For many young Singaporeans, Lee Kuan Yew is perhaps the first and oldest Singaporean politician they are aware of. History textbooks in school might make some reference now and then to Lim Yew Hock or David Marshall, but it is Lee who is described as the “founding father of Singapore”, as if modern Singapore would never have existed without him.
Yet Singapore was hardly a sleepy malaria swampland when the People’s Action Party (PAP) came to power in 1959 – although many people did still live in rural areas lacking access to education or adequate healthcare, local politicking was already well under way by then.
“We sometimes forget there was politics before 1959,” editor and former journalist Margaret Thomas said on Saturday at the launch of The Politics of Defeat, a book put together from historical documents as well as a secret diary her father, Francis Thomas, had kept from mid-1958 to the beginning of 1959.
Many, if not most, Singaporeans would probably never have heard of Francis Thomas. Even Fong Hoe Fang, publisher of The Politics of Defeat, admitted that he had never heard of the man until he read Thomas’ book Memoirs of a Migrant, published in the 1970s. Yet this was a man who had found himself in the thick of Singapore politics in the years leading up to full internal self-governance.
(Above: An Okto episode of My Grandfather’s Road on Francis Thomas Drive, named after Francis Thomas.)
Thomas was, by his daughter’s own admission, “not a natural politician”. After graduating from Cambridge, Thomas had come to Singapore to be a schoolteacher at St Andrew’s School. He served in the bomb disposal unit during the Second World War, and was taken prisoner by the Japanese, where he was put to work on the Death Railway, then in a factory in Japan. He returned to St Andrew’s in 1947 after the war, and joined the Singapore Labour Party a year later.
The Singapore Labour Party later merged with the Singapore Socialist Party to become the Labour Front, which formed the government after the 1955 elections. Although Thomas had not been a candidate in the elections, he was persuaded to accept a nomination to the Legislative Assembly, after which he was made Minister for Communication and Works by Chief Minister David Marshall. He served in this role until disagreements Lim Yew Hock led to his resignation from government in February 1959. His attempt to stand for election in the Thomson constituency during the general election in 1959 was unsuccessful, bringing his career in Singapore politics to a close.
Thomas had meant to write a book of his experience in the Labour Front, reflecting on how it, despite its faults, had laid the foundation for a self-governing Singapore upon which the PAP built. He began writing the book in early 1977 after diagnosed with cancer of the hip cartilage, but was forced to give up after his health declined. He died in October 1977 at the age of 65.
With Singapore’s Golden Jubilee sparking renewed interest in local history, Thomas’ daughter Margaret applied for funding to put together her father’s notes and documents into The Politics of Defeat, forming a “historical record” of the period for Singaporeans to learn about and understand a time less discussed.
“It was interesting to me that someone wanted to write about his own downfall, or the downfall of his party,” said Fong, describing Thomas as “honest to the core”. Margaret said her father had been a man – unlike many in his generation – who was always ready to “admit to his weaknesses”.
Thomas, Margaret said, had also been a firm believer in the need for a mix of voices in Singapore. “He saw the dangers of unrivalled power,” she said, adding that much of her father’s analysis of local politics – such as how large sections of Singaporean society believe that politics has little to do with them, leaving political discourse to more vocal, and even radical, segments of the population – still has relevance today. “We really must understand our history better.”
Attendees of the launch were each presented with a copy of The Politics of Defeat, which, due to rules stipulated by the SG50 committee, will not be available for sale until 31 March 2016. However, copies will shortly be available for borrowing in public libraries.