jewish community leader Harry Elias.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, an old political rival of Mr Marshall in the 1950s and 1960s, paid tribute to him as the man who 'kick-started political forces into overdrive going for near independence' in May 1956.

In a message read out at the symposium, Mr Lee also noted that Mr Marshall, who was ambassador to France from 1978 to 1993, helped Singapore build ties with France.

'The Government of Singapore is indebted to him for his contribution,' said Mr Lee.

Mr Marshall began his career as a lawyer and was legendary for helping to acquit over 100 people accused of murder.

Said Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong: 'He was undoubtedly the greatest criminal advocate that has ever graced the halls of justice in Singapore and Malaysia: a giant among pygmies at the criminal Bar, including the prosecutors.'

So successful was Mr Marshall that 'it must have led the Government to rethink seriously about the objectives of the criminal process', said CJ Chan.

The legal system was tightened in 1976, one change being that the accused must now allow himself to be cross-examined.

Added diplomat Tommy Koh: 'He was so brilliant that one persistent rumour is that the jury system was abolished because he was winning too many cases!'

And it was not just style but substance too, or 'solid knowledge' as Professor Koh put it. Mr Marshall would wake up at 2.30am on the mornings of his court cases to prepare for them, he noted.

Indeed, said Prof Chan, Mr Marshall was responsible for mooting the idea of the Central Provident Fund, promoting multi-lingualism, and the granting of citizenship to 220,000 China-born Chinese.

He was even credited with starting the Meet-The-People sessions, which were later improved on by the People's Action Party.

But even giants have their weaknesses. Mr Marshall's was an 'inability to work with a team and to build an organisation', said Prof Chan.

Mr Marshall's tensions with both the Labour Front and, later on, the WP, were part of the reason why he eventually left both parties.

Former political detainee Michael Fernandez told The Straits Times that events such as the symposium are important in ensuring that different perspectives are lent to the telling of Singapore's history.

Indeed, academic Kishore Mahbubani said: 'The commemoration of David Marshall should not be a one-day event.

'We must decide how we can declare David Marshall as a hero in the long term. If we consciously celebrate our true national heroes, I am confident that the future of Singapore will burn very bright.'


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