David Marshall Fought in WWII, Became a POW and Still Became Chief Minister

Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall, is a familiar name in Singapore’s history textbooks. However, few know about his interesting life before he became Chief Minister. Marshall went from volunteering to fight during WW2 to being a Prisoner of War (POW) before he became known as Singapore’s most renowned lawyer and the Chief Minister. In fact, he won so many cases that Lee Kuan Yew pointed to him as a reason for abolishing jury trials.

Perhaps his contributions to Singapore were foretold in the 1920’s, when his family fortune teller predicted that he will one day be “the most important man in Singapore”. However, the road to fulfilling this legacy was fraught with difficulty from the very onset.

A rough youth and a life-changing moment

One out of the 26 POW camps that David was probably sent to during the war. (Source)

Studying at a number of Singaporean schools, Raffles Institution included, one of his childhood friends was a certain Benjamin Sheares, the second President of Singapore. Despite his excellent education and famous friends, Marshall suffered from malaria and tuberculosis in his adolescence. His dream to pursue a medical degree with the Queen’s Scholarship got completely destroyed when he collapsed just before the examinations. Nonetheless, Marshall persevered on. After studying textile manufacturing in Belgium, he went on to pursue a law career in London in his late 20’s.

When Marshall’s family left Singapore due to the impending Japanese invasion of Asia, Marshall chose to stay. He joined the Singapore Volunteers Corps with unfaltering courage, but come 1942, he was one of many Singaporean soldiers that was captured by the Japanese.

Interned in Changi Prison at first, he was then sent to a forced labour camp in Hokkaido, Japan. Despite being moved to many different POW camps, Marshall stayed strong and dignified. Fellow prisoners recalled him as a man who frequently stood up to the Japanese on their behalf.

Reflecting on his youth in an interview, Marshall points to his POW experience as a decisive event that shaped his adult worldview. He said, Three and a half years as a prisoner taught me humility… I realized that man is capable of cold-hearted cruelty. That was a major shock, the feeling that here were human beings who were not on the same wavelength as me at all, who were not even human from my point of view.” His experience solidified his political faith in socialism, his unwavering belief in human community, and an utter distaste for class-distinction. After the Japanese surrender, Marshall briefly moved to Australia with most of his family, returning to Singapore in 1946.

“There was an unspoken… comradeship… It kept the humanity alive within me, and made me perhaps recognize more clearly that great qualities… were not necessarily confined to the wealthy or educated… That the rough, semi-educated laborer, odd-jobs man had human qualities which were good and which felt good and which were of value to its fellow prisoners. Where, some of the educated and intelligent cracked up or went about whining…”

The birth of CPF

David Marshall as a young lawyer for Allen and Gledhill. (Source)

In 1949, Marshall, a lawyer in training, joined the Progressive Party (PP). As part of the only organised political body in Singapore at that time, he began working on what we know as a staple in every Singaporean’s financial planning- the Central Provident Fund (CPF).

Excited and determined to make CPF a reality, Marshall spent 20 pounds of his own money to get an English Queen’s Counsel to determine how best to operate this scheme. He commissioned a report that formed the basis for introducing and passing the CPF Ordinance in 1953.

His contributions could have stopped there, except it didn’t. After becoming Chief Minister, he continued to upgrade the CPF system. Recognising that low wage employees cannot contribute to CPF as they do not have much wages to deduct and contribute to the CPF to begin with, Marshall pushed to exempt those earning under $200 from CPF contributions. This system has been carried over to present day, helping out homebuyers, hospital patients and retirees alike.

Besides his dedication towards CPF, Marshall was generous with his time and services as a lawyer for trade unions, often doing pro bono work for them. In an interview, Marshall asserted the need to “respect your client irrespective of the fees.”

“I used to charge $1 for a murder case if he was Malay because he had no money. I used to charge $1 to trade unions; all Malay unions, I charged $1 a year. And the $1 is simply because, if you do it for nothing, you are not liable in negligence whereas $1 makes a contract and, if you are negligent, they can sue you.”

Building the Singaporean Identity as a Chief Minister

Accountability was a key electoral promise by the LF. David Marshall issued reports like these during his tenure as Chief Minister to fulfil that promise. (Source)

After leaving the PP in 1952, Marshall formed the Labour Front two years later. Following a win in the elections the following year, his position as the Chief Minister gave him more power to further contribute to a young Singapore. 

Marshall was determined to establish a sense of belonging among Singaporeans. He felt that it was “not only unfair but so utterly stupid that we should not seek to attract the loyalty of this vast group (of Chinese) to our country”. With that, the Labour Front created “a Singapore Citizenship which will give the right to vote and stand for election to those persons who are domiciled (to treat a country as a permanent home) and have permanent interests in this country”. The ability to vote today is also in part thanks to him.

He also raised the issue of multilingualism back in 1956, drawing from the example of Switzerland with its four national languages. He recognised the need to “give equal respect to as many of the major languages” and “meet the essential needs of the people”. This motion was passed with zero objection, and forms a major part of Singaporean identity today, from street signs to MRT announcements Marshall said this motion was his “proudest”.

Improving working conditions was yet another key aspect of Marshall’s tenure and the driving force behind his motions of instituting paid sick leave and maternity leave. He ended long work shifts by reducing the weekly working hours to a maximum of 44 due to his firm belief that “constant driving and nagging about productivity” and the failure to “recognise that people have a right to live as well as a need to work” as a cause of great concern.

His focus on the welfare of the masses is amplified through his willingness to listen. Our MPs today meet their constituents once a week because of a promise that Marshall made while running for elections in 1955. After Marshall resigned as Chief Minister in June 1956, the People’s Action Party adopted his way of reaching out.

Singapore today

While Lee Kuan Yew and David Marshall bitterly disagreed on politics, they seemed to have a level of mutual respect for each other. (Source)

When Marshall was Chief Minister, men were dying of starvation and beri-beri (lack of vitamin B1). He recalled taking his personal assistant and an Inspector of Police on a tour around Singapore for two hours, and estimated that two thousand men were sleeping on pavements, homeless. Compared to that, he said, “Today – no unemployment, no homeless. I started this business of building homes for our people. Compare the puny work I achieved and the fantastic HDB homes that are available today for our people. I am deeply impressed and I take off my hat to this very able honest government.”

Unfortunately, while Marshall abhorred the death penalty and capital punishment, things have since changed after his departure. According to Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament when he sought the abolition of the jury, “David Marshall is responsible for 200 murderers walking freely the streets of Singapore.” To that, Marshall proudly remarks, “I told [Lee Kuan Yew] to put it on my tomb. If there are 200 people walking freely the streets of Singapore, it means they are contributing to Singapore. Singapore would have been poorer by hanging them.”

Frowning upon the chase for money, especially for those in positions in power, Marshall remarked, “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? When I was Chief Minister, I earned $8,000 a month. And are youths the miasma of apathetic subservience to authority? But you say to yourselves… ‘We seek a rice bowl, full!’ It is full and overflowing, in fact. They serve you your rice in a jade bowl with golden chopsticks; not that it makes much difference to the taste of the rice.”

On the topic of work life balance,  Marshall aptly summarised his hopes for Singaporeans “to recognize that work is not the only element in living… Life is such a miracle, it is multi-faceted [in] the opportunities it gives for the uplift of the human spirit.” In a fast-paced country like Singapore, a reminder for its people to look beyond the dollar sign, and to rest and play is perhaps most needed.

Twilight years

Despite his failing eyesight, Marshall continued to fervently defend Singapore’s interests as ambassador to France, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland for 15 years with wit and charisma. Despite his numerous contributions to Singaporean society, his lasting impact as Singapore’s first Chief Minister and in his continued career in politics until 1993, two years before his death, there was one thing Marshall never made himself out to be: a leader.

“I’ve been a vivid personality. But that doesn’t mean I have leadership quality. I had the fire of anger, the excitement of great ideas, emotional approach almost uninhibited, but not the intellectual organizational approach of great leaders.


Vanessa Ng


In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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