07 February, 2009
David P. Marshall was the leader of the Singapore Labor Front and became the first Chief Minister of Singapore in 1955.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family of Iraqi ancestry in Singapore, he became interested in politics and the independence movement at an early age. He was called to the Bar in 1937 after graduating from the University of London and the Middle Temple in Britain. He would later become the most successful criminal lawyer in Singapore, with a reputation "Marshall never loses". Known for his sharp eloquence and imposing stances, he claimed that he had 99 acquittals out of 100 cases he defended for murder (during Singapore's period of using trial by jury). Ironically, in 1969 the leader of Singapore and political opponent Lee Kuan Yew abolished the jury system, using Marshall's reputation to illustrate its inadequacy.
In the Second World War, he joined the Singapore Volunteer Corps and was taken prisoner after the Fall of Singapore in 1942, working in coal mines of Hokkaidō, Japan before being released in 1945.
In Singapore's first Legislative Assembly election in April 1955, Marshall led the left-wing Labor Front to a narrow victory, and was able to form a minority government and become Chief Minister. He presided over a shaky government, receiving little cooperation from either the colonial authorities or the other local parties. In May 1955, the Hock Lee Bus Riots broke out, killing 4 people and seriously discrediting Marshall's government. In April 1956, he led a delegation to London to negotiate for complete self-rule, but the talks fell through due to British concerns about worker unrest and communist influence. After the failed meeting, Marshall resigned saying "I have failed in my Merdeka mission". Replacing him as Chief Minister was Lim Yew Hock, who would later take very tough action against the labor unions.
Marshall stayed on the backbenches, before quitting the ruling Labor Front party in 1957 and founding the Workers' Party of Singapore. He lost his seat in the 1959 general election, but was able to win a by-election in Anson in 1961. After losing his seat again in the 1963 elections, he returned to practice law but remained active in opposition politics until 1972, when J. B. Jeyaretnam became leader of the Workers' Party.
From 1978 to 1993, Marshall served as Singapore's Ambassador to France, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. As Singapore's ambassador, Marshall always defended his country's interests, despite his differences with Lee Kuan Yew's government. He retired from the diplomatic corps in 1993.
He died in 1995 as a result of lung cancer.