AUGUST 9 — 53 years ago today, the greatest political catastrophe to happen to Malaya since the Pangkor Treaty took place without much fanfare. On the 9th of August 1965, a city that was meant to the cultural, economic, medical and educational hub for 9 million Malayans and Singaporeans, indeed the de facto capital of Malaya for nearly 150 years, was suddenly cut off from 7 million of them. Not because of war nor disaster, but because of the short sighted selfishness of a few Malayan politicians.
The new state of Singapore was quick to de-Malayanize, quickly putting more focus on its Colonial identity (Raffles over Sang Nila Utama, English over Malay, etc) over its Malayan identity. Every August on the 9th, when Singaporeans will gather together as one nation to celebrate not being part of Malaysia. And since 1965, scholars and historians on both sides of the Causeway have spent hours trying to argue whether it was an Expulsion or a Breakaway until they are blue in the face.
To begin, I will cut through the fluff: to quote the now-iconic headlines of the Straits Times a day after Separation, it was the Tunku’s idea. At 10am on the morning of the 9th of August 1965, the Dewan Rakyat sat down to debate on the Separation Bill. Lee Kuan Yew stood up to announce the Separation, and the debate lasted less than 2 hours (in comparison, the Tourism Tax Bill of 2017 took the Dewan 20 hours to debate). The vote was unanimous: all ayes and no nays. Tunku Abdul Rahman had already made sure that none of the Bornean MPs would vote otherwise. But look behind the scenes and you will note that a few things don’t add up.
Why did Singapore, which had campaigned so virulently for a merger with Malaysia (it was one of the People’s Action Party’s major promises during the 1959 Singapore elections, in which PAP won, and has since then never lost an election), failed to put up a fight with Malaysia to keep Singapore within the Federation?
In April 1961, at the opening of Umno House on Changi Road the Tunku gave a speech where he expressed doubt and reluctance at allowing Singapore into Malaysia because of the divisive and extremist politics of Singapore’s parties which may cause trouble and bloodshed in Malaysia.
Every major Singaporean politician spouted Merger 24/7, and the Straits Times editorial cartoonist Peng was certainly helpful in forming the public’s opinion that merger led to stability while isolation (the term “independence” was hardly used prior to 1964, but “isolation” instead) led to chaos. The ones against Merger were the Leftists in the PAP (many would later splinter out), the Barisan Sosialis and the Singaporean trade unions.
Lee Kuan Yew even went as far as to threaten the Opposition by reminding them that despite the Referendum, the PAP Government was “legally and constitutionally entitled to go through with merger without a referendum”. Thus, the moment it Singapore and Malaya agreed to form Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew and the Alliance agreed that one of the two pre-conditions for the creation of Malaysia was the mass arrests of Singapore’s left-wing groups, which they perceived as communist breeding grounds: in February 1963, 7 months before the formation of Malaysia, Operation Coldstore kicked into action, wiping out the entire Barisan Sosialis leadership using Malayan muscle (it is to be noted that Lee Kuan Yew was calling the shots: he assembled the Arrest List, and had even horrified the Tunku by including in his list not only members of Singapore’s Barisan Sosialis as initially agreed but also members of the United People’s Party and Workers Party. The first Operation Coldstore attempt had failed because Lee had included the names of several Malayan MPs that opposed Merger, and the Tunku had put his foot down).
Before joining Malaysia, Singapore had wanted in on a Common Market comprising of Malaya and the Borneo; they only asked for autonomy in matters of labour, broadcasting and education, which was granted in Annex A (Article 60) and Annex K of the Malaysia Act 1963. But upon joining, the Singaporean government began making demands and doing things that they know would anger the Alliance and the Malays, egging them on to expel Singapore, such as:
1) The loud and hostile haranguing for a “Malaysian Malaysia” ;
2) Instituting a new town plan that would see the destruction of the Malay enclave of Kampung Rochor;
3) Demanding the reduction of Singapore’s contribution to the Federal finance from 40 to 30 cent while wanting in on a Common Market (the Alliance was mooting an increase for allowing participation);
4) Refusing to halt trade with South Africa in accordance with Malaysia’s apartheid boycott;
5) Objecting to Malaysia’s insistence that the Bank of China branch in Singapore be closed in accordance with Malaysia’s boycott of communist countries;
Lee Kuan Yew’s attitude naturally attracted the ire and anger of Malays from both side of the Causeway. Another well known spat was the Malaysian Malaysia vs Malay rights issue; whether the Malays were indigenous to Malaya or merely pendatangs like the Chinese and Indians.
On 12 July 1964, SUmno (the Singaporean branch of Umno) organised a convention at the New Star cinema in Pasir Panjang to discuss the problems faced by the Malays in Singapore. The convention was attended by representatives from Singaporean Malay Muslim organisations. Syed Ja’afar Albar, the Secretary General of Umno, condemned Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP for oppressing the Malays of Singapore and for refusing to recognise the position of the Malay race in Malaysia. A Malay boycott of an upcoming Malay town hall meeting sponsored by the PAP on the 19th of July 1964 was called. Instead, a Singapore Malays Action Committee (SMAC) was formed to be the sole Malay representative body dealing with the PAP government. Then, at the Malay town hall meeting of 19 July 1964 at Singapore’s Victoria Theatre, Lee defended the government’s employment, housing and education policies for the Malays and made it clear that the government would not grant Malays special privileges such as quotas for jobs. This outraged the attendees, many of whom considered the meeting to be a grave insult.
A few days later, leaflets supposedly authored by the Singapore Malayan National Committee began to circulate, spreading rumours of Chinese killing Malays. On the 21st of July 1964, during the Mawlidur Rasul celebration honouring the birthday of the Prophet Muhamad, someone threw a glass bottle at the procession on the Padang, sparking off the 1964 Singapore Racial Riots. By the end of the day, 23 people lay dead in the streets of Singapore.
Following a repeat of communal violence in September, the Singapore government began to be wary of being part of a Malay-majority nation. By December 1964, the Singaporean government were already dropping hints and threats of Separation such as suggesting a looser confederation. The main points of contention, besides the obvious question of Malay rights, was that Singapore’s PAP wanted to be a part of the Central Government that ruled Malaysia, whilst the Malaysian government wanted to limit the PAP to ruling Singapore only as it merely saw Singapore as one of the other 14 states. The turning point was on the 5th of May 1965, when Lee Kuan Yew made the now-famous statement that none of the three main races in Malaysia were truly native as all had migrated to Malaysia less than 1000 years ago (a clear step-up as Lee had just referred to the Malays as the indigenous people of Malaysia in a speech in New Zealand on the 15th of March 1965), hence the need for a Malaysian Malaysia.
On the 9th of May 1965, amidst extreme verbal overkill by both sides, Lee and the PAP formed the Malaysian Solidarity Convention, a coalition of Malayan parties led by the Singaporean PAP akin to 2008’s Pakatan Rakyat) with the sole aim of winning in the coming 1969 elections “the majority of seats in Malaysia in order to form a government” that would realize a Malaysian Malaysia and dismantle Malay rights and privileges. Its members were the United Democratic Party (a largely Chinese party formed by former MCA members and led by Lim Chong Eu), the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party, and the Sarawak Machinda party. The calculation they were relying on was as such:
Winning all of Singapore’s seats (15)
Winning 16 seats in Sabah and 24 seats in Sarawak (40)
Winning at least 25 seats in Malaya (25)
Total= 80 seats out of 159.
Thus, by gaining a simple majority of 80/159 in the Dewan Rakyat, Lee Kuan Yew would become the Prime Minister of Malaysia. In other words; it was political entity to unite non-Malays against the Alliance. The timing of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention’s unveiling could not have been worse: the 18th Umno General Assembly was held less than a week later, at which anti-PAP fire and brimstone rained down upon the podium as expected and the Tunku and Tun Dr Ismail were widely condemned for being too soft on Singapore.
But by June 1965, Lee was already stating to the newspapers that States such as Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. Malacca and Penang which wanted a Malaysian Malaysia could get together and secede.
On July 20, 1965, in Tun Razak’s office Dr Goh Keng Swee spent an hour in a closed room with Tun Razak and Tun Dr. Ismail. This meeting would result in the first of the Albatross Papers, which are three documents currently on display in the National Museum of Singapore, so named by Dr Goh in a 1980 interview where he likened the merger with Malaya to ‘an Albatross around our neck’ — a reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” wherein a sailor is made to wear the carcass of an albatross as punishment for killing it and thereby bringing bad luck to the ship. Dr Goh’s notes of July 20 1965 showed that during the meeting, he was the one who persuaded his Malaysian counterparts that the only practical solution “was for Singapore to secede, completely”, and “it must be done very quickly, and very quietly, and presented as a fait accompli”.
This is the final nail in the coffin of the Expulsion Theory. After months of agitating the Malaysian central government, Singapore engineered its own exit and presented it as a relief to a much-beleaguered Kuala Lumpur.
On the 27th of July 1965, Lee Kuan Yew hastily scrawled on a piece of paper the following words:
“I authorise Goh Keng Swee to discuss with Tun Razak, Dato Ismail and such other Federal Ministers of comparable authority concerned in these matters in the Central Govt any proposal for rearrangements of Malaysia.” This became the second piece of the holy trinity of the Albatross Papers.
With the Tunku being in Europe since early June , Razak led the team that negotiated with Dr Goh the final attempt at salvaging the Merger. It failed miserably. The 6th of August 1965 was the point of no return: only on that fateful day did the Alliance government finally decided that, after less than a month of yapping, Separation was indeed imminent (as late as 9th July 1965, Tan Siew Sin gave an interview on TV where he still dismissed Separation as a “philosophy of despair”). The one person who put the stamp of finality on this was Razak; the Tunku was conveniently absent from the talks with the Singaporean government the whole time. Razak was the one who led the talks with Dr Goh, and was also the person who definitively convinced the Tunku upon his return from Europe that based on the talks, the only alternative was Separation. Lee was conveniently absent from KL, holidaying in the Camerons and his proxy in Kuala Lumpur Dr Goh Keng Swee was a hardline proponent of Separation (no coincidence that that he was bitter rivals with his cousin Tan Siew Sin, both were Finance Ministers of Singapore and Malaysia respectively, and insulted each other’s parties and policies incessantly). When Lee arrived in KL that same night to put up a magnificent show of desperation in attempting to change the Tunku’s mind for only half an hour (Lee was not known for his brevity of words) before accepting the decision. Three days later, Separation was effected.
Lee Kuan Yew famously broke down on national television and cried in front of the camera. This would become an iconic moment in the social memory of Singapore and Malaysia: decades later people would still recall where they were the night he wept on TV; some saw it on the TV set in the local Masjid, others in the Hokkien Association. But those tears were reptilian: the third and final part of the Albatross Papers was a memo from Prime Minister Lee to his cabinet members in August 1965. The language was decidedly positive; Lee was “excited” about Separation it provided the best economic benefits without getting entangled in communal politics. In his own words:
“[The] greatest attraction of this rearrangement is our hope to get the benefits of all worlds — the common market, political stability with economic expansion, and autonomy in Singapore without interference from KL. The picture of a prosperous and flourishing Singapore doing better than the rest of Malaysia is most attractive”.
Unless those tears were that of joy, it is hard to imagine the same man wrote these words and wept over Separation.
It is also curious to note that once the Malaysian government made up its mind on Separation, the Singaporean government did not squeal to the British, Australian and New Zealand governments to help reopen negotiations in order to avert Separation. If Lee Kuan Yew was truly adamant about wanting to remain in Malaysia, why accept the kick silently instead of appealing to the big powers (of which Singapore had the ears of; the trade of the Commonwealth was very reliant on the stability of the Port of Singapore)? The British was familiar with such situations (i.e. the breakup of the West Indies Federation, and the rocky merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar), and could have stopped or at least slowed down the process. But the British High Commissioner was not aware of Separation until 8 August 1965, less than 24 hours before the vote on the Separation Bill. Lee Kuan Yew argued that informing the British early would make the public aware of Separation and lead to Malay riots; but he certainly had no qualms making inflammatory statements about the Malay race and poking jibes at Malays of Indonesian descent such as Umno’s Syed Albar for being less Malayan than he, a Chinaman born in Singapore (a tactic still widely employed by Pakatan supporters today, i.e. the Zahid Hamidi birther debacle). Instead of bringing this up to the British, Singapore was most compliant; they even went all the way out as to draft the Separation agreement and a proclamation of independence (this was done by E.W. Barker, the Singaporean Law Minister, on Lee Kuan Yew’s instructions) as early as July 1965, when the Malaysian side was still open to renegotiating the initial terms of Merger.
So who was to blame? Obviously the man whose name is now enshrined in at least one street or dewan in every state in Malaysia. But who pushed him to the brink? Lee Kuan Yew, a shrewd politician who knew what made his opponents tick. And who sealed the deal? The Tunku’s Deputy, who had been in control of Umno since 1951 (upon Onn Jaafar’s departure, he was the one who chose the Tunku to be the new President of Umno), and who had led the most crucial portion of the talks with the Singaporean government whilst the Tunku was in Europe, and who was also the one who convinced the Tunku that Singapore had gone beyond the point of no return.
And on Singapore’s part Harry Lee’s gang of Lim Kim San, Edmund William Barker, Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye had succeeded in pulling off the greatest example of an Inception: infiltrating the subconscious of their targets and duping them into believing that their decisions were really theirs. And they did this 45 years before Christopher Nolan.
Let us mourn today a part of our nation that we lost 53 years ago. May God bless both Malaysians and Singaporeans who wish to see mother and daughter reconcile.
*This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.