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Lunch With Singapore’s Old Left


Modified: January 3, 2024

by Wilmette Auger



Singapore’s Old Left refers to a group of political activists and intellectuals who played a significant role in shaping the socio-political landscape of Singapore in the mid-20th century. Emerging during a time of great social and economic upheaval, the Old Left advocated for workers’ rights, social justice, and independence from colonial rule.


The Old Left movement gained traction in the 1950s and 1960s, during the height of anti-colonial sentiment in Southeast Asia. Led by a group of charismatic leaders and thinkers, the movement sought to address the socioeconomic inequalities brought about by colonialism and capitalism. Their ideals were deeply rooted in socialist principles, emphasizing the need for collective action and strong worker representation.


This article explores the background, key figures, ideologies, impact, and challenges faced by Singapore’s Old Left movement. It also delves into the present-day relevance of their ideas, highlighting their enduring legacy in contemporary Singaporean society.


The Old Left’s influence on Singapore’s political landscape cannot be understated. Their ideas and activism laid the foundation for progressive social policies, workers’ rights, and the development of a vibrant civil society. Understanding the contributions and challenges faced by the Old Left is crucial in appreciating the evolution of Singapore’s political identity and the struggles for social justice and equality.


Background of Singapore’s Old Left

The emergence of Singapore’s Old Left can be traced back to the early 20th century when Singapore was still a British colony. During this time, the island served as a crucial hub for trade and commerce, attracting immigrants from different parts of Asia. These immigrants brought with them their diverse cultural backgrounds and political ideologies, laying the groundwork for future political movements.


The Old Left gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, a period marked by rising nationalism and anti-colonial sentiments in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s population was grappling with issues of poverty, inequality, and exploitation exacerbated by colonial rule and rapid industrialization. The working class, comprising mainly of immigrant laborers, faced harsh working conditions, low wages, and lack of social protections.


The working class’s struggle for better conditions and a fairer society became the focal point of the Old Left movement. Their efforts were further fueled by the political climate of the time, with decolonization movements sweeping across the region. The Old Left sought to unite workers across ethnic and cultural divides, forming trade unions and advocating for workers’ rights and social justice.


Many of the key figures of the Old Left were intellectuals and activists with a deep commitment to socialism and Marxism. They saw capitalism and colonialism as sources of exploitation and believed in the redistribution of wealth and power. Drawing inspiration from global socialist movements, they aimed to create a more equitable society in Singapore.


It is important to note that the Old Left’s grassroots activism was not confined to workers’ issues alone. They also championed causes related to anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, anti-racism, and gender equality. They sought to challenge the existing power structures, fight against discrimination, and uplift marginalized communities.


The formation of political parties such as the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Barisan Sosialis in the 1950s further solidified the Old Left’s presence in Singapore’s political landscape. The PAP, initially comprising members with leftist leanings, would go on to play a pivotal role in Singapore’s independence and subsequent governance.


Overall, the background of Singapore’s Old Left is characterized by a convergence of socio-economic factors, rising nationalism, and a deep-rooted desire for social justice. The movement sought to address the grievances of the working class, challenge colonialism, and pave the way for a more equitable society. These historical circumstances set the stage for the emergence of influential figures and ideologies that would shape Singapore’s political landscape for years to come.


Key Figures of Singapore’s Old Left

The Old Left movement in Singapore was propelled by a group of dedicated individuals who were instrumental in advocating for workers’ rights, social justice, and independence from colonial rule. Let’s take a closer look at some of the key figures who played significant roles in shaping the movement:

  1. Lim Chin Siong: Considered one of the most prominent figures of the Old Left, Lim Chin Siong was a charismatic leader and trade unionist. He co-founded the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union (FSWU) and later became the Secretary-General of the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). Lim was known for his impassioned speeches and his unwavering commitment to fighting for workers’ rights and social equality.
  2. Fong Swee Suan: Fong Swee Suan was a key figure in the Chinese-educated leftist movement in Singapore. He was a founding member of the University Socialist Club and played a significant role in organizing strikes and protests. Fong’s intellectual acumen and eloquence made him a respected leader, and he was later elected as the secretary-general of the Barisan Sosialis party.
  3. Lee Kuan Yew: Although Lee Kuan Yew is primarily known as Singapore’s first Prime Minister and a dominant figure in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), his political journey began with the Old Left. Lee was deeply influenced by socialist ideologies and played a critical role in the early years of the PAP, which initially had a left-leaning agenda. However, he later parted ways with the Old Left, leading to the split between the PAP and Barisan Sosialis.
  4. Lim Hock Siew: A physician by profession, Lim Hock Siew was known for his involvement in leftist activities and his commitment to civil liberties. He was one of the Group of 22 arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1963 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Lim’s arrest and subsequent detention for many years highlighted the government’s crackdown on the Old Left movement.
  5. Syahbandar Sahib: As a trade unionist and politician, Syahbandar Sahib was deeply committed to the welfare of workers and championed their rights. He played a crucial role in organizing strikes and leading the trade union movement in Singapore. Sahib’s contributions were integral to the growth and influence of the Old Left movement in the fight against colonial oppression.

These key figures of the Old Left each brought unique perspectives, skills, and experiences to the movement. Their collective efforts and steadfast commitment to social justice and workers’ rights laid the groundwork for the transformation of Singapore’s political landscape.


It is important to note that while these figures were influential in their time, the Old Left movement was a collective endeavor involving the contributions of numerous activists, thinkers, and everyday workers who fought for a more equitable society. Their dedication and perseverance continue to inspire generations of Singaporeans in their pursuit of social progress and equality.


Ideologies and Influences

The Old Left movement in Singapore was deeply rooted in socialist ideologies and drew inspiration from various sources. The movement’s core beliefs and influences shaped its approach to addressing the socio-political issues of the time.


At its heart, the Old Left embraced the principles of socialism, emphasizing the need for collective action and the redistribution of wealth and power. The movement aimed to address the rampant inequality and exploitation faced by the working class, seeking to create a society where resources and opportunities were more equitably distributed.


Marxist theory played a significant role in shaping the ideology of the Old Left. The works of Karl Marx, particularly his critique of capitalism and class struggle, resonated with many activists of the time. Marxist ideas of the proletariat as the driving force for social change and the need for class solidarity underscored the movement’s goals of empowering the working class and challenging the existing power structures.


In addition to Marxism, the Old Left was also influenced by anti-colonialism and nationalism. Many activists saw colonial rule as a source of economic and social exploitation and believed in the right to self-determination. As such, the movement actively fought for independence from British colonial rule and sought to establish a society free from external control.


International leftist movements and the decolonization movements in other parts of the world also influenced the Old Left in Singapore. The successes of revolutionary movements, such as those in China and Vietnam, inspired activists and provided templates for organizing and mobilizing the masses. The Old Left sought to emulate the tactics and strategies employed by these movements to advance their own cause.


It is important to note that the Old Left’s ideologies and influences were not limited to Marxist principles alone. Activists within the movement also recognized the importance of addressing issues such as gender equality, racial discrimination, and workers’ rights. The Old Left sought to challenge social prejudices and fight for the rights of marginalized communities, recognizing that true justice required a comprehensive approach to social transformation.


Overall, the ideologies and influences of the Old Left were grounded in socialist principles, anti-colonialism, and a commitment to uplifting the working class and marginalized communities. These ideals provided a strong foundation for the movement’s activism, shaping its strategies and approaches in the fight for social justice and a more equitable society.


Impact and Legacy

The Old Left movement in Singapore had a profound impact on the country’s political, social, and economic landscape. While the movement itself faced significant challenges and underwent transformations over the years, its legacy continues to shape Singaporean society in various ways.


One of the most notable impacts of the Old Left was in the realm of workers’ rights and labor movements. The movement played a crucial role in organizing workers, advocating for improved working conditions, fair wages, and social protections. Their efforts laid the foundation for the development of trade unions and the recognition of workers’ rights, which continue to shape Singapore’s labor landscape today.


In addition to workers’ rights, the Old Left also championed the cause of social justice and equality. Their emphasis on addressing socio-economic inequalities and fighting against discrimination influenced subsequent policies in Singapore. The government, in response to growing calls for social welfare and redistribution of wealth, implemented measures to enhance social safety nets, improve living standards, and narrow the income gap.


The Old Left’s ideas and activism also left a lasting impact on Singapore’s political culture. While the movement itself faced internal divisions and later splintered into different factions, its influence on the formation and development of political parties cannot be ignored. The People’s Action Party (PAP), initially comprising members with leftist leanings, emerged as the dominant political force in Singapore. The principles of social justice, equal opportunities, and meritocracy advocated by the Old Left continue to shape the political discourse and policies of Singapore’s government.


Furthermore, the Old Left’s commitment to anti-colonialism and national independence sowed the seeds for Singapore’s eventual separation from Malaysia and its transformation into an independent nation. The movement’s calls for self-determination and a sovereign Singapore resonated with many Singaporeans, shaping their aspirations for a distinct national identity.


The legacy of the Old Left extends beyond the historical context. Their activism inspired subsequent generations of activists and thinkers who continue to advocate for social justice and progressive change in Singapore. The movement’s emphasis on collective action, grassroots organizing, and challenging power structures continues to influence social and political movements in the country.


However, it is important to note that the legacy of the Old Left is not without controversy and debate. The movement’s ideology and methods have been subject to criticism and scrutiny, particularly in the context of Singapore’s rapid economic development and the country’s unique governance model.


Nevertheless, the Old Left’s impact and legacy remain significant. Their unwavering commitment to social justice, workers’ rights, and the pursuit of a more equitable society laid the groundwork for the progressive policies and development of a strong civil society in Singapore today.


Challenges Faced by Singapore’s Old Left

The Old Left movement in Singapore faced numerous challenges throughout its existence, which posed significant obstacles to its goals and aspirations. These challenges were both internal and external in nature and shaped the trajectory of the movement in various ways.


One of the key challenges faced by the Old Left was the repressive nature of the colonial and later post-colonial authorities. The British colonial government was hostile towards leftist ideologies and viewed them as a threat to its rule. Activists and leaders of the Old Left were subjected to constant surveillance, arrests, and detentions under oppressive laws like the Internal Security Act.


The split within the movement itself was another major challenge. Differences in ideology, strategies, and personal ambitions led to divisions among the Old Left’s leadership. The split eventually resulted in the formation of separate political parties, with the Barisan Sosialis adopting a more radical stance while the People’s Action Party (PAP) leaned towards pragmatic governance.


The dominance of the PAP created further challenges for the Old Left. As the ruling party, the PAP developed its own vision for Singapore’s development, which diverged from the Old Left’s socialist ideals. The PAP’s pragmatic and market-oriented approach, combined with its ability to deliver rapid economic growth and material progress, gradually eroded support for the Old Left’s revolutionary narrative.


Additionally, Singapore’s unique socio-cultural context presented challenges for the Old Left. The multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup of the population necessitated delicate considerations and nuanced approaches in organizing the working class. It was crucial to navigate the complex interplay of ethnic and cultural identities without exacerbating tensions or polarizing communities.


Furthermore, the rapid economic development and increasing prosperity in Singapore presented a different set of challenges for the Old Left. As Singapore transformed into a global financial and business hub, the movement struggled to maintain relevance and cater to the changing aspirations and priorities of the population. The focus on material progress and individual success often overshadowed the Old Left’s call for collective action and social justice.


These challenges contributed to the decline of the Old Left movement by the 1970s. Internal fragmentation, government repression, changing socio-economic dynamics, and shifting political landscape all played a part in diminishing the movement’s influence and support.


Despite these challenges, the Old Left had a lasting impact on Singapore’s society and political consciousness. The movement’s struggle for workers’ rights, social justice, and independence from colonial rule paved the way for subsequent generations of activists and leaders to continue the fight for a more equitable and inclusive society.


Present-day Relevance

Although the Old Left movement may have declined in prominence over the years, its ideas and values retain a certain degree of present-day relevance in Singaporean society. The core principles of social justice, workers’ rights, and equality continue to resonate with contemporary issues and challenges.


One area where the Old Left’s ideas remain relevant is in the ongoing pursuit of social and economic equity. Despite Singapore’s remarkable economic progress, income inequality persists, and there are still segments of the population who struggle to access basic necessities and opportunities. The principles advocated by the Old Left serve as a reminder of the need to address these inequalities and ensure a fair and just society for all.


Similarly, the Old Left’s focus on workers’ rights and labor activism remains pertinent today. As Singapore continues to evolve and adapt to a rapidly changing global landscape, workers face new challenges such as job insecurity, skills gaps, and the impact of technological advancements. The Old Left’s emphasis on protecting workers’ rights, providing fair wages, and supporting job security remains relevant as we navigate these evolving labor dynamics.


Furthermore, the Old Left’s fight against discrimination and the need to ensure equal opportunities for all communities remain important in Singapore’s diverse society. The focus on inclusive policies that address racial, religious, and gender disparities echoes the goal of forging a cohesive and harmonious society where every individual, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to thrive.


On a broader level, the Old Left’s commitment to social justice and challenging power structures serves as a reminder to critically examine the policies and practices of the government and other institutions. It encourages active citizen engagement and participation in shaping the country’s future, ensuring that the interests of the marginalized are not overlooked.


While the specific approaches and strategies of the Old Left may not be directly applicable to the present context, their overarching values and goals can inform and inspire ongoing movements for change. The legacy of the Old Left movement continues to encourage Singaporeans to question, challenge, and advocate for a more just and equitable society.


It is worth noting that the present-day relevance of the Old Left is subject to ongoing debate and interpretation. As Singapore confronts new challenges and confronts emerging issues, the relevance of the Old Left’s ideas may evolve and take on new forms. However, the movement’s emphasis on social justice, workers’ rights, and equality remains an enduring reminder of the importance of addressing systemic inequalities and striving for a better society.



The Old Left movement in Singapore left an indelible mark on the country’s socio-political landscape. From its inception in the mid-20th century to its gradual decline, the movement fought for workers’ rights, social justice, and independence from colonial rule. The Old Left’s emphasis on socialism, anti-colonialism, and equality shaped their ideologies and influenced subsequent generations of activists and political leaders.


While the movement faced significant challenges, including government repression, internal divisions, and changing socio-economic dynamics, its impact and legacy cannot be understated. The Old Left played a crucial role in shaping policies related to workers’ rights, the pursuit of social justice, and the development of a strong civil society in Singapore.


The ideas and principles championed by the Old Left retain relevance in present-day Singapore. Issues such as income inequality, workers’ rights, and social inclusion continue to be pertinent and require ongoing attention and advocacy. The Old Left’s focus on collective action, social equality, and challenging power structures informs current discussions and progressive movements aimed at building a fair and just society.


While the specific strategies and methodologies of the Old Left may have evolved or been adapted over time, its core values continue to inspire and drive efforts for positive change. The movement’s legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of questioning existing norms, advocating for social progress, and fostering inclusive societies.


In reflecting on Singapore’s Old Left, it is essential to recognize the contributions and sacrifices of its key figures, as well as the countless individuals who fought for workers’ rights and social justice. Their dedication and perseverance have paved the way for a more equitable society and have shaped Singapore’s political and social trajectory.


As Singapore continues to navigate new challenges and complexities, the principles and aspirations of the Old Left movement remain relevant. By honoring and learning from the struggles and achievements of the Old Left, we can continue to strive for a society that upholds justice, respects the rights of workers, and strives for equality for all.