David Marshall

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1st Chief Minister of Singapore

David Saul Marshall (12 March 1908 – 31 December 1995) was the leader of the Singapore Labour Front and became the first Chief Minister of Singapore (1955-1956).

Born into an Orthodox Jewish family of Iraqi ancestry in Singapore, David Marshall was educated at Saint Andrew's Secondary School. 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 "Marshall never loses". Known for his sharp eloquence and imposing stances, he claimed that he had secured 99 acquittals out of 100 cases he defended for murder during Singapore's period of using trial by jury. When Singapore's leader (and Marshall's political opponent) Lee Kuan Yew abolished the jury system in 1969, he quoted Marshall's reputation to illustrate its inadequacy.

In the Second World War, David Marshall joined the Singapore Volunteer Corps and was taken prisoner after the Fall of Singapore in 1942, working in the coal mines of Hokkaidō, Japan before being released in 1945.

In Singapore's 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 co-operation from either the colonial authorities or the other local parties. In May 1955, the Hock Lee Bus Riots broke out, killing 4 people and discrediting Marshall's government. In April 1956 he led a delegation to London to negotiate for complete self-rule, but the talks broke down over British concerns about worker 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 against the labour unions.

Marshall stayed on the backbenches before quitting the ruling Labour Front party in 1957 and founding the Workers' Party of Singapore. He lost his seat in the 1959 general election, but won a by-election in Anson in 1961. After losing his seat again in the 1963 elections, 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, Spain and Switzerland. As 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 of lung cancer.

David Marshall said: "I never 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 .... You 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."


  • Curriculum Planning and Development Division, Ministry of Education, Singapore - History of Singapore, From Settlement to Nation. (December 2006)

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