Like Muhyiddin, Lee Kuan Yew Was Almost Overthrown in Parliament Too

As if the state of affairs in Malaysia wasn’t bad enough, no thanks to the pandemic, Malaysian politicians decided to unleash more instability with political games and jostle unleashed in full force from both sides. 

It almost culminated in the ultimate pow-wow: a vote of confidence in Parliament on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s leadership. To clarify, the Government moves a confidence motion, while the Opposition usually proposes a motion of no confidence. If Muhyiddin loses the vote, he has to resign. 

Almost. 

On Monday, Aug 16, Muhyiddin had called it quits. This means the confidence vote on his leadership, planned for Sept 7, is unlikely to happen. The coming days will see horse-trading (when a party lures in members from another party to gain a majority, usually via unapproved techniques), compromises, and defections behind the scenes, as parties cobble support to form a majority. The 220 lawmakers are expected to submit their choice of a successor to the king by 4 PM on Wednesday, Aug 18. 

It’s clear that ordinary Malaysians have had enough of these political conniveries. By now, most Malaysians would have heard the term “Motion of No Confidence” enough times to understand what it means and what it might lead to. These political quibblings led to some Malaysian activists such as Nathaniel Tan and Gurpreet Singh going on a hunger strike to demand concrete action from the Government to properly manage the fall-out from the pandemic instead of indulging in aimless and mindless politicking. 

“Motion of No confidence” on the PAP

If the confidence vote on Muhyiddin had continued as planned, it would be unprecedented in Malaysia’s political history. But not so in Singapore.

You might ask: Singapore is as politically stable as it gets, so how is it possible that we had a no-confidence vote on the PAP government before? It did happen, and not just once, mind you, but three times—in 1961, 1962, and 1963. 

It’s not a popular fact since these motions of no confidence happened more than 55 years ago before our merger with Malaya. With the help of the Hansard, Singapore Parliament’s official parliamentary archival records, I will attempt to reconstruct the public spectacle in the chambers and recreate history as it unfolds.


I. Motion of Confidence: Jul 20 1961

Lee Kuan Yew’s cabinet in the Legislative Assembly

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had accused the British Government and United Kingdom Commission of colluding with the communists to overthrow its Government. Discussions on the merger with Malaysia were already ongoing. 

Lim Chin Siong, who was in the PAP, and his left-wing trade unionists demanded the Internal Security Council (present-day Internal Security Department) be abolished as a condition for the merger. This was seen as an open confrontation with his party. Lim was also accused of spurring left-wing supporters within the party to rescind support for the PAP during the Anson by-election held a few days ago. 

Amidst these political uncertainties, PM Lee called for a confidence vote on his Government, an event famously known today as “The Big Split”. After this vote, the moderates under Lee Kuan Yew evolved to become today’s PAP, while the breakaway faction led by Lim Chin Siong and Lee Siew Choh formed the Barisan Socialis. 

The full verbatim transcript can be read here

“They try to make it so that we either vote for them or we will be supporting what they call the Communist Left-wing!”

The party is on the brink of collapse. The PAP held 43 out of 51 seats when they first won the general election two years ago. 

Now, Lee has a wafer-thin majority of 26-25. Some of his party members have openly defied the leadership. He needs to know where the party stands as it prepares to merge with Malaya and agree on the conditions before presenting a plan to Singaporeans. 

At 2.34 PM, Lee takes to the despatch box and booms into the microphone, as nearly 50 MPs sat in the red velvet-cushioned seats of old Parliament House (today’s The Art House) and listened to his grim words.

“Why do they oppose this merger?” Lee throws the gauntlet openly, targeting the party rebels.  

With disappointment in his voice, he asks: “Why do they want to capture the government and the party to prevent this when for years they have always endorsed and supported the PAP’s plan of independence through a merger?”

“Although we knew that politically our opinions differed on important points of ideology from some of them, we were openly comrades in a united front, and we did not betray them.”

“But they, on the other hand, in the middle of a by-election which was crucial to the government, and for the purpose of giving the PAP a mandate for merger, for their own reasons, betrayed us openly at Anson, caused dissension in the party ranks and confusion in the minds of the people!”

Mutterings fill the chamber, with smirks on the faces of Opposition MPs such as Ong Eng Guan and David Marshall. 

“Order, order!” bellows Sir George Oehlers, who is Speaker of the House. 

“Why are we even having this debate, where we are merely observers to a PAP drama unfolding?” quips Ong. “Today’s sitting should have been held either in the People’s Association’s centre at Kallang Airport or in the cultural centre with perhaps a different Chairman!”

“They try to make it so that we either vote for them or we will be supporting what they call the Communist Left-wing!” says Mrs Seow Peck Leng from the Singapore People’s Alliance, who is also the country’s first female opposition MP.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reunited with former PAP members who split from the party, at a 2009 book launch of “Men In White”. MM Lee was shaking hands with Fong Swee Suan, and in the background are Madam Ho Puay Hoo and Mr Low Por Tuck (in a tie). Image credit: The Straits Times

Visibly upset at the accusations labelled at him and the party rebels, Dr Lee Siew Choh—who is the parliamentary secretary for Home Affairs—rises and hits back: “It has become fashionable for the present PAP leadership to smear all who disagree with them as stooges, or as being under the influence of this person or that person! More recently, the smear has taken the extremely dangerous turn of labelling all who disagree with the PAP leadership as non-Malayan, communal or even pro-Communists.”

Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee chides: “We do not need any lectures on democratic procedures from persons who are unable to respect the elementary decencies and loyalties which are expected of gentlemen. It is open to them, if they so violently disagree with the way in which party affairs are conducted, to leave the party”. 

Another PAP rebel, Lin You Eng of Moulmein constituency, chimes in and gestures towards the frontbench: “Now we can see from our friends opposite that they are playing a lot of tricks and games here. We can see what kind of games they are playing. We can see they have done some dirty things to the people in the past!”

Sir George Oehlers stands up and reprimands him: “Order! The honourable member must be very careful of the expression he is using. This is unparliamentary and should not be said!” 

“The opposite party is said to be a ‘rojak party’!” continues Lin. 

The debate drags on past dinner time. Even at 1.00 AM when the city is dead quiet with most Singaporeans asleep, the chamber is still lit, packed with MPs and members of the public in the gallery. 

Lee Khoon Choy, the Government Whip, is sad that he has lost control of the party. He could not get all of them to toe the PAP’s line. He laments aloud: “It is very difficult to use your whip when there is the frontbench, the backbench and also the stab-in-the-back backbenchers.”

“You have heard the speeches made by our so-called friends. These reveal that there is, in fact, an attempt to capture the party and to overthrow the Government. If they are really honest and if they are really dissatisfied with the Government, I think they should vote against this motion.”

Finally, at 2.57 AM, PM Lee rises and wraps up the debate. “A collision of ideological forces has taken place. Nobody knows what the end result is going to be. But what we do know is that we are in for a rough time. Whether this Government continues in office because of certain inroads made by the Communist Left into the will to resist certain members of the PAP backbenchers becomes a matter of survival of the Government.”

“I would like to say that we are prepared to do not what is best for the PAP, but what is best for the country. There are certain inescapable problems. The people want a rapid rise in the standard of living … Whoever remains in office bears the odium of failure … We are staying on not for the PAP, but because we will not allow this Government to be sold down the drain and the people ruined.”

Nearing the end of the debate, Lee does a quick headcount. 

Good gracious—he is short of a vote to secure a majority. Lee tries his luck with Madam Sahora Ahmat, a PAP MP for Siglap. She is hospitalised. He doesn’t know if she still stands with the PAP or if rebels in the party have won her over. 

But it’s worth a try.

So Chan Chee Seng, who is a parliamentary secretary, speeds off to Singapore General Hospital. Chan manages to persuade Madam Sahora not to switch allegiance, or else the PAP government will fall.  

An ambulance fetches Madam Sahora back to Parliament. Paramedics carry the plump lady into the chamber with a stretcher. She is then helped to her seat by fellow PAP MPs Chan Choy Siong and Ismail Rahim at 3.25 AM as Lee is wrapping up.

Madam Sahora Ahmat arriving on a stretcher to cast her parliamentary vote. Image credit: Princess Elizabeth Estate

Then, the door closes, and the division bell rings. Chan flashes a Churchill-styled V for Victory hand sign to PM Lee, who is now smirking away. 

Nearly 13 hours and 21 minutes later, at 3.55 AM, the MPs start to vote. 

The embattled prime minister survives, with 27 out of 51 MPs supporting Lee and the PAP. A majority of one vote, from Madam Sahora. 

But his troubles are not over yet. The PAP rebels get together to form a new party, Barisan Socialis. The 13 defectors are, Parliamentary secretaries Lee Siew Choh, Sheng Nam Chin, Chan Sun Wing, Leong Keng Seng, Low Por Tuck; and backbenchers Wong Soon Fong, Ong Chang Sam, Tee Kim Leng, Lin You Eng, Tan Cheng Tong, Teo Hock Guan, S.T. Bani and Fung Yin Ching. 

II. Motion of No Confidence: Jul 13 1962

Dr Lee Siew Choh, a Barisan Socialis MP for Queenstown, moved a motion of no confidence against the PAP government

Dr Lee Siew Choh of Barisan Socialis claimed that the PAP had lost its majority by one vote and had to rely on the UMNO-SPA (Singapore People’s Alliance) alliance, which PAP leaders used to despise. He also said the ruling party no longer had support from the masses, and it did not stick to its election promises. Somehow, the debate also became a battle among the Opposition, as Tun Lim Yew Hock of SPA attacked members from the Barisan Socialis. 

The full verbatim transcript can be read here.

“Today, the PAP has become the object of hatred and contempt of the people of Singapore.”

Barely a year later, Lee Kuan Yew faces yet another test of his majority when two opposition bigwigs—David Marshall and Lee Siew Choh—table a motion of no confidence against the Government. 

At 2.37 PM on this fateful day, Dr Lee fires the first salvo. Unlike the debate from a year ago, there is more heat this afternoon than before, with constant heckling and repartee from both sides of the aisle. 

Dr Lee kicks off: “The future of all Singapore is at stake, and we cannot allow a discredited government that caters only to the selfish interests of a few PAP leaders to mar and destroy the lives of 1.7 million people of Singapore. The last three years of PAP misrule in Singapore …”

Tun Lim Yew Hock interrupts: “Sama Sama lah!”

“will be recorded in history as a tragedy …” continues Dr Lee.

“… of the Barisan Sosialis,” heckles Tun Lim. 

“… of the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew’s regime, but unlike the regimes of old, when the last artificial glow of the PAP is gone and forgotten, there may not even be ruins and ashes left behind,” says Dr Lee.

This is when PM Lee Kuan Yew throws his first shade at Dr Lee: “You are going to burn it all up, are you?”

Dr Lee presses on: “Today because of the PAP’s broken promises, because of their dictatorial rule, because of their Fascist abuse of power, because of their play on communal politics, because of their constant invoking of the Communist bogey to threaten and intimidate the peace-loving people of Singapore …”

Then comes another salvo from Deputy PM Toh Chin Chye: “He loves peace!”

“…because of the self-centred arrogance of the ministers, because of their blatant dishonesty, because of their placing party considerations above the national interests,” says Dr Lee. 

Amidst all the loud interruptions, Dr Lee continues: “Today, the PAP has become the object of hatred and contempt of the people of Singapore. If only the Prime Minister and the Minister for Finance, especially these two, should go into the coffee shops, markets and other places of gathering—that is, really going amongst the people …”

David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister and an MP for Anson, in the chambers

“You go to bars and coffee shops?” Chan Chee Seng interrupts. 

“… instead of just hiding behind air-conditioned Radio PAP, they would better be able to sense the intensity of the people’s feelings against the PAP.”

“You are a real scream!” shouts Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee across the chamber.  

“Everywhere we go, we hear that the PAP is dirty,” declares Dr Lee. 

Lee Kuan Yew rises again and asks Speaker George Oehlers for permission to intervene. 

“Sir, on the point of information …”

“Unless the Member (Dr Lee Siew Choh) will give way.”

“Sir …”

“Order! The Prime Minister cannot talk unless the member gives way and sits down. Is the member giving way?”

“No, Sir,” replies Dr Lee. 

“You must be scared,” says Goh Keng Swee as he jeers.  

“The Prime Minister will have ample opportunity to reply,” says Dr Lee. 

“No, I want only a few minutes.”

“But let him hear my piece.”

This is when Lee Kuan Yew sighs and chuckles aloud: “You weary my heart!” 

MPs from the Government benches break out in laughter with him. 

Ministers on the Government benches. From left: Deputy PM Toh Chin Chye, PM Lee Kuan Yew and Minister for Health and Law K.M. Byrne

In a stern voice, Dr Lee replies: “Our Prime Minister and the ministers of the PAP think it is great fun. They think they can hide their great anxiety and fear of the contempt of the people and the anger of the people by laughing it away.”

“Let them realise that if they were to go out into the streets of Singapore without their array of bodyguards, we might not see them again…”

Lee Kuan Yew’s tone changes. “Are you threatening me now?” he says as he stares at Dr Lee Siew Choh. 

All these are but a teaser of the long debate which drags till midnight, as the PAP and Opposition spar over the merger, communist subversion, and the PAP’s failures, each side trying to score cheap political points as MPs call each other names and dish out colourful insults. 

At one point, David Marshall of the Workers’ Party yells “hooray!” when Lim Yew Hock declares that his alliance has no confidence in the PAP government. 

At 12.07 AM, Lee Kuan Yew strolls out of the chamber, smiling as he defeats the no-confidence motion against the PAP by 24 votes to 16. 

He survives again. If only Lee knows what lies ahead for him.

III. Motion of No Confidence: Jun 15 1963

PM Lee Kuan Yew and PAP supporters thanking voters after the merger referendum in 1962

A third attempt to overthrow the PAP government was carried out by Dr Lee Siew Choh, this time accusing the ruling party of its pro-colonial policies. He claimed the referendum over the merger was undemocratic, and the ruling party was suppressing the freedoms of Singaporeans, among others. 

The full verbatim transcript can be read here

“Democracy is dead, and it has been killed by the pro-colonial PAP”

Lawmakers from the ruling party are tired, impatient, and frustrated. The parliamentary session is supposed to have already wound down. It has been a long and busy day, with legislative business starting at 2.30 PM and 15 Bills debated. 

But for Dr Lee Siew Choh, the Opposition’s de facto leader, the political theatrics have barely started. 

He did not get his way previously. Now at 7.43 PM, as night falls, he tries his luck and mounts yet another coup in the chambers by moving a no-confidence motion against the PAP—never mind that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is in Kuala Lumpur for talks with his Malayan counterpart Tunku Abdul Rahman. 

“Democracy is dead, and it has been killed by the pro-colonial PAP,” declares Dr Lee.

Immediately, Minister of Culture S Rajaratnam interjects and points at Dr Lee forcefully: “Yet you can talk here!” eliciting laughter from fellow PAP lawmakers. 

“It is quite obvious that the promotion of television and the programmes in Radio Singapore serve only party and sectional interests and the interests of foreign capitalists and the colonial powers,” Dr Lee says with furrowed brows. 

“The PAP has also done nothing to prevent the attempts of Western films and literature from promoting propaganda for the colonialists and from undermining the development of the national aspirations of the vast majority of the people. Neither has the PAP done anything to prevent the undermining of the morals of our youth.”

Someone from the backbench quips: “You must have gone to a striptease dance!” 

Dr Lee Siew Choh

Dr Lee holds up a long list of old scores he wants to settle with his former party, citing more than ten examples of pro-colonial policies of the PAP. He accuses the PAP of deliberately rousing communal sentiments and fears on national issues among Singaporeans. He claims the ruling party supports the Internal Security Council (ISC) in the arbitrary arrests and detention of anti-colonial stalwarts. 

“Everybody knows that the ISC is an imperialist organ, an instrument for the imperial power to suppress the hopes and aspirations of the people in the region. Yet we see the PAP government fully supporting the Internal Security Council in arresting people who are fighting for the interests of the people,” Dr Lee exclaims, his fist pounding the rostrum with gusto. 

“You have your own myths,” Rajaratnam rises and interrupts.

“… and the giving of special commendations and even medals to pro-colonialists and pro-imperialists,” Dr Lee continues. 

“You will not get a medal, I am sure,” Rajaratnam chuckles. 

A 1989 picture of Dr Lee Siew Choh and S. Rajaratnam at a reception after the opening of the seventh Parliament

The time is 9.45 PM, and the debate is moving towards a close. Dr Lee has his final say as he wraps up his speech. “Today, the PAP always talks about the Communists because they want to use the Communists as scapegoats. They want to crush the Barisan Sosialis by smearing us as Communists … Everything undemocratic that they do is blamed on the Communists. I think the Minister for Finance did on one occasion say that he needed undemocratic measures to protect PAP democracy.”

“Rubbish!” Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee stands up, visibly angry, and starts to point and shout at Dr Lee. 

Unperturbed, Dr Lee finishes his sentence: “I would advise the PAP to correct its policy even in the short time left to them. The correct policy is to pursue the anti-colonial struggle correctly and try to raise the living standards of the people.”

Just like the previous no-confidence motion of 1962, Dr Lee is defeated with a clear majority of 23 votes to 16. 


Sources: Legislative Assembly Records (Hansard) and Men In White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party
Unless otherwise stated, all images by the Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

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