A controversial yet significant figure in the political history of modern Singapore, Lim Yew Hock (1914-1984) was the second Chief Minister of Singapore, succeeding David Saul Marshall (1908-1995) in 1956. Unlike his predecessor, Lim Yew Hock was a hardliner against labour unions, anti-colonist activists and pro-communist groups.
Born in Singapore, Lim Yew Hock studied and graduated from the Raffles Institution in 1931. His early career involved administrative work and stenography at Cold Storage, before becoming the Secretary-General, and later the President, of the Singapore Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union after the Second World War.
Labour movement was at its peak during the fifties, and Lim Yew Hock was a central figure in the public affairs, having formed the Progressive Party and Labour Party in 1947 and 1949 respectively. Appointed to represent the labour unions, he gained a good reputation of being the man of the common people.
In 1956, David Marshall resigned from his Chief Minister post after failing in his negotiations with Britain to gain complete self-rule for Singapore. The colonial government did not believe an independent Singapore would cope with the rising communist influence and union protests.
Lim Yew Hock, the Minister for Labour and Welfare in David Marshall’s government, took over as the Second Chief Minister of Singapore. Standing close to the British government, he took aggressive actions in suppressing the increasing protests and riots.
In September 1956, a major social unrest later known as the Chinese Middle School Riots broke out after Lim Yew Hock ordered the expulsion of 142 students from Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School on grounds of political subversion. Thousands of students and union leaders took on the streets. Supported by the police and British army, Lim Yew Hock’s government retaliated, resulting in 13 deaths and 123 injuries.
This “colonial oppression” won Lim Yew Hock praises from the British government but he lost the majority support of the Chinese community. It would ultimately lead to his political downfall against Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party (PAP).
In the riots, Lim Yew Hock also ordered the detention of PAP’s pro-communist union leaders such as Lim Chin Siong (1933-1996) and Chia Ek Tian. He had hoped the purging would expose PAP’s vulnerability to communist influence, but the calculated move backfired. The British government, by then realising that Lim Yew Hock was losing much of his political ground, began to switch its support to Lee Kuan Yew in a constitutional conference in London in May 1958.
By the time the Singapore legislative assembly general election was held in May 1959, Lim Yew Hock’s Singapore People’s Alliance (SPA), formed just two years earlier in a bid to repair his tarnished reputation, suffered an utter defeat to PAP. PAP recorded a landslide victory in the election, with over 54% of the votes. Lee Kuan Yew became the Prime Minister of the new self-ruling government of Singapore.
There were also critics that Lim Yew Hock’s unpopularity was also partly due to the British transfer of Christmas Island to Australia in 1957. Although Lim Yew Hock was unlikely to have any influence over the decision, many criticised him for his inaction as a Chief Minister.
Lim Yew Hock regrouped his SPA in 1961 to form the Singapore Alliance, which was backed by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the ruling party of a newly independent Federation of Malaya. But with Lim Yew Hock pulled out of the campaign, the Singapore Alliance suffered a big defeat with no seats won at the 1963 Singapore general election. Two years later, Singapore was separated from the Federation of Malaysia, and became independent.
At arguably his lowest point in life, Lim Yew Hock left politics altogether. He also suffered a serious injury in a road crash in the early sixties, but managed to recover well to be appointed as the Malaysian High Commissioner to Australia in 1964. Lim Yew Hock and his family then became Malaysian citizens after Singapore’s separation from the federation.
In June 1965, Lim Yew Hock mysteriously disappeared in the midst of his diplomatic role in Canberra. It was revealed that he had been previously under medical treatment for two months.
His alleged association with Sandra Nelson, a 19-year-old striptease dancer from Sydney, caused an uproar in the Malaysian parliament and the country itself. Both Lim Yew Hock, before his disappearance, and Sandra Nelson had denied any intimate relationship or possibility of security issues.
The Australian police mounted a nationwide search for the diplomat. Even the Interpol was activated. Ten days, he was taken to his Canberra home by a man named Vincent Laus, who had found him sick and wandering on the streets of Sydney. Lim Yew Hock was subsequently flown back to Kuala Lumpur.
In 1968, Lim Yew Hock retired from Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and moved to Malacca. In his later years, he embraced Islam and changed his name to Haji Omar Lim Yew Hock. Settling at Jeddah of Saudi Arabia, he became a special assistant to the president of the World Islamic Development Bank.
In 30th November 1984, Lim Yew Hock died in his home at age 70, bringing to the end of an eventful, controversial and, in some way, mysterious life. He was buried in Mecca.
Published: 13 November 2012