Singapore’s version of the Separation
Published on: Sunday, December 01, 2019
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THE following is a continuation of last week’s look at the Singapore Separation of 1965 from the Malaysian perspective.


David Lim Chin Chai

If you have ever wondered about the origin of our school brass bands, consider this: Lee Kuan Yew, in Brussels to attend the Socialist International in September, 1964, was very impressed by the march past of the contingents, each led by a small brass or wind band. 

Back in June in Singapore, he had not been allowed by the federal government in Kuala Lumpur to have use of the police band to grace the occasion of the State Day parade. The sight of the resplendent bands in Brussels that day gave him the inspiration to start them in schools and associations back home to circumvent that restriction. 

On his return to Singapore he directed former bandsmen in the Singapore Infantry Regiment to mount a crash programme for forming bands in all secondary schools and associations. To his immense satisfaction, the bands performed in the Singapore State National Day parade the next year, June, 1965 lending pomp and ceremony to the occasion. 

Whether that further caused the rift between Singapore and the federal government in KL would be idle speculation, but it served to show the rift that was widening by the day between KL and the city state.

The 680 page - The Singapore Story, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (1998, Times Pte Ltd.,) includes in its final 10 chapters a first-hand account of the tension in the state-federal relationship that eventually led to the separation. In Ousted! ( Media Masters Pte. Ltd., 2006), Patrick Keith, former director of External Information with the Malaysian Federal Government, tells the story of the separation from the point of view of the three main players in the drama – Tunku, Lee and Tan Siew Sin, the then Finance Minister in the Federal Government. 

In his Memoirs, Lee narrates the events leading finally to the separation, which he calls, ‘the divorce’ in the last chapter aptly entitled, ‘Talak, Talak, Talak’. The merger had only been a marriage of convenience, however. 

Bitter from the start, the reluctant parties were pushed, cajoled and perhaps subject to some arm-twisting by the matchmaker, the British government. 

They had eventually been brought to the altar by the latter along with the two Borneo territories, who, like children, were no wiser about the whole matter, and appeared to have participated, willy nilly, in the ceremony, and subsequently adopted, so to speak, by the mismatched couple.

The sixties was a period of decolonization. In December, 1960 the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the granting of independence to Colonial Countries, among their other reasons; “recognizing the passionate yearning for freedom in all dependent peoples and the decisive role of such peoples in the attainment of their independence.” 

The British were eager to withdraw “East of Suez” due to financial constraints. Back in the fifties they had conceived “the Grand Design”, whereby independence would be granted to the states in the geographical Greater Malaysia through federation, their base in Singapore would be preserved in safe hands, and they would foist on the new federation their two underdeveloped colonies in Borneo, and make a graceful exit from the region but with their investments intact. 

Mindful of the disparities of the Borneo people and their aspirations in the region they did not want to be seen as imposing their will upon them, hence subtle moves were made to influence the minds of the people of the two Borneo colonies towards this end. The leaders of both Malaya and Singapore were amenable to the scheme for different reasons. 

The Tunku was attracted to the idea of having the two Borneo Territories, with their vast expanse of land and mineral resources as part of the Federation. Lee, on the other hand saw merger as a means of achieving full independence from the British, and at the same time, as a handy tool to neutralize the Barisan Sosialis with their communist supporters in Singapore. Thus the British found themselves grappling with two protagonists, who were often at cross purposes with one another.

Lee Kuan Yew has this to say of his counterpart initially: [The Tunku] was completely consistent and reliable. He did not pretend to be clever but was a shrewd judge of people. Most important of all, he understood power….[and] he was pro-British and anti-communist.’ 

He has some reservations however on the steadfastness of the Tunku’s friendship: ‘[The Tunku] did not carry a big stick, but he had many hatchet bearers who would do the job for him while he looked the other way and appeared as benign as ever. If he distrusted a man, that man was finished with him.’ Lee himself was to feel the brunt of his distrust in due course, and on many occasions he, the Tunku, looked the other way. 

The Tunku was equally frank when talking of Lee. To him, Lee was a man on a mission, with a single purpose of getting the Tunku to agree to a merger on terms set by him. 

“He lobbied on the golf course, across the poker table, over meals, at cocktail parties, and never let up,” the Tunku recalled years later. 

“he was in my sitting room, my dining room and even my bedroom, morning noon and night. He would not let me sleep until I agreed to the merger.” 

The Tunku’s patience with him wore out when, on the eve of the signing of the Malaysia Agreement, Lee insisted on writing on the back of an envelope the terms to which the Tunku had agreed, and which were too late to be incorporated into the Agreement. 

The Tunku felt demeaned at Lee’s insistence that he signed on a “grubby” envelope that very night, more insulted, however, at not having his word taken, like a gentleman’s.

In The Singapore Story, Lee gives his side of the “affair of the envelope”, as Patrick Keith in his book calls it. It was July 8, and the Malaysia Agreement was slated to be signed that very day, eight being a good number to the Tunku, who being a punter consider some numbers to be auspicious. 

The Tunku and Lee had been “haggling” on additional terms of the merger at the dinner with the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, until late in the night. 

Lee had felt that the additional terms agreed by the Tunku to be essential to Singapore’s autonomy in maintaining security on the island, besides, he explained, the Tunku’s memory was “elastic.”

So seeing that the Agreement was to be signed by all the parties that very night, he scribbled the points on the back of a used envelope and had the Tunku sign on it. It was past midnight. Therefore, only on July 9 the Malaysia Agreement was signed by all the parties. 

There was a reason, perhaps, for Lee not to put his full trust on the Tunku. Prior to the merger it had been agreed between them that the alleged communists in the Barisan would be rounded up to mollify the Tunku and to leave Lee with an open field.

Lee had asked for two federal ministers in KL to be included in the round-up as they “had been stoking the fires” and heightening racial tension in Singapore. Lee was informed that the Tunku had agreed to it. 

However, at the meeting of the Internal Security Council before the round-up, Lee was told that the Tunku had changed his mind. A frantic attempt was made to meet the Tunku on this matter but the Tunku kept himself incommunicado. Hence when “Operation Coldstore” was launched in February, 1963, only alleged communists were detained in Singapore, and no arrests were made in KL. 

The detention of the alleged communists in Singapore eased the immediate worry of the Tunku, and Lee believed that merger itself had then taken a back seat in the Tunku’s mind. Says Lee,’ My handicap in dealing with the Tunku was that while I wanted merger, he did not.’

The other point of agreement with the Tunku that was scribbled on the back of the envelope was the use of 50pc labour from Singapore for the Borneo projects that were to be financed from the loan advanced by Singapore. Lee thought this point essential as Tan Siew Sin had insisted on having 60pc of Singapore’s revenue as contribution to the federal coffers. 

Lee had always believed in his negotiations with the Tunku that the Tunku had wanted control of Singapore’s security, and not its economy. 

He suspected that the Tunku had not told Tan of the understanding, ‘that he (the Tunku) was willing to let “Singapore have maximum control of its finances in return for minimum Singapore participation in federal politics.” At the back of his mind Lee suspected that this issue might be deliberately used by KL to keep Singapore out of the impending merger at the last minute.

A further threat to the merger was the declaration by Indonesia on January 20, 1963 of “Konfrontasi” against the merger. The Tunku was denounced by Jakarta for being a willing tool of the imperialists. There was tension in the air. The Tunku had earlier attended a summit with Sukarno in Tokyo called by the Japanese Prime Minister in May and had signed a “Treaty of Friendship” with Indonesia. This was followed by a meeting of the foreign ministers in Manila where it was agreed that the wishes of the peoples in the Borneo states should be consulted again (the Manila Accord).  So when the Malaysia Agreement was signed the following July, Sukarno accused the Tunku of betraying the Accord. The Tunku then gave in and agreed to postpone the declaration of the formation of Malaysia, which was to come into being on the 31st of August, until the result of a UN mission to confirm the real wishes of the people was published. 

The British were livid, they sensed that the Tunku was wavering, so they forced him to announce that the inauguration of Malaysia would be on September 16 regardless of the results of the UN survey.

Lee sensed that the Tunku was no match for Sukarno; “Sukarno was an orator, the Tunku was not. Sukarno was a dominating personality, the Tunku was quiet and charming. Sukarno represented 100 million Indonesians, the Tunku only four million Malays, and less than four million Chinese and others….I had never seen the Tunku so fearful.” Lee could not wait for the 16th. He felt that in between August and September there was a chance that the merger could be aborted, or Singapore left out, besides he needed confirmation from KL on the points he and the Tunku had agreed upon to be officially on record. 

Lee decided to declare independence on the appointed date of the inauguration, August, 31. By doing that he was going to put the pressure on the British to get KL to agree to his points. The unthinkable was that if the merger did not go through, the Barisan would make a laughing stock of the PAP. 

 Lee had been shaken by the Barisan hecklers who showed up in force at the rally held on August 25 to protest the Japanese “blood debt” offer to Singapore. He felt that he could not afford to allow the Barisan to strengthen further. 

Accordingly on the 30th he informed the British that as there was nothing further outstanding between Singapore and KL, all the terms having been agreed upon including those written on the back of the envelope, Singapore would proceed to declare independence on the 31st as planned, and then on September 16 merge to form Malaysia as scheduled. The British were not amused: 

“I consider he [Lee] is now playing a supreme act of brinkmanship. He believes his position is inviolable. He believes that either he comes into Malaysia on his own terms or he declares independence and can make any terms he likes with us because he is satisfied we would under no circumstances give up our military position in Singapore.” (Lord Selkirk, UK Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia to Duncan Sandys, Secretary of State for the Colonies).

 They considered Lee’s declaration of independence to have no legal validity, but satisfied themselves that KL would have no objection: 

“Tun Razak assured me that the Malayan government were(sic) irrevocably committed to Malaysia, and that they would go through with it whatever happened…..but I am not so completely confident about the attitude of the Tunku himself. 

“As I told you in an earlier telegram he is suffering seriously from cold feet and although I think it unlikely, it is just possible that at the last moment he might refuse to take over Singapore….” (Sandys to British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan).

Lee unilaterally declared Singapore independent on August 31, 1963. He followed this up with announcement that elections would be held on September 12, much to the displeasure of KL who could see that they would be presented with a fait accompli of working with a PAP government upon the inauguration of Malaysia. 

They held an emergency cabinet meeting and demand clarification from the British. 

This led to the “Red ribbons on a silver platter” speech by Lee, which Keith described in his book as fiery, and equivalent to dropping a bombshell. Lee later defended his speech, and what he calls his “insubordinate language” by saying that it was necessary as a Singapore leader to show that he was not under the thumb of the Tunku. The elections were to have far reaching consequences.

The Alliance decided to contest in the elections in Singapore. The Tunku mobilized Umno to win over the Malays in Singapore, and Tan Siew Sin made overtures to the Singapore business leaders to win them over to the MCA. In the elections, the Alliance was nonetheless trounced, all 42 of their candidates lost. 

The next year, in the 1964 elections in Malaya, the PAP felt they too could do what the Alliance did, contest over there, though they fielded only 11 candidates. The result was almost a mirror image of the election in Singapore the year before, the PAP managed to win only one seat, Bangsar which was contested by Devan Nair. Tan had played a pivotal role in holding together the MCA. 

In the final section of his book, Keith deals with the role played by Tan Siew Sin, leader of the MCA whom he calls, ‘The Man from Malacca’. Tan had assured the Chinese in Malaya that the Malays were liberal and supported a multiracial Malaysia, “Lee”, he said, was arrogant: “He tramples on those underneath him, but licks the boots of those above him.”

Lee’s opinion of Tan is more charitable:

 ‘Tan inherited the family’s fortune and was a multimillionaire. A director of many companies, he ran the Ministry of Finance as if it were one of them – prudently and economically as in order to provide the best dividends for the directors. He was a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth…[and so] found it unnecessary to learn to speak or write Chinese; Yet, he claimed to lead the Chinese of Malaysia.’

 However Lee also tries to understand Tan, says he:

 “The tragedy of Tan was the tragedy of that whole generation of Straits-born Chinese. They did not understand that the rules were different in an independent Malaya – later Malaysia – from those they had been accustomed to under the British. The Malays were now the rulers. They felt insecure because they believed they could not compete on par with the Chinese and Indians…Tan was totally insensitive to this.”

The elections in Singapore in September, 1963 let loose the voice of insecurity of the Malays in Malaya, that of the extremists in Umno, whom Lee calls the “Ultras” after the extremists then fomenting trouble for the French in Algeria. 

The most vocal of these was a man of Arab descent, from Indonesia, “the hatchet man of Umno”, and he had the advantage of a compliant press, radio and television. 

Syed Ja’afar Albar was highly articulate in Malay, and the vernacular Utusan Melayu, widely and exclusively read by the Malays in the Peninsula and Singapore, became his mouthpiece. 

According to Lee, “the Ultras launched a campaign to work up a sense of grievance among Malays over specific issues, real or imaginary, playing on the fact that theirs was the least successful and the poorest of the different communities in Singapore.” Allegations of the mistreatment of the Malays in Singapore in speeches made by Albar received full coverage in Utusan, growing in ferocity by the day. A typical harangue ran as follows:

“I am very happy today we Malays and Muslims in Singapore have shown unity and are prepared to live or die together for our race and our future generation. If there is unity no force in this world can trample us down, no force can humiliate us, no force can belittle us. Not one Lee Kuan Yew, a thousand Lee Kuan Yews….we finish them off…..”

The speeches were also covered by TV Malaysia. The result was havoc. On July 14, riots broke out in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, resulting in two deaths and thirteen others injured. 

In Singapore, the Prophet’s Birthday was celebrated the next week, Tuesday, 21st July, 1964, a public holiday. The procession started at the Padang. However, instead of religious sermons, political speeches with racial aspersions were made.

The procession was to make its way from the Padang to the Kampong Geylang Serai, on the way while it was passing through a Chinese area, riot broke out. 

As a result, 23 people were killed, and 454 injured. Lee noted that the dead were made up of both races: “when the body count was made at the mortuary there were as many Malay as there were Chinese victims.” He also noted that the law enforcers were from the Malay Regiment and the Federal Reserve unit. 

The Utusan put the blame squarely on Lee, ‘It is because Lee Kuan Yew has been trying to challenge and chaff at our spirit of nationalism. You he ridiculed us by saying, You have received your independence on a silver platter..You can see for yourselves how he has challenged the Tunku: “Tunku Abdul Rahman has no calibre.”

To Lee it was clear who were responsible for the riots, and they had protection from above. The Singapore government published a Memorandum setting out the events and attributing the cause of the riots to the open and sustained communal and political propaganda made by “influential political leaders and newspapers.” 

It noted that the purveyors were not restrained by the authorities. Lee was convinced that the perpetrators had the backing of KL. 

Lee cited reports from British, American and Australian diplomats in KL and Singapore pointing the accusing finger at Umno. Goh Kheng Swee after meeting with Tun Razak on 28-29 July, 1964, reported that Razak proposed a national government with PAP in the cabinet if Lee resigned, and offered him a post at the United Nations. To Goh’s query as to whether Albar would be removed as a quid pro quo in the situation, Razak issued an emphatic ‘no’. Goh added later:

“He must have thought that I was very dense on these matters. And indeed I was. Well, whatever the outcome was, the riots took place and it was clearly his intention to remove Mr Lee from office. That was the purpose of Albar’s campaign.”

A commission was subsequently set up to look into the causes of the riots.

The action now moves to the Federal Parliament. A young Malay doctor was tasked by Umno to take up the cudgels during the debate on the King’s speech. Mahathir Mohammad made a speech the contents of which dripped with sarcasm: 

“[The Singapore Chinese] have never known Malay rule and couldn’t bear the idea that the people they have long kept under their heels should now be in a position to rule them… they live in a purely Chinese environment where Malays exist only at syce level….They have in most instances never crossed the causeway. They are in fact overseas Chinese first, seeing China as the centre of the world and Malaysia as a very poor second.”

The next day Lee stood up to make a reply, switching to near perfect Malay mid-speech as if to emphasize his point, he said he could not see how using Malay as the only language and aiding Malays only could raise the economic position of the people. He added:

“If we delude people into believing that they are poor because there are no Malay rights or because opposition members oppose Malay rights, where are we going to end up?...Meanwhile whenever there is a failure of economic, social and educational policies, you come back and say, oh, these wicked Chinese, Indians and others opposing Malay rights. 

“They, the Malays have the right as Malaysian citizens to go up the level of training and education that the more competitive societies, the non-Malay has (sic) produced. That is what must be done, isn’t it? Not to feed them with obscurantist doctrine that all they have got to do is to get Malay rights for a few special Malays and their problem has been resolved.”

The speech carried a logic that was hard to deny, Parliament went quiet. An observer reported that one could hear a pin drop in the gallery. The Speaker allowed Razak to wind up the debate. Razak accused Lee of twisting his facts, and that he was planning to split the country into two; a ‘Malay Malaysia’, and a ‘Lee Kuan Yew Malaysia’. “PAP means”, he said in a parting shot, “Partition And Perish.”

Dr Mahathir took exception to being identified by Lee as one of the Ultras, which term he says in his book, Doctor in the House (MPH Group Publishing Sdn. Bhd., 2011) connotes, ‘intransigent Malay extremists’. He added;

“The labeling was a political ploy. It was intended to suggest that my views were extreme and therefore need not be considered on their merits, and that I would promote extreme views at any cost and in the face of all other evidence. Yet nothing I said or did was extreme. All I did was to refute allegations that we Malays were taking things for ourselves, seizing what did not belong to us…..I did not mind the Chinese attitude as long as I retained and gained the support of the Malays.” 

In 1965, the call for a “Malaysian Malaysia” become a battle-cry of the non-Malays. It was anathema to the Ultras, and a non-negotiable term for Umno. To Mahathir, Malay dominance in politics and economy in the federation is an “inter-communal social contract” that cannot be ignored. Lee was seen to be the brains behind its vehicle, the ‘Malaysian Solidarity Convention’ a loose association of all the non-Malay parties, namely, the PAP, UDP, SUPP, Upko and Machinda, which had called for a Malaysian Malaysia. During its first meeting in June, 1965, speeches were made appealing for political equality, one of which was made by Ong Kee Hui from SUPP:

“We see an attitude of intolerance and mounting signs of denial of political equality to people who are non-Malays. For the sake of our country and ourselves, this must be stopped and the drift to narrow racialism checked. Political equality should be accorded to all who live here and make this country their home irrespective of their racial origin.” 

The call for a Malaysian Malaysia was the last straw for the Tunku. According to Keith, in the first section of his book entitled, ‘The Prince and the Ghostly Snake’, the Tunku recovering in a London Clinic and reading the British newspapers and reports from back home, began to jot his thoughts on how to settle all the issues, in opposing columns in several foolscap pages. Then, Keith continues; “Slowly and surely, he began to fashion the tragic decision that would make brilliant men weep in anger.” 

The ‘brilliant’ men in Singapore were hoping for a looser arrangement with KL. Lim Kim San had dropped in to see the Tunku prior to the Prime Ministers’ Conference in London. He reported to Lee that the Tunku was friendly and was pleased to see him. However, says Kim San, the Tunku had said cryptically, “You can tell your prime minister he can attend the next Prime Ministers’ Conference on his own.” Both men, however were still thinking that he meant a looser constitutional arrangement for Singapore. Indeed up to the last moments talks went on between Goh Kheng Swee, and Razak and Dr Ismail on the possibility of a constitutional rearrangement.

It was not to be. After consulting the Tunku, Razak insisted on a total “hiving off”. The two parties then agreed to keep the lid on the agreement and to present the British, whom they felt would not be in favour of separation, with a fait accompli on August 9. 

There were problems facing both parties, however. some members were not in favour of separation, even Razak himself initially had doubts. Tan Siew Sin was against separation. However these issues were thrashed out subsequently. The Tunku himself was again consulted and had agreed. The amendments to the Federal Constitution were prepared. On August 7, Lee went to see the Tunku as there was some reluctance from some members of his own party. The Tunku confirmed that his decision was final. 

Lee then requested that he put it in writing for the benefit of some of his colleagues who had close ties in the Peninsula. The Tunku agreed and addressed his note to Toh Chin Chye, part of which reads as follows:

“I am writing to tell you that I have given the matter of our break with Singapore my utmost consideration and I find that in the interest of our friendship and the security and peace of Malaysia as a whole, there is absolutely no way out.”

Lee recounts the catalysmic event in the first chapter of ‘The Singapore Story’, which he entitles, “Suddenly, independence”:

“It was like any other Monday morning in Singapore until the music stopped. At 10 am, the pop tunes on the radio were cut off abruptly. Stunned listeners heard the announcer solemnly read out a proclamation – 90 words that changed the lives of the people of Singapore and Malaysia:

“Whereas it is the inalienable right of people to be free and independent, I, Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf of the people and the government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent nation…”

In the Federal Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, the Constitution of Malaysia (Singapore Amendment Bill, 1965) was read in both the houses and passed by 4.30 in the afternoon. Later at a meeting with the press, the Tunku gave the assurance that Malaysia and Singapore would cooperate fully on defence, trade and commerce. Lee on his part said that the two countries needed each other, and shall cooperate. 

At the TV press conference earlier Lee had shed his now famous “tears of anguish”, and giving much speculation as to the cause. He explained later, and indeed for years to come, the reason why he had been in that state; he felt that he had abandoned the people behind the Malaysian Solidarity Convention, and the peoples in the two states left behind in Malaysia after he had “galvanized” them to fight for their rights. He recounted on page 653 of The Singapore Story:

“The day after the separation, Chin Chye and I saw three leaders of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention in the Cabinet Room. It was one of the most painful meetings of my life. I explained how it had all happened, but for whatever reasons, we had let them down and let them down badly.”

In retrospect, Lee attributed the break-up to the following factors; the MSC movement was the writing on the wall for the Malay ruling class; the Ultras were pushing the moderates for Lee to be arrested; the commission formed to look into the riots in Singapore had yet to submit report, which might be embarrassing to the federal government; his action against Albar and Utusan was pending in court. All these matters he felt had combined to push the Tunku to make his final decision. 

The Malay psyche of the fear of being overwhelmed by the immigrant races, in his view was very difficult to overcome. His final analysis of the “divorce” in the last chapter of his book, ‘Talak,talak,talak’ was to prove true in the years that followed:

“This was the nub of the matter. The PAP leaders were not like the politicians in Malaya. Singapore ministers were not pleasure–loving, nor did they seek to enrich themselves. Umno had developed to a fine art the practice of accommodating Chinese or Indian ministers in Malaya who proved troublesome, and had within a few years, extended its practice to Sabah and Sarawak.”

On leaving the meeting with the Tunku after the Tunku had given his final decision, he had met Tan Siew Sin, who according to Lee, smirked at him. Lee told him, “Today is the day of your victory, the day of my defeat; but in five or ten years, you will certainly feel sad about it.” 

Those words have proved to be prophetic. For in less than ten years following the tragedy of May 13, 1969, Tan was to lose in 1974 his position as the President of MCA as well as the Federal Minister of Finance. 


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