7 #FTW moments from Dr Toh Chin Chye

Posted: 02 Feb 2017, 1000 hours (GMT +8)

Written by Nicole Lee

Known for his horn-rimmed spectacles, small stature and scholarly nature, one would not expect Dr Toh Chin Chye to be nicknamed a "fighter" and the "Iron Chancellor". But that he was. And throughout his life, he demonstrated intellect, grit and an overwhelming sense of duty to Singapore.

All the amazing things he has done for Singapore would have been hashtagged as #FTW, or "For The Win", if they were done today. Let's take a look at seven of his #FTW moments!

1. He was the "father" of PAP.

Dr Toh (left) walking with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the rest of the Legislative Assembly to Parliament House in 1961. (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

It is no exaggeration to say that without Dr Toh, there would be no People's Action Party (PAP), no revolution, nothing. When he was in London studying Physiology, he joined the Malayan Forum, an anti-colonial student body that discussed current events and political affairs of Malaya. The Malayan Forum was then chaired by Dr Goh Keng Swee, another notable Singapore pioneer leader.

When Dr Goh graduated and returned to Singapore, he nominated Dr Toh to succeed him as Chairman of the Forum. Dr Toh returned to Singapore in 1953 and was introduced to Mr Lee Kuan Yew by Dr Goh not long later. Soon, he began meeting fortnightly to discuss anti-colonial politics with Dr Goh and others like S Rajaratnam and Devan Nair, in a group known as "The Underground" at Mr Lee's home in Oxley Rise. They had to meet secretly in the basement of Mr Lee's home because Singapore was still under Emergency Rule at the time and any groups larger than five could be branded as an illegal gathering under the Internal Security Act. Dr Toh felt there was a high risk of being raided by the Special Branch so he suggested forming a legal political party that would help fight for Singapore's independence.

"Why don't we start a political circle? We can call it the Action Party".

This question led to the formation of the PAP on 21 November 1954, and their fight for Singapore's independence began. #TohChinChyeFTW

2. He was the steady support of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Dr Toh, then the Deputy Prime Minister, entering Assembly House (former Old Parliament House) with then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1959. (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

Dr Toh was Chairman of the PAP from 1954 to 1981, a whopping 27 years! In the PAP's fledgling years, he steered the party with a calm but firm hand. The PAP formed the government in 1959 after winning the majority number of seats in the Legislative Assembly, Mr Lee became the first Prime Minister of Singapore and Dr Toh the first Deputy Prime Minister (DPM). In 1961, the PAP lost two consecutive by-elections, one to the left-wing Ong Eng Guan and then to David Marshall's Workers' Party. At this point, Mr Lee Kuan Yew submitted his resignation letter to Dr Toh. Dr Toh recalled in the book Leaders of Singapore that after the second loss, Mr Lee had said, "What to do"? Dr Toh then drily knocked sense into him saying "Hang on! I mean you are still the government, you lose two seats, but it doesn't mean the end of the world".

It was with this spirit that Dr Toh continued to guide the PAP through dark times such as in 1961 when Mr Lee Siew Choh led 13 left-wing PAP Assemblymen, 35 Branch committee members, 19 of the 23 organising secretaries and an estimated 80 percent of PAP members away from the PAP to set up the left-wing party Barisan Sosialis. The severity of the split made Dr Toh's victory in the 21 September 1963 elections, held right after the merger with Malaysia on 16 September, even more significant! He won in his constituency of Rochore against Lee, who was now Barisan Sosialis' Chairman, by the slimmest of margins – just 89 votes! And his success heralded the PAP's eventual resounding triumph, 37 out of 51 seats to Barisan's 13. Can you say #TohChinChyeFTW? Literally.

Then 1965 brought about the painful separation from Malaysia. Everyone remembers the poignant image of Mr Lee crying while delivering the news of the separation on national television. Mr Lee also cried at two other press conferences. Upon learning that Mr Lee was going to hold a third press conference, Dr Toh stepped in and sent the emotional Mr Lee off to recuperate.

"Call the press conference off! Another crying bout and the people of Singapore will think the government is on its knees."

During the six weeks that Mr Lee stayed at a government bungalow in Changi, Parliament did not meet as Dr Toh did not have the power to summon Parliament. He had to fend off questions from the opposition about why Parliament did not sit to discuss Singapore's future. He had to reassure members of the PAP like Dr Goh and Mr Lim Kim San who repeatedly asked about Mr Lee's condition and what the constitutional position on an absent PM was. He had to keep the government together to keep Singapore running in those uncertain days after separation from Malaysia. Through this murky period, Dr Toh had to hold the fort, and as historian Melanie Chew observed and wrote in Leaders of Singapore, "It seemed like business as usual." #TohChinChyeFTW

3. He was the designer of our national flag and helped select the national anthem.

Singapore's National Flag being unfurled for the first time by Yang Di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak in 1959. (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

With full internal self-government granted by the British in 1959, Singapore needed its own flag to replace the Union Jack. Dr Toh led a committee to design a new state flag for Singapore in 1959. He paid careful attention to Singapore's multi-racial composition and wanted the flag to be as inclusive as possible. Together with the red that symbolised prosperity and happiness, white was chosen to symbolise the unity of the different races because when all seven colours of the rainbow are mixed together, white is formed.

Dr Toh also took into account the sensitivities of our neighbouring countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. As he explained in a 1995 interview with The New Paper, the inclusion of the crescent moon was to "remove any apprehension that we were building a Chinese state" as "there are also five stars on the flag of the People's Republic of China".

At the end of a two-month design process, Dr Toh and an artist from the then-Ministry of Culture delivered the red-and-white flag that we know today. The flag replaced the Union Jack in 1959 and was officially adopted as Singapore's national flag on 9 August 1965.

During the unveiling of the national state flag in 1965, Majulah Singapura was also named as Singapore's national anthem. The song was originally composed in 1958 by Zubir Said as a theme song for the then City Council of Singapore. When Singapore separated from Malaysia and was searching for a new national anthem, it was short-listed by Dr Toh and was eventually selected as our national anthem. #TohChinChyeFTW

4. He made the National University of Singapore what it is today.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore, Dr Toh Chin Chye, at the University's Convention in 1973. (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

In the years after independence, the pioneer leaders knew that to grow Singapore's economy, the country would need a well-educated workforce with technical and practical skills. Dr Toh was the perfect person to build this workforce. Before he joined politics, Dr Toh was a lecturer at the Singapore campus of the University of Malaya, which eventually became the University of Singapore (UOS) in 1962 and then the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1980. To lead the drive to shift tertiary education towards Singapore's developmental needs, Dr Toh stepped down as DPM in 1968 to concentrate on being the vice-chancellor of the University, a position he held from 1968 to 1975. Concurrently, he was also Minister for Science and Technology and Chairman of Singapore Polytechnic.

Dr Toh was instrumental in setting up the engineering and architecture faculties and he introduced new courses in the business faculty. This helped to equip Singaporeans with the necessary skills to be a part of the national industralisation effort.

It was also here that Dr Toh became known as the "Iron Chancellor"for his many confrontations with student activists in the 1970s. He fought fierce opposition from students and lecturers to push through changes such as university fee hikes and the merger of the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Social Sciences. Former DPM Mr Wong Kan Seng, who was a student there in the early 1970s, said that Dr Toh was able to manage the student activism problem on a politically-charged university campus. All while making the changes he believed in. #TohChinChyeFTW

5. He was compassionate and caring.

Minister for Health Dr Toh Chin Chye with residents of Rochore constituency in 1980. (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

After his stint as Minister for Science and Technology, Dr Toh took on the role of Minister for Health on 2 June 1975. He was deeply concerned with issues plaguing the elderly and the destitute. He tasked the Health Ministry to strengthen specialist care in government hospitals and established the Home Nursing Foundation, which provided home-based care for bedridden elderly.

In 1977, Dr Toh suggested building old folks' homes at the void deck of high-rise HDB flats. He set up the first one, the Rochore Kongsi Home for the Aged, at Rochore Centre. As Member of Parliament (MP) for Rochore, he wanted to provide a roof over the heads of the destitute elderly in his constituency. At the opening of the Home in July 1977, Dr Toh said, "The aged no longer need to feel that just because they are in the autumn of their lives, they will be put away in an institution alienated from and forgotten by the rest of the world."

The home was held up as an example of the community taking responsibility for itself, with Rochore constituents, grassroots organisations and the community centre coming together to raise money for its set-up.

As MP for Rochore from 1959 to 1988, Dr Toh cared deeply for his constituents. Even as Singapore modernised rapidly, there were still many wooden shophouses in Rochore in the 1980s. Fires often broke out, and residents lost their homes and/or livelihoods. His grassroots leaders recounted that Dr Toh was often the first at the scene to provide help.

During a December 1974 fire that destroyed six shophouses and a three-storey building in Albert Street, 70 people lost their homes in just two hours. That very same day, Dr Toh found new homes for them. In January 1980, a fire in Jalan Besar left 300 people homeless and destroyed $3 million worth of property. Dr Toh not only chided the owners of the shophouses for flouting fire safety laws, he also swiftly found homes for the affected residents. #TohChinChyeFTW

6. He was a fighter (for Singapore).

Dr Toh Chin Chye arriving at Parliament House for the 1980/1981 Budget Debate. (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

At Dr Toh's wake in 2012, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong told reporters that Dr Toh was famous for being "one of the ministers who would dare challenge (then) Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew whenever they disagreed". However, he also said that Dr Toh would never critique senselessly, and all his comments were "for the good of the party and the country".

As Mr Goh said, "It's not the PM's show. Ministers must be prepared to debate. If not, the Cabinet system would not work. One man says something, the rest follow. That's not healthy."

This was especially so after Dr Toh left the Cabinet in 1981 and became a backbencher. Mr Goh recalls taking over the Minister for Health portfolio from Dr Toh and introducing the Medisave scheme. The scheme was built on the premise that the individual should bear some of the cost for healthcare as the Government had budget limitations.

Dr Toh harshly criticised the scheme, as he firmly believed that the Health Ministry should foot the bill for all Singaporeans. In 1985, Dr Toh passionately criticised the employers' contribution of 50% of wages to the Central Provident Fund (CPF), as he felt that the burden was too heavy. Then-Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Hsien Loong recalled standing up to rebut him vigorously, but Dr Toh eventually proved to be right. The economy went into a steep recession not long after and by the end of 1985, the Government concluded that CPF rates were too high and needed to be cut from 50% to 35%.

Once again, #TohChinChyeFTW.

7. Even after retirement...

Dr Toh Chin Chye at Lee Kuan Yew's 79th Birthday in 2003 (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

Dr Toh retired from politics in 1988 and chose to spend the rest of his days living quietly with his family. However, he was brought back into the limelight in January 1991 when The New Paper sensationally, but erroneously, published a front-page article headlined "Hit-and-run accident case: Ex-DPM Toh Chin Chye arrested" along with his photo. Soon after the papers hit the stands, The New Paper realised that it was the wrong Toh Chin Chye, and the suspect was a 33-year-old salesman! The paper immediately attempted to recall the papers and published a second edition with an apology, but the damage was done. Dr Toh indicated his intentions to sue the paper and three days later The New Paper published another front-page apology saying, "We have agreed to pay Dr Toh damages and to indemnify him for all legal costs incurred. We would also like to apologise to all Singaporeans for besmirching the name of one of our founding fathers."

After some negotiations with the paper, Dr Toh was eventually compensated around US$300,000. This was literally #TohChinChyeFTW.

Mr S Rajaratnam once described Dr Toh Chin Chye as "A simple man, but not a simpleton. A man who does not look for a fight, but once in a fight, where honour is at stake, he fights unto the death".

Dr Toh fought the Barisan Sosialis and Workers' Party to guide the PAP to multiple wins. He fought opposition from university lecturers and student activists to transform Singapore's tertiary education sector, one that is renowned for producing highly-sought-after graduates. He created the winning combination of our national flag and anthem and swiftly countered misinformation even after retirement.

Without his warrior spirit, Singapore certainly would not be the country with the success that it has today. #TohChinChyeFTW

Recommended reading:

  • Melanie Chew [1996]. Leaders of Singapore
  • Clarence Chang; Chin Leong [2008]. The quiet revolutionary: Toh Chin Chye