On the evening of February 15th 1959, people were pouring into the 2.3-acre Hong Lim Green—the public park at Chinatown’s edge.
By the time Toh Chin Chye, chairman of the People’s Action Party (PAP), stood up on the makeshift wooden dais formed by joining the backs of two open lorries, a 5,000-strong crowd had gathered to hear him speak. They were expecting fireworks; the PAP was going to make a case for itself as Singapore’s next ruling party, in opposition to the newly formed Singapore People’s Alliance (SPA) led by Lim Yew Hock, the chief minister.
Singapore’s political landscape was chaotic—parties, alliances and leaders holding up crystal balls in front of the electorate, each refracting different futures for Singapore, each promising Utopia. In the near-daily mass rallies promises, accusations and counter-accusations flew through the air like spells designed to sway voters one way or the other. Open spaces were regularly transformed into ideological battlegrounds.
The 1957 Citizenship Ordinance had minted, overnight, a 220,000-strong, China-born electorate, a big chunk of which resided in the areas adjoining Hong Lim. Eager for a stake in the nation’s future, they often assembled at Hong Lim to listen to their would-be leaders; their presence imbuing the park with an energy and a meaning so different from its recent past as the home of an elite club. It was, in Mary Turnbull’s words, a “lusty, vociferous political awakening.”
With his PAP colleagues—Lee Kuan Yew, Ong Eng Guan and others—behind him, Toh lobbed the evening’s first grenade. The ruling Lim government, he alleged, was being backed by foreign interests, including the British and the Americans—the latter had in fact donated half a million dollars to Lim’s SPA.
Having captured his audience’s attention, Toh continued with his party’s governance agenda; the PAP, he promised, “stood for equality between all races, equality of opportunity of education and employment between all Singapore citizens.”