Toh Chin Chye

The man behind Singapore’s national flag

5 min read


The Singapore flag could have been blue.1 It was one of several proposed designs that had been put forward by founding father Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye (10 December 1921 - 3 February 2012) and his committee.2 Eventually, another design – red and white with five stars and a crescent – was picked. Toh, who was the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) founding chairman, had been given the task of developing Singapore’s official symbols to reflect the values and identity of the newly-formed self-governing state.

Apart from the flag, Dr Toh also contributed to the design of the state crest3 and worked on the national anthem with composer Zubir Said4

A scholar shaped by hardship

Toh, born in Taiping, Perak on 10 December 1921, was academically inclined and managed to secure a scholarship to study at the prestigious Raffles College in Singapore.5

His studies, however, had to be put on hold during the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945). During the war, he eked out a living as a hawker assistant and grew potatoes and tapioca to survive.6 7 This experience gave him first-hand exposure to the hardships and suffering of the people of war-torn Singapore and shaped his political outlook and leanings.8

Toh eventually graduated from Raffles College in 1946 and went on to pursue a doctorate in physiology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London in 1949.9

Foray into political activism

While in London, Toh met Goh Keng Swee,10 who had co-founded an anti-colonial student group. Known as the Malayan Forum, members met regularly to discuss an independent trajectory for Singapore and Malaya.11 Toh, who shared the group’s ideals, joined them. Goh, who was due back in Singapore,12 later nominated Toh to take over his role as chairman.13

The founding of the PAP

Upon his return to Singapore, Toh participated in clandestine basement meetings at Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road bungalow. Goh too was present. These meetings led to the establishment of the PAP on 21 November 1954,14 an open and legal political party seeking independence for Singapore.15 Toh has been credited for initiating the party’s formation.16

Toh Chin Chye walking to the start of the third Legislative Assembly session Former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye walks alongside former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the third session of the Legislative Assembly (c.1961. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Monumental tasks ahead

With a capable and passionate team in his corner, Toh successfully ran for the position of Legislative Assemblyman for the constituency of Rochore in 1959.17 Soon after, he was tasked to head a committee to design the Singapore flag and state crest. There were many things to take into consideration at the time including the sentiments of neighbouring countries as well as Singapore’s multiracial population. After careful deliberation, Toh designed the flag and state crest to represent Singapore’s aspirations and its geographical significance.18

When Singapore needed its own national anthem, Toh was once again called upon. He was responsible for shortlisting Encik Zubir Said’s composition Majulah Singapore which had originally been written to commemorate the newly-renovated Victoria Theatre in 1958. Toh was instrumental in shaping the final cut of the song, suggesting, among other things, to shorten its length and tweak its melody for easy recall. The revised version was unveiled along with the state flag when Singapore gained independence in 1965.19 

Decades of selfless service

Toh served as Singapore’s deputy prime minister from 1959 to 1968, minister of science and technology from 1968 to 1975, and minister of health from 1975 to 1981.20 

Apart from his ministerial portfolios, Toh also took on the role of vice-chancellor from 1968 to 1975 at the National University of Singapore (NUS) where he introduced nationally-oriented reforms prioritising engineering and architecture in support of Singapore’s industrialisation efforts.21 

Toh also helped to centralise the university’s various campuses at Kent Ridge,22  and played an important part in setting up the National University Hospital (NUH).23 

Toh Cin Chye attends an NUS event Dr Toh Chin Chye attends the University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering ‘Open Day’ at Kent Ridge Campus. He also served as its vice-chancellor from 1968-1975. (c.1978. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

After stepping down from the cabinet in 1981, Toh continued serving in his role as member of parliament for Rochore for another seven years.24  An advocate for critical thinking, he became a vocal source of opposition to his own party, debating hot issues such as the Medisave Scheme, Central Provident Fund’s age withdrawal limit,25 as well as press freedom.26  

Toh received a number of distinctions and awards for his dedication to the nation. For his 29 years at Rochore’s helm, the Toh Chin Chye Benevolent Fund for the elderly was established. Toh was also awarded the Order of Nila Utama (First Class) for his contributions leading up to and after Singapore’s independence. Later, in 2001, the NUS launched the Toh Chin Chye Professorship in Molecular Biology.27 

Toh Chin Chye at the at a Worker's Brigade in Tanah Merah Former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye delivering his speech at the Works Brigade Picnic Camp at Tanah Merah. (c.1965. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Toh Chin Chye pays a visit to the Woodbridge Hospital Dr Toh Chin Chye pays a visit to the Woodbridge and Trafalgar Hospital during his stint as the Minister of Health. (c.1975. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Toh Chin Chye takes part in a tree-planting session Dr Toh Chin Chye taking part in a Tree Planting Day in his Rochore Constituency, a place he would stay on as its representative in Parliament up till 1988. (c.1975. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Toh Chin Chye's Work Attire This working attire set consisting of a short-sleeved shirt with pants belonged to Dr. Toh Chin Chye, founding Chairman of the People's Action Party (PAP). This was the official wear that Dr. Toh was seen in during his political career (c.1970s. Image from National Collection)

Toh Chin Chye PAP Leaflet A People’s Action Party leaflet about Toh Chin Chye from the 1959 General Elections. (c. 1959. Image from National Collection)


13 Kevin Tan & Lam Peng Er (2018). Lee’s Lieutenants: Singapore’s Old Guards. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 46
17 ;