BRITAIN made its boldest colonial experiment when it turned over the international government of Singapore, coordination center for all its Far Eastern diplomatic, economic, and military affairs and one of the world’s busiest and richest ports, to the Communist-infiltrated People’s Action Party. In the election that preceded the transfer of power last June, the leaders of the People’s Action Party had been antiwhite, antiWest, and seemingly not at all concerned with the possibility that the island and its predominantly Chinese population might become a de facto colony of China.

In anticipation of the worst, capital flowed out of Singapore across the causeway linking it with the conservatively governed Federation of Malaya. Long-established businesses, including Southeast Asia’s oldest newspaper, the Strait Times, took flight and established their head offices in Kuala Lumpur; and many British expatriates, for whom Singapore had been home for many years, quietly packed their bags and left.

The election results seemed to justify their forebodings, Moderate right and center groups failed to arrive at an understanding, and the steamroller of the People’s Action Party crushed the splintered opposition, winning forty-three out of fiftyone seats. The Liberal Socialists, a conservative group representing the wealthier English-educated section of the population and once groomed by the British for succession, disappeared from the Assembly, leaving the People’s Action Party with a clear mandate to implement all the radical, discriminatory, and irresponsible policies it had either promised or threatened.

Though Britain retained responsibility for Singapore’s defense and external affairs and, under a Malayan chairman, had an equal voice with the government in preserving Singapore’s internal security, the P.A.P. quickly showed that it intended to stand for no hanky-panky from the former colonial authority. While its decimated opponents were still reeling from the shock of their defeat and clearly had no strength to form a government, the P.A.P. precipitated an immediate constitutional crisis by refusing to take office until eight senior members of the party, detained in Changi jail without trial under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, had been released. After a brief show of resistance, the British acquiesced, and the militant ringleaders of the bloody 1956 riots emerged from prison to be escorted in triumph into the city.

As expected, Lee Kuan Yew, who is remembered at Cambridge as one of the university’s most brilliant law students, became, at 35, the new state’s first Prime Minister. His Cabinet was similarly youthful and largely inexperienced, but very well educated, with eight of its nine members holding degrees from recognized universities. Some added impetuosity to inexperience. The former mayor, for example, having been sworn in as Minister of National Development and responsible also for local government, immediately fished an order from his pocket which transferred all the powers and functions of the City Council to himself, thereby delivering the coup de grâce to those who had opposed him in the mayoralty.

The civil service is still recovering from the postelection shock it received when the government, as a priority economy, slashed its variable allowances; it is also privately rebellious against the implications behind the card index system for recording “volunteers,” in the Peiping manner, for spare-time manual labor. Rich Chinese entrepreneurs are filled with gloom; small shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and other self-employed groups blame the government for a sharp falling off in business; and the English-educated are fearful of the future. At the same time, dispassionate local observers agree that the government has set about its truly formidable tasks in a manner that leaves no doubt as to its integrity, much as its methods may be disliked, and even feared.

Discontent on the left

Five out of every hundred of the 1.7 million population over the age of fourteen are unemployed; teen-agers flood the labor market at the rate of about 33,000 a year; and the birth rate of 3.9 per cent a year shows no signs of leveling off, despite an officially encouraged birth control program. To meet this challenge the government has a two-pronged policy: to reinforce the entrepôt economy by industrialization, and in the process to make Singapore so attractive that Malaya will welcome it as its twelfth state and thereby serve as an outlet for the island’s overflow population.

For a left-wing government, pledged to create a welfare state, the situation could scarcely be more thwarting. Capital would not be encouraged to Singapore, and conservative Malaya would be profoundly unimpressed, by a policy of slugging the rich to help the poor. Instead of higher taxes and a spending spree on slum clearance, medical services, and education, the government has therefore been obliged to prune expenditure, balance its budget, and push on with heavily modified industrial and welfare plans without increasing income tax.

This has been a heavy blow to supporters who voted for the P.A.P. in the belief that the government would take money out of the pockets of the wealthy and put it in their own. Even labor grumbles that things are worse off under the P.A.P. than under the previous Labor Front government; for though employers have been practically ordered to give employees a fair deal, strikes are now discouraged, and the government has turned to Australia for advice in establishing a system of mandatory conciliation and arbitration in industrial disputes. It hopes thereby to keep industry moving with a minimum of disturbance and to circumvent the left wing of the party, which looks to direct action among the unions as the means of building its mass support.

The Communists are even more unhappy. Instead of receiving a reward for their part in the P.A.P.’s electoral success, they were warned in the bluntest terms that they should not attempt to use Singapore as a refitting base for their struggle in Malaya. Dr. Toh Chin Tye, the deputy prime minister, gave notice to “all concerned” that, although the P.A.P. would not associate itself with the anti-Communist actions of the previous government, it would be “no less inhibited in taking steps to ensure that there is no recurrence of Communist Party activities.”

In subsequent actions, the government demonstrated that this was not mere window dressing. It extended for five years the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, under which some of its own party members are still detained, and it satisfied both the British and Malayan members of the internal security council that it meant business. Chinese secret societies, whose gangs lived on extortion and thuggery and ruled large sections of the population by terror and violence, have come under sharp attack.

Though most British civil servants have learned that there can be no permanent place for them and the departure rate is increasing, signs of deterioration are few. Many taxi drivers once smartly dressed now regard an undershirt and trousers as adequate uniform; petty thefts have increased; hawkers and their barrows are springing up everywhere; and there is a marked falling off in private building. But Singapore nevertheless remains the best administered and the most prosperous city in Southeast Asia. Despite an undesirable tendency to distribute spoils to the victors, Singapore undoubtedly possesses the cleanest government it has known since the British began the progressive transfer of authority a decade ago.

Singapore’s assets

What exercises the P.A.P. leadership and the commercial community is how long this state of affairs can last. Singapore’s assets are its large, unskilled labor force, the most strategic commercial situation in Asia, a first-class harbor and port, and all the banking, insurance, and other facilities it needs to handle its cut of the free world’s total trade (nearly 1.3 per cent). All of this was sufficient last year to provide it with a per capita income of about $400 a year. But the island is only 224 square miles in area; its soil is poor; it has no natural resources, even its water supply coming in large part from Malaya; and its population growth portends economic disaster.

Trends since the Korean War indicate that the entrepôt trade is unlikely under normal conditions to regain its previous buoyancy. There are no signs yet that outside capital regards Singapore as a worth-while long-term risk. And unless the population growth can be checked, it is predicted that the school-age population will increase by at least 50 per cent in the next decade and absorb, at the planned rate of expenditure on education, roughly the equivalent of the total budget for 1960.

The Prime Minister’s program

Eschewing, for the time being, any increase in income tax, the P.A.P. has turned its attentions to Singapore’s legions of tax evaders as a first means of raising additional revenue. By driving out the remnants of the Indonesian rebels, who used Singapore as a liaison center between the Celebes and Sumatra, Prime Minister Lee has reestablished friendly relations with Djakarta and is hoping for some restoration of the flagging entrepôt trade. But his most ambitious effort is the long-range campaign to persuade the people of Singapore that they are not really mostly Chinese but Malayans. He has appointed a Malay as head of state, made Malay the national language, and this year will introduce a national education system which cuts directly across the curriculum of the Peiping-oriented Chinese schools.

Lee so far has made no impression on the doubling Thomases of Kuala Lumpur, whose attitude toward the addition of another 1.3 million Chinese, however well they may have been Malayanized, to the Federation’s delicately balanced MalayChinese-Indian population is bluntly negative. Lee remains, as he must, undaunted.

In the short term, Lee seems secure enough. But, as he and his followers are well aware, the conflict that will determine his fate, and that of Singapore, only began with the avalanche of votes for the P.A.P. in May of last year. By demanding the release of the detained members of the extreme left wing of the party before he would agree to take office, Lee was not merely twisting the tail of the colonial lion; he was also firing the first shot in the inevitable struggle for power within the party.

To strengthen his own position as Secretary General, he considered it essential that the internees, all of them rivals for party leadership, should admit their previous misdeeds, agree always to abide by the decisions of the central committee, and by submitting to party discipline renounce the use of force as a political weapon. Four of the detainees appeared genuine in their protestations. But the recantation of Lim Ching Siong, who, though still in his twenties, has been both an assemblyman and the dominant figure in Singapore’s left-wing labor unions, is taken with a grain of salt.

For some months after his release, Lim resisted party inducements to accept an official post, though recently he took an appointment as political secretary to the Finance Minister, where presumably his function is to serve as a party check on the civil service. But Lim’s principal activities are extracurricular, and despite the party ban on strikes, his labor following is again increasing rapidly. Members of the Cabinet admit that if their experiment fails, they will be challenged immediately by Lim and the extreme left.

Wooing the masses

Before he was elected, Lee promised to be “as far to the left as it is possible for a democratic party to be.” For a government that has renounced deficit financing, hesitates to increase taxes, wants to woo capital and to stand well in the good graces of its conservative Malayan neighbor, this promise poses Lee with an awkward dilemma. He is meeting it with tactics clearly borrowed from Peiping, and calculated therefore to appeal to Singapore’s Chinese masses, who feel that Mao Tse-tung has the answers when it comes to getting things done.

The conventional Western concept of Singapore as a vice-ridden city was never strictly accurate; as seaports go, it was almost a model of rectitude. To take the sin out of Singapore was nevertheless a logical and popular move, identifiable with the objectives of a high-minded revolutionary party and spiced with a slight flavor of anti-Westernism. In pursuit of its goals, the government closed down a number of semipornographic English and vernacular publications of the cheesecake type and declared war on pinball machines, jukeboxes, and other manifestations of “white culture,” such as rock-and-roll music. Some dubious bars and guesthouses were also cleaned up, and Singapore’s night life, except on Saturdays, now ceases at midnight sharp.

The “voluntary” labor campaigns were more spectacular and do, in fact, appear to have considerable mass appeal. Though the nucleus of each force is provided by conscripted “volunteers” from the civil service, who rightly or wrongly feel that they have no choice if they want to hold their jobs, tens of thousands of other men, women, and children have worked with brooms, hoes, rakes, and picks to clean up the city. A people’s esplanade, a people’s park, and a people’s beach were all created by this army of ants in the twinkling of an eye. Even more important, some degree of civic consciousness was created, too. This is no doubt owing partly to the fact of Self-government, but it is also partly attributable to the revolutionary dynamics of Lee and his followers.

Their problem will be to retain that dynamic within the bounds of responsible government, a feat that will become more difficult in the years, even in the months, to come. Since the end of World War II, Singapore’s inclination to the left has been progressive and predictable. Just as Lee Kuan Yew waited for blunders of his middle-of-theroad opposition to bring him to power, so Lim Ching Siong, the left wing of the P.A.P., and, behind that, the Communists will wait their turn.