Lawrence Wong to be sworn in as PM: How has the ceremony changed since 1959?


Some 1,400 guests watched the swearing-in ceremony of Lee Hsien Loong’s Cabinet at the Istana in 2004. - ST

SINGAPORE: At 8pm on May 15, the Republic will witness its fourth prime minister Lawrence Wong being sworn in on the grounds of the Istana.

In the lead-up to tonight’s leadership transition, which you can follow on The Straits Times’ live blog and YouTube channel from 7.45pm onwards, we look at how the swearing-in ceremony of Singapore’s prime minister has evolved since it first took place behind closed doors at City Hall in 1959.

A step towards sovereignty

Following the landslide win of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1959, the first Cabinet of the self-governing state of Singapore was appointed behind closed doors at City Hall.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his Cabinet of eight were sworn in from 4pm on June 5 that year.

They were dressed in the party’s all-white attire, instead of lounge suits that ministers typically wore, to symbolise the PAP’s reputation as an honest entity free of corruption.

It was in this chamber that the Japanese formally surrendered on Sept 12, 1945, ending three years of occupation.

The ceremony was witnessed by the last governor of Singapore William Goode, who was also the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Malay for “head of state”), a post created when Singapore attained self-governing status.

City Hall was made the young Government’s headquarters, in a move to dissociate the new Government from the old one under the British, which was symbolised by Empress Place, said Lee.

PAP assembly men, Speaker of Singapore’s first Legislative Assembly George Oehlers and consular representatives attended the ceremony in the Council Chamber.

Also present was influential trade unionist Lim Chin Siong, who was among eight left-wing PAP members that Lee had formally requested to be freed from detention before accepting the British government’s offer to form a new government.

They were released a day before the ceremony, after being held for nearly three years for being active participants in protests by thousands of Chinese middle school students.

To celebrate the PAP’s victory, several cakes at the tea party were adorned with the PAP logo.

As the newly minted Cabinet emerged to be garlanded at City Hall’s steps, they were greeted by crowds of well-wishers, both young and old, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the team that will lead Singapore.

The nine men were cheered on by supporters, including veteran diplomat Tommy Koh – an undergraduate at the time – who attended the historic event with the University of Malaya’s Socialist Club and expatriate lecturers.

At a press conference later, Lee said: “We expect the people to pull up their socks and work hard.

“We are prepared to set the pace.”

A posh affair

In contrast, the swearing-in of Singapore’s second prime minister Goh Chok Tong and the rest of the 13-man Cabinet on Nov 28, 1990, was a more lavish affair held at the refurbished City Hall chamber.

From about 7.45pm, the deputy prime ministers, incoming and outgoing prime minister, and the Republic’s fourth president Wee Kim Wee arrived at the venue that was decked out with 300 plants to mark the occasion.

The playing of the national anthem, Majulah Singapura, signalled the start of the ceremony, which was broadcast on live television.

Wee delivered his address and looked on as Goh took his oath before 200 MPs, senior civil servants, statutory board chiefs and diplomats.

The attendees were mostly men, as only the ministers, then Speaker of Parliament Tan Soo Khoon and then Chief Justice Yong Pung How were accompanied by their wives. Another 450 guests watched the proceedings screened in an adjoining room.

Once the full Cabinet had been sworn in, Goh, who had been trained for the top job since 1985, delivered his first address as prime minister.

He promised to emphasise economic growth and ensure the pie would be shared widely and fairly among Singaporeans, as well as greater investment in education.

Outside, young people stood in the rain at the Padang as they waved sparkly pom-poms and shouted special Goh Chok Tong cheers. They were among some 1,500 people who had travelled from across the island to express their support for the new government.

After the ceremony ended, VIPs were whisked away on chartered SBS buses to the world’s tallest hotel at the time – the Westin Stamford Hotel – for the after-party.

When the last coach had left, Goh and his Cabinet bade farewell to the crowd and got into a fleet of white Mercedes cars headed for the hour-long reception at the 73-storey hotel.

Summing up the sentiments at the reception, opposition MP Chiam See Tong said: “Tonight is the start of a new era for Singapore.

“Goh spelt out in his speech what will be his new style, and it will be a new style for the country... Singaporeans should accept his invitation to come forward and take part in this new programme.”

In the newly minted prime minister’s constituency, 40 banners were unfurled to celebrate the moment when their MP became PM.

An inclusive celebration

The nation’s third prime minister Lee Hsien Loong was sworn in at the Istana, as he felt the estate was where the Government really operated, since the previous prime ministers had their offices and Cabinet meetings there.

In line with his request to make the event as inclusive as possible, ordinary Singaporeans were asked to attend the event – a first in the island’s history.

Hawkers, taxi drivers, nurses, athletes and other representatives of Singapore society made up the 1,400 people invited to bear witness to the ceremony on Aug 12, 2004.

The 20-member Cabinet – the largest ever at the time – was sworn in on the Istana lawn to accommodate the guests.

Among them was the first secondary school student who wrote in to ask if she could attend the ceremony. She is now ST’s assistant Life editor Clara Lock.

Then Chief Justice Yong swore in PM Lee, who was dressed in a navy blue suit, light blue shirt and white patterned tie.

This was followed by the swearing-in of Goh as senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew as minister mentor, and deputy prime ministers S. Jayakumar and Tony Tan, and then the ministers and ministers of state.

The freshly appointed prime minister delivered a 15-minute speech in Malay, Mandarin and English, pledging to continue the open, consultative style of the Goh Chok Tong era.

PM Lee had no clear successor – unlike the 1990 leadership transition where he was the heir apparent.

Deafening cheers and whistles greeted the new prime minister as he received a hero’s welcome from 3,000 residents in his Teck Ghee ward.

The crowd roared when he went on stage to thank residents for rallying behind him, their MP for two decades at the time.

That night, he was garlanded 45 times with purple orchids by a succession of grassroots leaders. - The Straits Times/ANN

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