41st Anniversary Special
On Singapore society
The late ex-chief minister spoke frankly
about Singapore in 1994; it's youths, the press, rapid changes,
good and bad that forms part of our history. A year later
Marshall passed away.
Aug 8, 2006
David Marshall was interviewed by media commentator,
lawyer and blogger, Dharmendra Yadav, who reproduced the
following in his website http://thinkhappiness.blogspot.com/
Meeting David Marshall inn 1994
Aug 8, 2006
Celebrating National Day
First, happy independence to my fellow Singaporeans!
In the past year, some of independent Singapore's founding
fathers have left us. As we look forward to a fulfilling
future, we must not forget the courage and selflessness
of such past generations of Singaporeans.
In this respect, many years ago, I made a promise to David
Marshall, the first Chief Minister of Singapore and one
of Singapore's finest legal minds.
The promise was to publish in full an interview, which I
had with him on 5 May 1994 at the offices of Singapore law
firm, Drew & Napier.
Today, about 12 years after the interview and as Singaporeans
celebrate 41 years of independence, I am pleased to make
public this interview in full and keep a promise made.
This interview was part of an assignment for my college
newsletter, which I completed with two others. An edited
version of this interview was published in my college newsletter
that same year.
He died soon after in 1995. I felt privileged to have met
David Marshall in his lifetime. It was a dream come true
since, from the age of 12, I had always wanted to meet him.
He remains my inspiration in my law career. When I met him,
I also returned having learnt the importance of doing something
else - giving to the community.
I hope reading his words will inspire you similarly!
Dharmendra: In the past, when you were
chief minister, youths played a politically-active role.
How has the role of youths changed as compared to the past?
The role of youths! Ha!
time, I tried to educate our people in an understanding
of the dignity of human life and their right as fellow human
beings, and youth was not only interested but excited about
what I consider things that matter. Things of the spirit;
the development of a human being to his true potential in
accordance with his own personal genius in the context of
equal rights of others.
youth is interested in getting paper qualification and,
as soon as possible, shoveling gold into their bank accounts.
It’s a different world, even the law.
a consultant here [Drew & Napier]. When I left in ’78,
there were three partners – it was supposed to be
a big firm; two assistants – we were a big firm; 17
staff. This office has four floors. They think that it is
a waste of time to use the lift so we have an internal staircase.
We have more than 90 lawyers, more than 200 secretaries
and I don’t know how many staff.
law is no longer a vocation, it is a business. Everything
is geared to business!
there is this pragmatic development of our country. Ah,
our rising expectations of a pragmatic character! It is
a fantastic and almost a miraculous development in my lifetime.
I was Chief Minister, there were men dying of starvation
and because of ‘beri-beri’. I took my PA [personal
assistant] and an Inspector of Police for night at midnight.
For two hours, we toured Singapore and we estimated there
were two ten thousand men sleeping on the pavements. No
- no unemployment, no homeless. I started this business
of building homes for our people. Compare the puny work
I achieved and the fantastic HDB homes that are available
today for our people. I am deeply impressed and I take off
my hat to this very able honest government. Dedicated!
I am seen as a critic and I am a critic.
frankly terrified by this massive control of the mass media,
the press, the radio, television, antennae, [and] public
meetings. You can’t write a letter to the Straits
Times; if there is a shadow of criticism, it’s not
published. And the Chinese press follows suit. It’s
a very dangerous position because experience proves that
no one group of human beings has got all the wisdom in the
well, two of you are Chinese and one Indian [Ed: actually,
the interviewers were one Chinese, one Jew and one Indian].
I don’t know much about Indian history but look at
China. You had Confucian authoritarianism for more than
2500 years. What happened to China? She was a fossil. She
had to reinvigorate herself with the Western ideology of
communism. Another authoritarian ideology! And what was
must have been a million decent people who were transformed
into vipers, vicious obscene vipers. I’m afraid of
this control of the mass media.
are youths the miasma of apathetic subservience to authority?
But you say to yourselves, “Well, you know, what do
we seek in life? We seek a rice bowl, full!”
full and overflowing, in fact. They serve you your rice
in a jade bowl with golden chopsticks; not that it makes
much difference to the taste of the rice. But you’re
got technocratic skills and you are seeking more but internally
you are empty. Money is your acid test of success.
got nothing against money. I’d like to have money
myself! I’d like to have a house and a garden and
dogs and a car and a chauffeur but, look, I’ve got
a flat. I’ve got a swimming pool attached to the flat.
I’ve not even got a car but I use taxis. I have a
dignified way of life without being wealthy.
see the necessity of owning a Mercedes-Benz and a swimming
pool and a couple of mistresses. I think we’ve got
our values all wrong.
know $96,000 a month for a Prime Minister and $60,000 a
month for a minister. What the hell do you do with all that
money? You can’t eat it! What do you do with it? Your
children don’t need all that money.
have had the best of education. In fact, I’m very
proud of them. One of them is a senior registrar to two
major hospitals in Oxford. Another of them is a consultant
in European law to the Securities and Investment Board in
the United Kingdom. They’ve had their education. There
are no complaints.
earned $60,000 a month or $90,000 a month. When I was Chief
Minister, I earned $8,000 a month. Look, what is happening
today is we are encouraged to and are becoming worshippers
of the Golden Calf.
lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service,
helping our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking
and understanding of the joy of the miracle of the living
the duty and the grandeur. We have lost taste for heroic
action in the service of our people.
become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security. It’s
like seeking a crystal coffin and being fed by intravenous
injections through pipes in the crystal coffin; crystal
coffins stuck with certificates of your pragmatic abilities.
self-confidence of our people has grown immensely, and that
is good to see. Our pragmatic abilities have grown magnificently,
and that is good to see. Very good to see!
are very able. You’re ambitious, and the government
has heroic plans for the future. It hasn’t finished.
off my hat to the pragmatic ability of our government but
there is no soul in our conduct. It is a difficult thing
to speak of because it is difficult to put in a computer,
and the youth of Singapore is accustomed to computer fault.
There is no longer the intellectual ferment, the passionate
argument for a better civilisation. The emphasis on the
me I’m wrong, come on.
Dharmendra: That PAP government has indeed
done a great deal for Singapore. However, there is an increasing
degree of discontent growing amongst our youths against
them. Why do you think this is happening?
Our lives are empty. We don’t understand the joy of
living is not in the gold coins. It is not in the bank account.
The joy of living is in human relations. We are not in appreciation
of this miracle of life.
giving a lop-sided view, an unfairness to the government!
We come out of a morass of imperial subjugation where people
were dying of starvation and now?
know, when I won a case once years ago, I was presented
with a lovely porcelain Buddha with a big flowing belly
and ears that reached to his shoulders and a chubby face.
to my client, “Look, you Chinese got a real feeling
for aesthetics. How can you worship something so obscene?”
“Mr Marshall, try and understand. China is a land
of starvation where millions of people die for lack of food,
and to be able to eat that much, to be that fat, that is
that is the attitude of our government: to be able to eat
that much, that is heaven and you should be content.
youths not content? They are not anti. Our youths frankly,
very honestly respect the pragmatic achievements of the
government, and I’m grateful, but they feel empty.
isn’t this joy of living which youth expects and youth
needs – to learn the joy of living. How do you teach
you teach it through respect for the individual. That’s
our tragedy. If you want to put it in a nutshell, our tragedy
is that we emphasise the primacy of society as against respect
for the individual. Mind you, both are right.
both sides have the liberty. Of course, there should be
respect for the needs of society over the right of the individual
but you must respect the individual too in seeking the expression
of the needs of society. Here, we have no respect for the
them! Hang them! There are more than a hundred queuing up
to be hanged, you know that?
For Law] Jayakumar said, “I have plugged the loop-hole
whereby they could escape being hanged and just have twenty
years of imprisonment!”
wacko the ducks – you need a monument!
joy of hanging people; flogging them, every stroke must
break the skin. I don’t like it. I don’t believe
it is a deterrent. I see no proof. Look, it seems to me
logic! If every year we have more death sentences, how can
you say death sentence is a deterrent? If it were, there
should be less death sentences.
you know I’m in a minority and my father had one saying
which I’d like you to publish. It is a beauty. He
was a true democratic heart although he didn’t know
to say, “David, if ten men tell you your head is not
on your shoulders, shake it and make sure. Don’t accept
it. Just shake it and make sure!”
I’ve shaken my head again and again and again and
I still think I’m right. I know I’m in the dog-house.
government doesn’t see I do respect them immensely.
They don’t see I’m a genuine friend. They only
see me as a critic and to be a critic is to be an enemy
who must be erased and destroyed. There is no such thing
as an honest critic to the PAP. It’s a blasphemy to
criticise the emperor, spoilt son of heaven.
Kuan Yew says you mustn’t lampoon a Chinese gentleman.
Oh, dear me! Ya, what happened? What happened to China?
they institutionalised the court jester and the court jester
had total immunity against any result from his public criticism
of the kings and emperors and the courtyard. Open public
criticism – that was his job! They tried to laugh
it off but at least there was one person to prick the bubble
of their overgrown egoism.
which civilisation has progressed better for the development
of humanity? The Western civilisation or the Chinese civilisation?
talk of Asian values. I only know two Asian values and,
I wish someone would really pinpoint them instead of pontificating
ponderously in humbug and hypocrisy.
values - I think we have more family cohesion in Asia than
in Europe; more family warmth and I like that. I accept
that there is a greater tradition of family warmth and family
we have a greater passion for education. My secretary –
I asked her once what her background is. She said her mother
is a washer-woman and, here is this lovely secretary doing
a damn good job. She was educated. How her mother could
save enough to give her the education?
are the only two values I know. Somebody tell me what other
values that are Asian, which everybody talks and nobody
mentions the exact parameters.
you know we use this concept of family cohesion to place
on our youths the burden of caring for aging and ailing
parents and grand-parents.
young have got their own lives to make. To carry in your
own homes aging irritable ailing parents and grandparents
can destroy the family life of the young.
then, the alternative is for the government to pour so much
mountains of gold into building homes for the aged. That’s
sacrilege – gold is to be gathered and not to be spent.
to see more crèches, more homes for the aged.
Prime Minister [Goh Chok Tong] talks about gracious living.
Where is the gracious living?
am a bad boy, I’m ostracised. The Straits Times makes
slimy remarks about me.
[press are] running dogs of the PAP.
Dharmendra: What would you tell youths
who intend to pursue a career in law?
Try and understand that the law is a vocation and not a
business. Respect your client irrespective of the fees.
I used to charge $1 for a murder case if he was Malay because
he had no money. I used to charge $1 to trade unions; all
Malay unions, I charged $1 a year. And the $1 is simply
because, if you do it for nothing, you are not liable in
negligence whereas $1 makes a contract and, if you are negligent,
they can sue you.
like them to also understand that justice is a meld of law
and humanity. Law and humanity; decency in concepts; if
we administer law by the soulless logic of the computer,
we aren’t on our road to progress.
too young but ask your parents – the Japanese times,
their draconian approach to anti-social activities. Ask
your parents how they welcomed the returning British soldiers
stunned when I heard about it; that we a colonial people,
a subject people, should welcome rapturously the armed forces
of Imperial power. How was that possible?
that they had a sense of relief to be back in the ambience
of British justice; out of darkness, out of the draconian
attitudes of the occupying power.
want to make money as a lawyer, you can. I see marble palaces.
My juniors, ha! Marble palaces, swimming pools, Mercedes-Benz!
work till nine o’clock at night. I don’t know
how their children survive. They work very hard, they make
a lot of money. Yes, it’s true.
are going for corporate law, insurance law and the non-litigant
aspects of law, you can make a lot of money.
a particularly good litigant – our litigation lawyers
in civil cases – we’ve got some outstanding
local lawyers. Yes, you can make a lot of money.
go in for crime. The Criminal Bar is a very frustrating
You have fought many cases. You have some brilliant cases
that you managed to sweep the jury off their feet in words?
And I’m according to Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament
when he sought the abolition of the jury, “David Marshall
is responsible for 200 murderers walking freely the streets
proud of that. I told him to put it on my tomb. If there
are 200 people walking freely the streets of Singapore,
it means they are contributing to Singapore. Singapore would
have been poorer by hanging them. I have no compulsion.
the purpose of criminal law is really two-fold: as a deterrent
and as a catharsis of society to express its vengeance.
If you escape it, you’re no harm to society so long
as you maintain a good police force and so long as you maintain
a certain human justice in understanding.
me, the punishment must not fit the crime, the punishment
must fit the criminal and the punishment must fit the needs
I accepted a brief – a Sikh sentenced to death. He
was 21 when he was arrested. His appeal came on five years
later. It was dismissed.
during those five years, he studied religious knowledge.
He got distinction in the New Testament and he became a
now 26 or 27. He’s going to be hanged. I like that
man. I think he can be a real asset. He is a delightful
his family, his elder brother. I said, “You Sikhs
are really close in the family. How did your family take
his becoming a Christian?”
“What could we do? The poor man is going to be hanged.
How can we be angry?”
are more than a hundred people queuing to be hanged. There
are decent people there.
there’s a lovely phrase – I forgot who coined
it – who said, “There but for the grace of God
go I, I know no man who stood totally spotless that he can
say I committed no anti-social act.”
so in our criminal code, if some escaped, that’s an
reminded of a lovely story of Sir Walter Raleigh. On the
scaffold, he went up and tested the axe with his thumb and
turning to the master executioner, he said, “This
is the surest cure for all diseases. If you want to eliminate
all crime, you got to eliminate all humanity.”
absolutely no bad conscience about the men I have helped
escape the gallows and escape the prison. I’m grateful
for the opportunity to have done that.
this, perhaps in conclusion, we have a judiciary of tremendous
integrity. I’ve been practising since 1948, except
for three and a half years, there isn’t a single case
of financial corruption, neither in the High Court nor the
magistrates’ courts. It’s wonderful to practice
in the ambience of total integrity.
Have you ever regretted becoming a lawyer?
No! I think it was a guardian angel that brought me there.
you know, you must have read that I wanted to be a psychiatrist.
First, when I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. I thought
medicine was the greatest profession in the world –
helping heal and comfort the sick and the helpless. And
as I grew into adolescence, I wanted to be a psychiatrist.
Not to practice but to do research: why the goodwill of
youths no matter what race, no matter what country, goodwill
flows from their hearts. They want to help the world, but
by the time you reach 30, your goodwill like good wine turns
to vinegar – the vinegar of crabbed egoism.
to study the wise and whether these could be some antidote
for this unhappy transformation of the goodwill of youths
to the crabbed egoism but I didn’t have the money.
know if I could have achieved anything that vast. I don’t
know whether I have the intellectual ability to do first-class
research into the mind and emotions of man.
by accident, into the right career at the right time and
it has been wonderful.
I’m full of gratitude for having become a lawyer and,
especially, a criminal lawyer; for having helped thousands
of people terrified, helpless before the silly forces of
society. They’ve looked into me as their protector.
I have no regrets at all for having helped them; humanity,
if you can understand this.
ever become a criminal lawyer, never look down upon your
client. He may be a murderer or he may be a thief; he is
a fellow human being. You must try and respect your client
no matter what he has done. It is very important in your
own self-respect in your work, and to help who is helpless
in seeking help.
at the age of 86, I can say in all earnestness, the thing
that matters most in bringing human satisfaction is human
relations. To be able to care for your fellow human beings,
to be able to give! Never mind about receiving.
today, my friends say, “Oh, David, stop it! Why do
you have to keep making public noises that annoy the government?
Live in dignity and retirement. They’ll respect you
and you’ll have the honours.”
honours! I want to fight till I’m dead!
matters most in life is the right of human beings to live
fully in the context of their own genius. In one word, perhaps,
to fight for human justice. I once said humanity’s
cry for human justice reverberates down the corridors of
the centuries, and it is still crying for human justice.
An unforgettable moment in St. Andrew's School?
I was coming. That was the old building and I was coming
along the corridor carrying a set of books. It must have
been morning and, outside my classroom, there was a Chinese
boy much slimmer than you [Dharmendra] with his back to
the wall – absolutely pale, full of fear.
And in front of him was my friend, an American
boy – same student, same class – and dancing
an Indian jig saying, “Chink! Chink! Chinaman!”
the slightest warning, I dropped my books and lunged at
him [the American boy].
Dharmendra: Do you have any message in
Recognise there is a lot of satisfaction in public service,
foreign service, judicial service. A great deal of satisfaction
in public service, even honorary public service in committees.
you are totally engrossed in self-promotion, at the end
of the day, you’ll find it’s dead seafood.
and give up yourselves to others.
so alien to this worship of the Golden Calf and the draconian
attitude; the brutal attitude towards our fellow citizens.
Here I ask people and, no doubt, if I ask you, “We’re
all in favour so long as it’s not me having my bottoms
cut! Yes, whip ‘em!”
to put yourself in the other man’s shoes.
of course, what have I got to say?
the young – you’ve got a fantastic, absolutely
fantastic potential before you; economic expansion, heroic
plans that the government has for the future not only the
present. You are so lucky! No unemployment! Great potential
even beyond your capacity to fulfill.
an exciting country, Singapore. It’s a lovely country.
And you have to make your own space for your own spiritual
and intellectual needs and have the courage. Have the courage
to serve your fellow men with integrity.
put it in one nutshell: have the courage to live, don’t
know, I’m told I’m fool-hardy and always criticising,
although I have such a gracious life. But fool-hardy or
no, this is me; I am prepared to take what you give.
Following is background of David Marshall
David Saul Marshall (born March 12, 1908, Singapore - died
December 12, 1995, Singapore) was the leader of the Singapore
Labour Front who became the first Chief Minister of Singapore
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family of Iraqi ancestry in
Singapore, he became interested in politics and the independence
movement at an early age. He was called to the Bar in 1937
after graduating from the University of London and the Middle
Temple in Britain. He would later become the most successful
criminal lawyer in Singapore, with a reputation that "Marshall
never loses". Known for his sharp eloquence and imposing
stances, he claimed that he had 99 acquittals out of 100
cases he defended for murder (During Singapore's period
of using trial by jury). Ironically, in 1969 the leader
of Singapore and political opponent Lee Kuan Yew abolished
the jury system, using Marshall's reputation to illustrate
the inadequacy of the jury system.
In the Second World War, he joined the Singapore Volunteer
Corps and was taken prisoner after the Fall of Singapore
in 1942, working in coal mines of Hokkaido, Japan before
being released in 1945.
first Legislative Assembly election in April 1955, Marshall
led the left-wing Labour Front, to a narrow victory, and
was able to form a minority government and become Chief
Minister. He presided over a shaky government, receiving
little cooperation from either the colonial authorities
or the other local parties. In May 1955, the Hock Lee Bus
Riots broke out, killing 4 people and seriously discrediting
In April 1956, he led a delegation to London to negotiate
for complete self-rule, but the talks fell through due to
British concerns about labour unrest and communist influence.
After the failed meeting, Marshall resigned saying "I
have failed in my Merdeka mission". Replacing him as
Chief Minister was Lim Yew Hock, who would later take very
tough action towards the labour unions.
Marshall stayed on the backbench, before quitting the ruling
Labour Front party in 1957 and founding the Workers' Party
of Singapore. He lost in the 1959 general election, but
was able to win a by-election in Anson in 1961. After losing
his seat again in 1963, he returned to practise law but
remained active in opposition politics until 1972, when
J. B. Jeyaretnam became leader of the Workers' Party.
From 1978 to 1993, Marshall served as Singapore's Ambassador
to France, Portugal and Switzerland. As Singapore's ambassador,
Marshall always defended his country's interests, despite
his differences with Lee Kuan Yew's government. He retired
from the diplomatic corps in 1993.
He died in 1995 as a result of lung cancer.