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S. Rajaratnam

One of Singapore's founding fathers, champion of the arts.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I believed in one nation, regardless of race and religion […] I believed in multiracial democracy.

Leaders of Singapore, Melanie Chew. 1996.

S. Rajaratnam was one of Singapore's founding fathers who played crucial roles in the early development and growth of Singapore through its transformation into an independent republic. Known as the ideologue and philosopher of a ruling People's Action Party, he served first as the Minister for Culture from 1959 to 1965, pushing and setting firmly in place the foundation of a harmonious multiracial society that would birth the multicultural artistic identity of a young nation. The charismatic and passionate leader also drafted the Singapore National Pledge during his term as Minister for Foreign Affairs to inculcate a sense of belonging amongst the citizens of a multiracial nation.

Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1915, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam was brought by his family to be raised in Seremban, Malaysia. There, his father managed rubber estates for European owners, eventually opening his own rubber plantation. Rajaratnam received his early education in Seremban at the Convent of Holy Infant Jesus and St. Paul's Institution, before going on to attend Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur and Raffles Institution in Singapore.

He went to the UK in 1937 to study law at King's College London. It was there in London that Rajaratnam experienced a political awakening. He became so involved with the socialist movement that he did not complete his studies at the college, becoming a member of the Left Book Club. With the arrival of World War II, his father was unable to send him money from a Japanese-occupied Malaya. Rajaratnam then started working as a journalist to support himself and his wife whom he had just married before the war.

During this time, he also wrote short stories that were published in journals and anthologies, and received praise from English writer E. M. Forster. His short stories also caught the attention of George Orwell, who invited Rajaratnam to write radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation; his radio plays would later be broadcast on Radio Malaya in 1957. These creative works showed a young Rajaratnam’s humanistic leanings, which would come to inform much of his political career later.

In 1947, Rajaratnam returned to Malaya with his wife and began working as a journalist at the Malayan Tribune until 1950 when they returned to Singapore. He became the associate editor of the Singapore Standard and also served as the secretary of the Malayan Indian Congress.

He began getting involved with the anti-imperialist movement that was against the continued existence of British rule in Malaya. In 1954, besides being the founding president of the Singapore Union of Journalists and starting his own weekly publication Raayat: The English Weekly for Thinking Malayans, Rajaratnam also became a founding member of the People’s Action Party together with Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, Kenny Byrne, Ong Pang Boon and Yong Nyuk Lin. The Party was formed to push for Singapore’s self-governance and removal from imperial rule, and its eventual impact on Singapore over the next few decades would be recognised internationally for its unprecedented achievements.

The same year, he started working at The Straits Times where he gained a reputation as a brave and outspoken journalist for his I Write As I Please column, which was openly critical of the British rule of Singapore, resulting in his being called in for questioning by the British government. He also tackled the communists in his writings and his desk was set on fire on two occasions by communist party supporters in an effort to silence him. During this time, he also wrote for the Tiger Standard, one of the newspapers started by entrepreneur and philanthropist Aw Boon Haw.

In 1959, Rajaratnam left The Straits Times and ran for Legislative Assembly, and successfully became the Member of Parliament for Kampong Glam, a post he would hold for the next three decades. The same year, the People’s Action Party contested in the second General Elections and emerged victorious. Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister of a Singapore which had just received its status as a self-governing state while Rajaratnam became the first Minister for Culture.

Among the four of Singapore’s founding fathers, Rajaratnam set himself apart as the ideologue and philosopher of the group. He passionately believed in multiracialism and democracy, and worked in earnest towards the shaping of the multiracial Singapore identity that he believed was the essential way forward for the small island inhabited by many different peoples from foreign lands. This emphasis on a deep racial integration laid the foundations of a vibrant and multicultural Singapore arts scene that would feature frequent cross-cultural artistic explorations in the decades to come.

In 1963, Singapore, together with North Borneo (now Sabah) and Sarawak, merged with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia. However, this was to be a shortlived merger coloured by political disagreements and increasing racial tensions that led to the 1964 race riots in Singapore. In 1965, Singapore was removed from Malaysia and abruptly gained independence, becoming the Republic of Singapore.

Rajaratnam then left his role as the Minister for Culture and became Singapore’s first Minister for Foreign Affairs, vitally establishing and affirming Singapore’s status as an independent and sovereign country in the international arena. Over the next 15 years, he formed international ties through numerous overseas missions and successfully negotiated Singapore’s membership into the United Nations and the Commonwealth. He also, together with the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, founded the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.

Although he was now focused on his new portfolio, Rajaratnam never lost sight of his vision of Singapore as a harmonious multiracial society. Wanting to inculcate a sense of patriotism and belonging amongst the multiracial citizens of the young country, he drafted the Singapore National Pledge with then Minister for Education Ong Pang Boon. Racial tensions were still high in the '60s, and it was against this volatile backdrop that a generation of Singaporean schoolchildren began pledging themselves as "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion". The Singapore National Pledge continues to be recited daily in schools around the island till the present day.

Rajaratnam concurrently served as the Minister for Labour from 1968 to 1971, and went on to become the Second Deputy Prime Minister in 1980, and then a Senior Minister in 1985. In 1988, he retired from politics and became a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies where he was editor of institute publication Trends from 1990 till 1997, when he retired from the institute due to ill health.

Although he never wrote creatively again after returning to Singapore, Rajaratnam continued writing throughout the years, publishing Challenge of Confrontation (1964), Malaysia and the World (1964), Asia's Unfinished Revolution (1966), and Singapore:Global City (1972). His speeches were compiled and published as The Prophetic and the Political: Selected Speeches and Writings of S. Rajaratnam in 1987.

In 1990, he received the Darjah Utama Temasek (Order of Temasek) (First Class) for his contributions to Singapore. He also received the Distinguished Service Medal from the People’s Action Party. That same year, the S. Rajaratnam scholarship fund was established in support of young, talented Singaporeans who wanted to pursue studies in arts, journalism and international relations; the fund was renamed the S. Rajaratnam Professorship in Strategic Studies in 1999. In 1997, Rajaratnam received the ASEAN Heads of Governement Citation.

On 22 February 2006, Rajaratnam passed away from heart failure at the age of 90 in Singapore. State flags on government buildings in Singapore were flown at half-mast for three days while his body lay in state at Parliament House. On 25 February, he was accorded a state funeral at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. He was then cremated at Mandai Crematorium.

In memory of his immeasurable contribution to Singapore, a newly constructed building in his alma mater Raffles Institution was named the S. Rajaratnam Block that same year. In 2007, the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore was renamed the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

In 2010, Rajaratnam's official biography The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S. Rajaratnam was published by Irene Ng. The following year, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies published Private Passion: The Photographs of Pioneer Politician and Diplomat S. Rajaratnam, revealing a lesser known side to the founding father. The Short Stories and Radio Plays of S. Rajaratnam, a collection of literary works written by Rajaratnam during his time in the UK was also compiled and published by Ng in 2011, adding on to Rajaratnam's body of artistic work.

Profile image courtesy of ISEAS Library, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore and S. Rajaratnam Papers Archive.

Timeline

25 Feb 1915

Born in Jaffna, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

May 1915

Moved to Seremban, Malaysia with family.

1937

Moved to UK.
Attended King's College London.

1947

Moved to Malaya.

1948 to 1950

Journalist, Malayan Tribune.

1950

Moved to Singapore.

1950 to 1954

Associate Editor, Singapore Standard.
Secretary, Malayan Indian Congress.

1954

Founding member, People's Action Party.
Founding president, Singapore Union of Journalists.

1954 to 1955

Editor, Raayat: The English Weekly for Thinking Malayans.

1955 to 1959

Leader Writer, The Straits Times.

1955

Member, Malayanisation Commission.

1956

Member, Minimum Standards of Livelihood Committee.

1959 to 1988

Member of Parliament, Kampong Glam Constituency.

5 Jun 1959 to 23 Sep 1965

Minister for Culture, Singapore.

1963

Member, Central Executive Committee.
Director, Political Bureau, People's Action Party.

1964

Published Challenge of Confrontation.
Published Malaysia and the World.

1966

Co-wrote Singapore National Pledge with Minister for Education Ong Pang Boon.
Published Asia's Unfinished Revolution.

1968 to 4 Jul 1971

Minister for Labour, Singapore.

1969 to 1997

Member, Presidential Council for Minority Rights.
Member, Staff Side Panel, Civil Service Arbitration Agreement.
Member, Further Education Committee, Singapore Council of Adult Education.

1972

Published Singapore: Global City.

1978 to 2006

Honorary Life Member, Photographic Society of Singapore.

1980 to 1985

Second Deputy Prime Minister (Foreign Affairs), Singapore Government.

1985 to 1988

Senior Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore Government.

1987

The Prophetic and the Political: Selected Speeches and Writings of S. Rajaratnam published. Edited by Chan Heng Chee and Obaid Ul Haq.

1980 to 1985

Second Deputy Prime Minister (Foreign Affairs), Singapore Government.

1988

Retired from the Singapore Government.

1988 to 1997

Distinguished Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, Singapore.

1990

Received Darjah Utama Temasek (The Order of Temasek) (First Class).
S. Rajaratnam scholarship fund established (renamed in 1999 to S. Rajaratnam Professorship in Strategic Studies).

24 Feb 1990

Received Distinguished Service Medal, People's Action Party.

1990 to 1997

Editor-in-Chief, Trends (a monthly publication of ISEAS).

1997

Received ASEAN Heads of Government Citation.

22 Feb 2006

Passed away at age 90 in Singapore.

2006

New building in Raffles Institution named S. Rajaratnam Block.

1 Jan 2007

The Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University renamed S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

2010

The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S. Rajaratnam published. Edited by Irene Ng.

2011

Private Passion: The Photographs of Pioneer Politician and Diplomat S. Rajaratnam published by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The Short Stories and Radio Plays of S. Rajaratnam published. Compiled and edited by Irene Ng.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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