OBITUARY: David Marshall

C. Mary Turnbull
Tuesday 19 December 1995 00:02 GMT

As a teenager in the British colony in the early 1920s, David Marshall was incredulous when the family's soothsayer predicted he would one day be "the most important man in Singapore". After Marshall won the election of April 1955 and became Singapore's first Chief Minister, the fortune-teller was quick to remind him of the prophecy. "But you won't be the most important man in Singapore for long," he warned.

Fourteen turbulent months later Marshall was forced to resign, dejected and an apparent failure. But, despite the violence and disorder, Marshall's government achieved solid victories in tackling the thorny problems of education, localisation of the public service, and citizenship. Marshall himself went on to be acknowledged as a Grand Old Man.

Born in Singapore in 1908, David Saul Mashal - the name was only anglicised to Marshall several years later - was the eldest son of orthodox Jewish parents, recent immigrants from Baghdad. The young David had his first taste of wartime internment at the age of six, when his mother took the children back to Baghdad on holiday in 1914 and the Turks put the family under house arrest for three years.

Marshall's ambition to win the coveted Queen's Scholarship to study in Britain was dashed when overwork in his last year at school led to his physical collapse with tuberculosis. In 1925 he was sent to a Swiss sanatorium, where he put his time to good use by learning French, which stood him in good stead in later life.

Returning to Singapore, Marshall took up a variety of dead-end jobs to finance his further education. He finally arrived in London in 1934 at the age of 26, qualified as a lawyer in record time and was back in Singapore in 1937, starting to build his professional reputation. When the Second World War broke out, he enrolled in the Volunteers and was taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. His second incarceration was suffered in brutal conditions of cold, starvation and maltreatment in the coalmines of Hokkaido, from which he emerged barely alive.

Despite a long-standing dislike of colonialism and racial discrimination, Marshall took no formal part in the initial flurry of politics in post- war Singapore but enjoyed the social whirl as a debonair bachelor, while meticulous preparation combined with dramatic courtroom oratory soon established him as Malaya's foremost criminal defence lawyer. But he was caught up in the political ferment leading up to the election of Singapore's first mainly elected government. Despite being a tiro in politics, Marshall agreed to head the newly formed Labour Front, and in October 1954 he published an impassioned personal manifesto, "I Believe", calling for immediate self-government.

A fiery election campaign left Marshall astonished to find himself Chief Minister in April 1955, heading a precarious minority government. Relations with the stiff local colonial establishment were stormy, Singapore suffered from a spate of violent strikes and riots among labour unions and Chinese schools, and within four months Marshall precipitated a constitutional crisis, leading the local and international press to paint him as emotional and unpredictable. But, sporting a bush jacket even at the most ceremonial occasions and holding weekly meet-the-people sessions, he brought warmth, sincerity and informality to the office of Chief Minister.

He also inspired grudging respect in the Colonial Office. Marshall staked his office on obtaining a promise of independence by April 1957, but constitutional talks held in London in April-May 1956 foundered when the British government insisted on keeping control of internal as well as external defence. Marshall remained inflexible, despite concessions from the British side and deep divisions within his own all-party delegation. Returning to Singapore, dejected and angry, he resigned as Chief Minister in June 1956, later withdrawing from the Labour Front and the Assembly itself.

Marshall's subsequent political career was unsuccessful and frequently incoherent. In 1957 he founded the Workers Party, but failed to win a seat in the 1959 general election, which swept Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party (PAP) to power. In July 1961 Marshall won a spectacular by- election as the dupe of the Communists, who supported him against the PAP for their own ends, but, standing as an independent at the general election two years later, he failed ignominiously, forfeiting his deposit. His formal career as a politician petered out at the 1972 general election, when he was confined to hospital and could not comply with the rule to present his election papers in person. That same year Marshall was mortified when he was suspended from the Bar for six months on charges of leaking affidavits for publication in a politically sensitive case.

Meanwhile, in 1961, Marshall had married Jean Gray, an Englishwoman, at that time a lecturer in Social Work at Singapore University and a former Red Cross social worker during the Malayan Emergency, who shared his interest in Singapore politics and took an active part in charity work. Marshall took pleasure in his growing family, and the convivial Sunday gatherings at their seaside home at Changi were the centre of political talk. But this was not enough for Marshall, who became more restless still after he was forced to move from his home to make room for the new international airport.

Marshall was astonished and delighted when in May 1978, at the age of 70, the PAP government invited him to become Singapore's ambassador in Paris, and for the next 15 years he represented the republic's interests faithfully and with enthusiasm. Returning to Singapore in 1993, at the age of 85, he was still not ready to retire, despite failing health and eyesight, and resumed practice with one of the republic's leading law firms. Ironically, during his 15 years' absence, a new English-educated, affluent, middle-class generation of Singaporeans had grown up, with whom Marshall was more in tune than with the Chinese-educated masses of his political prime. They welcomed his outspoken criticisms in television and newspaper interviews and public lectures. His age, his proven loyalty to Singapore and distinguished ambassadorial service gave him an authority which no other critics of government enjoyed.

Marshall's great strength was his firm belief in constitutional democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty. He readily admitted himself he was no politician, lacking guile and bored with party organisation. Nor did he appreciate the nature of Singapore society.

While he was an egalitarian, a humanitarian full of compassion, a champion of the underdog, he did not understand or seek the company of ordinary working people and was much more at ease with the intellectualism of the elite. While he admired modern Singapore's achievements, he pleaded for more open political debate, a more independent-minded press, a more caring society and a kinder judicial system, free from emergency laws or capital punishment.

With his shock of white hair, his bushy eyebrows and protruding eyes, to the end Marshall exuded vitality, humour and a zest for living. "I see life as a miracle of joy. I don't want to go," he declared in his last months, and he waged his final battle against cancer with characteristic determination.

C. Mary Turnbull

David Saul Mashal (David Marshall), lawyer, diplomat: born Singapore 12 March 1908; Chief Minister of Singapore 1955-56; married 1961 Jean Gray (one son, three daughters); died Singapore 12 December 1995.

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