Wednesday, March 12, 2008

David Marshall True Hero



March 12, 2008
David Marshall 'a true national hero'
By Li Xueying

AFTER the late David Marshall was elected as Singapore's Chief Minister in 1955, he wore a safari jacket to his first meeting with British governor John Nicoll - unacceptable wear for the occasion.

'Marshall insults the Queen,' trumpeted The Straits Times the next day.

Following in his footsteps, another minister wore sandals, and no socks, to the opening of the Legislative Assembly.

'So clothing became our anti-colonial protest,' recounted Professor Chan Heng Chee, a political scientist, author of a biography on Mr Marshall and currently Singapore's ambassador to the United States.

While many criticised the burly lawyer-turned-politician for his 'histrionics', he felt that this was what the average man could grasp.

'He could mobilise them and inspire them to join his nationalist movement,' said Prof Chan of Mr Marshall, who led talks with London to bargain for Singapore's independence in the late 1950s.

President SR Nathan described him thus: 'Under colonial domination, he made us aware of who we were and made us dream of independence.'

'He was a giant of a man, in that he sought to inspire in us a sense of hope, and what we needed to be.'

These descriptions of Mr Marshall occurred during a one-day symposium yesterday to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Mr Marshall, who died in 1995.

In his time, Mr Marshall had been at turns Singapore's most formidable criminal lawyer, its first Chief Minister, founder of the Workers' Party (WP), a respected diplomat, a Jewish community leader, and a passionate advocate of liberal democratic values.

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Marshall's life and legacy remembered
By K.C. Vijayan
SINGAPORE'S first chief minister David Marshall was urged several times to write his memoirs, but his answer was always no.
The reason: He was more interested in 'today's breakfast, not yesterday's dinner'.

His widow, Mrs Jean Marshall, said: 'I think he felt it was very difficult to write memoirs in a balanced way and he'd rather live life than write about it.'

He may have been hesitant about looking back on his own story, but his life and legacy will be discussed today by several leading figures at a symposium to mark the centenary of his birth.

Among them are Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Singapore's ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee and Ambassador-At-Large Tommy Koh.

Messages from the guest-of-honour President S R Nathan and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew will be read at the Raffles City event. There will be speeches by Senior Counsel Harry Elias and legal historian Kevin Tan, who is writing Mr Marshall's biography.

The bushy-browed, pipe-toting Mr Marshall died 12 years ago. Best known as Singapore's first chief minister, he played a historic role in the country's struggle against its colonial masters and left his mark as a lawyer, diplomat and community leader.

He was anything but colourless. His biographer Dr Tan pointed to his combative style, electrifying speeches and sincere attempts to reach the masses to free them from the clutches of colonialism, saying that these qualities 'made him a larger-than-life personality'.

He led the Singapore Labour Front in 1955. Much later, he described his role as a 'midwife' of Singapore's independence, but one who 'didn't know how to bring up its children'.

Mr Marshall's oratorical skills made for stirring speeches at Empress Place and in clashes against the People's Action Party.

Years later, in 1990, then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew lauded his contributions as Singapore's ambassador to France, which bore 'the imprint of excellence which Singapore needs to make its mark'.

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), which is hosting today's symposium with the National Library Board, The Singapore Academy of Law, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Diplomatic Academy and the Jewish Welfare Board, described Mr Marshall as a 'man of exceptional civic consciousness'.

Iseas director K. Kesavapany said the event would pay tribute to Mr Marshall as an individual 'instrumental in evolving a desire for independence among our people'. Concerned that Mr Marshall's work should be made known, he said: 'It is important that we remember our forebears and the contributions that they have made form part of Singapore's heritage.

'If we do not pass this on to our children, in less than 20 years, no one would know who David Marshall was and that he was a Jew and was able to become chief minister.'

Born in Singapore of orthodox Jewish parents, Mr Marshall began practising law in 1938 and continued to do so, with interruptions, until 1995. It was during one of these breaks from the law - one which began in 1978 and lasted 15 years - that he became Singapore's ambassador to France, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.

Lawyers here remember him as the foremost criminal lawyer whose persuasiveness in the courtroom contributed to the end of the jury system here.

Senior lawyer C. Arul, who was a deputy public prosecutor in 1963, called Mr Marshall 'the toughest criminal defence lawyer I ever came across'.

When he was working on a case, Mr Marshall would wake up at 4am and work on it through the day. 'When it was all over, he would drop everything and go for a big meal,' said Mr Arul.

Mrs Marshall said she was gratified that people both eminent and ordinary had done enough re-thinking to deem her late husband's contributions worth examining.

She found it moving that the symposium was being held, considering that her husband had always been passionate about what he did and was 'a controversial figure at times'.

'David was a man of commitment and compassion who saw situations in life in very vivid colours,' she said.

He also enjoyed the company of young people, for he saw the future in their hands. 'He was not a man to look backwards. He knew the future was in the hands of young people and he was hoping they would take on a passion for things other than themselves,' she added.

She added that her husband enjoyed life's luxuries but did not make them the aim of his life. For him, living fully was more important.

'He wasn't a person who had enough of living. He was 87 when he died and he didn't think he had enough of life. The last months were not easy months, but he didn't want to give up on life,' she said.

Mr Marshall married her late in his life, when he was 53 and she was a social work lecturer at the then-University of Singapore. They had four children. The three eldest are now based overseas and the youngest, Jonathan, is an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Dr Tan said that, looking back to 1955, Singapore could not have asked for a more suitable chief minister. 'He was not a good politician, but he symbolised something important: the neutrality of race and religion and the paramountcy of merit,' he said.

Singapore might have found a more effective first chief minister, he added, but it would not have found a more appropriate person in terms of symbolism, stature and the embodiment of humanity.

vijayan@sph.com.sg

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