You should read this on the Kindle. It’s a massive tome of a book to get through, but enlightening to get into the head of the man who shaped Singapore into what it is today. You learn his reasonings behind certain policies, and the history of how the different parts of Singapore came about. It made me appreciative of what Singapore has gone through to be where it is now.
How strongly I would recommend it: 10/10
Date read: 23/05/2016
See my list of book notes for more.
The Malay leaders, including the Tunku, feared that if ever they shared real political power with the non-Malays, they would be overwhelmed. That was the crux of the matter.
Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it.
For Singapore, 9 August 1965 was no ceremonial occasion
We had said that an independent Singapore was simply not viable. Now it was our unenviable task to make it work. How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia?
We were a Chinese island in a Malay sea. How could we survive in such a hostile environment?
Why had we come to this sorry pass? Was this to be the end result after 40 years of study, work and struggle? What did the future hold for Singapore? I would spend the next 40 years finding answers to these difficult questions.
when the fortunes of both families were destroyed in the Great Depression.
I had set my heart on distinguishing myself in the Senior Cambridge examinations, and I was happy when the results in early 1940 showed I had come first in school, and first among all the students in Singapore and Malaya.
It was only in retrospect that I realised Raffles College was my initiation into the politics of race and religion. In a British colony that made no distinction between the races, Singapore Malays were accustomed to being treated the same as others. But in June 1940, for the first time, I met significant numbers of Malays who had been born and brought up under a different system.
One student from Kedah told me in my second year, after we had become friends, “You Chinese are too energetic and too clever for us. In Kedah, we have too many of you. We cannot stand the pressure.” He meant the pressure of competition for jobs, for business, for places in schools and universities. The Malays were the owners of the land, yet seemed to be in danger of being displaced from top positions by recent arrivals, who were smarter, more competitive and more determined.
It was my first experience of Malayism, a deep and intense pro-Malay, anti-immigrant sentiment.
When I started my career as a lawyer in the 1950s, therefore, I already had a network of friends and acquaintances in important positions in government and the professions in Singapore and Malaya. Even if one did not know someone personally, just sharing the same background made for easy acceptance, and the old school tie worked well in Singapore and Malaya, even between Chinese, Indians and Malays.
It was the easy old-boy network of an elite at the very top of the English-educated group nurtured by the British colonial education system. We went through similar schools, read the same textbooks and shared certain common attitudes and characteristics.
Many of the Chinese and Indians had been brought in as indentured labour and were tolerated because the Malays did not take to the jobs a commercial and a plantation economy required, like tapping rubber, building roads and bridges, working as clerks, accountants and storekeepers.
similar to how we are now, the Singaporeans who refuse to do manual labour
Photographs of them with their wives appeared in the papers, attending garden parties and sometimes dinners at Government House, bowing and curtseying before the governor and his lady, the women duly wearing white gloves, and all on their best behaviour. A few were knighted, and others hoped that after giving long and faithful service they, too, would be honoured. They were patronised by the white officials, but accepted their inferior status with aplomb, for they considered themselves superior to their fellow Asiatics. Conversely, any British, European or American who misbehaved or looked like a tramp was immediately packed off because he would demean the whole white race, whose superiority must never be thrown into doubt.
I will never understand how decisions affecting life and death could be taken so capriciously and casually. I had had a narrow escape from an exercise called Sook Ching, meaning to “wipe out” rebels, ordered by Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the staff officer who planned the Malayan campaign.
But it was sheer vengeance, exacted not in the heat of battle but when Singapore had already surrendered.
The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behaviour of human beings and human societies, their motivations and impulses. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience. I saw a whole social system crumble suddenly before an occupying army that was absolutely merciless. The Japanese demanded total obedience and got it from nearly all. They were hated by almost everyone but everyone knew their power to do harm and so everyone adjusted. Those who were slow or reluctant to change and to accept the new masters suffered. They lived on the margins of the new society, their fortunes stagnated or declined and they lost their status. Those who were quick off the mark in assessing the new situation, and swift to take advantage of the new opportunities by making themselves useful to the new masters, made fortunes out of the terrible misfortune that had befallen all in Singapore.
The Japanese Military Administration governed by spreading fear. It put up no pretence of civilised behaviour. Punishment was so severe that crime was very rare. In the midst of deprivation after the second half of 1944, when the people half-starved, it was amazing how low the crime rate remained.
As a result I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. That was not my experience in Singapore before the war, during the Japanese occupation or subsequently.
Our hopes, based on nostalgia, were too high, and we were bound to be disappointed.
If three and a half years of Japanese occupation had earned me my degree in the realities of life, the first year in liberated Singapore was my postgraduate course.
She was totally committed. I sensed it. I was equally determined to keep my commitment to her.
I was thoroughly unhappy over the little things I had always taken for granted in Singapore. My family provided everything I needed. My shoes were polished, my clothes were washed and ironed, my food was prepared. All I had to do was to express my preferences. Now I had to do everything for myself.
It struck me as manifestly fair that everybody in this world should be given an equal chance in life, that in a just and well-ordered society there should not be a great disparity of wealth between persons because of their position or status, or that of their parents. I made no distinction between different races and peoples. We were part of the British Empire, and I believed the British lived well at the expense of all their subjects. The ideas that Laski represented at that time were therefore attractive to students from the colonies. We all wanted our independence so that we could keep our wealth for ourselves.
It was only after I had been in office for some years that I recognised that performance varied substantially between the different races in Singapore, and among different categories within the same race. After trying out a number of ways to reduce inequalities and failing, I was gradually forced to conclude that the decisive factors were the people, their natural abilities, education and training. Knowledge and the possession of technology were vital for the creation of wealth.
After a few weeks of hectic adjustments, she told me she found me a changed man. I was no longer the cheerful, optimistic go-getter, the anything-can-be-done fellow, bubbling with joie de vivre. Despite the favour I had been shown, particularly the kindness of Billy Thatcher, and my happy mood during the glorious summer of 1947, I appeared to have become deeply anti-British, particularly of the colonial regime in Malaya and Singapore, which I was determined to end. One year in London and Cambridge had crystallised in me changes that had started with the Japanese capture of Singapore in 1942. I had now seen the British in their own country and I questioned their ability to govern these territories for the good of the locals.
The discrimination may not have been due entirely to colour prejudice. It was the class system – another strange phenomenon for someone coming from a young, mobile society of migrants. Even among the white students, those from the “right” public schools had the advantage. And like the rest, they coveted college colours because they would prove an asset in the future, when they could list them on their CVs. They were stepping stones to great things – anyone with a rowing blue had his career made. Similarly, being president of the Cambridge Union Society helped one to become a prospective candidate for a Labour or Conservative constituency, or to get a job in the research department of one of the parties.
He said to Choo and me, “If it’s a boy, send him to us in Trinity Hall.”
Just before we went down from Cambridge in June 1949, he invited Choo and me for morning coffee for the last time. He patted Choo’s hand and, looking at me, said, “He is too impatient. Don’t let him be in such a hurry.” He had read my character well, but he also knew that I had a serious purpose in life and was determined to achieve it.
I also wanted to develop contacts with British students who were likely to play a role in future in the main political parties, a network that would be useful when I tangled with the colonial authorities in Singapore and Malaya. I therefore studied their political system with keen interest.
What struck me most was the fairness of the system. The government was creating a society that would get everybody – rich or poor, high or low or middle class – on to one broad band of decent living standards. And this although there were still shortages.
I was too young, too idealistic to realise that the cost to the government would be heavy; worse, that under such an egalitarian system each individual would be more interested in what he could get out of the common pool than in striving to do better for himself, which had been the driving force for progress throughout human evolution. That realisation had to wait until the 1960s, when I was in charge of the government of a tiny Singapore much poorer than Britain, and was confronted with the need to generate revenue and create wealth before I could even think, let alone talk, of redistributing it.
The guerrillas were back in the jungle, and the colonial government had declared an Emergency. In the open constitutional arena, on the other hand, there was no political force beyond the weak and spineless English-educated leaders who were only too eager to accommodate and please the British rulers. I felt strongly that when my generation returned, we must fill that arena.
It was a time of great excitement and change. This was democratic socialism in action. And it was all so civilised.
(These minimum needs looked like luxury compared to what I remembered of conditions in Singapore even before the Japanese impoverished us.) It was a remarkable lesson in how to go about creating social justice.
My generation of Singapore and Malayan students in Britain after World War II were completely sold on the fairness and reasonableness of the Labour government’s programme. We were enthusiastic about the mature British system, under which constitutional tradition and tolerance allowed fundamental shifts of power and wealth to take place peacefully. We compared what we saw in Britain with Singapore and Malaya, with our largely uneducated peoples and a feeble press that ignored all the basic issues but reported the comings and goings of important people, mostly white bosses and the locals who hovered around them. The situation looked backward and unpromising.
But it was to be some time before I realised that a country needed more than a few dignified and able men at the top to get it moving. The people as a whole must have self-respect and the will to strive to make a nation of themselves. The task of the leaders must be to provide or create for them a strong framework within which they can learn, work hard, be productive and be rewarded accordingly. And this is not easy to achieve.
While Mr Fox kept me waiting in the first class lounge of the Willem Ruys, I popped out on deck to wave to my family – Father, Mother, Fred, Monica and Suan – on the quay with some friends, including Hon Sui Sen. Choo’s family was also waiting for her, but when we disembarked, we parted company. She went back with her parents to Pasir Panjang, I to Oxley Road. We parted as friends, not giving away the secret of our marriage in Britain.
On 30 September 1950, after being married secretly for nearly three years, we went through a second ceremony at the Registry of Marriages, which was then in the Supreme Court building. The registrar, Mr Grosse, was 15 minutes late. I was furious and told him off. An appointment had been made yet he kept all of us waiting.
But it was now clear that the MCP had also won recruits among the English-educated intelligentsia. In spite of the favoured treatment they received, and their monopoly of jobs in the government and the professions, some of the most idealistic had succumbed to the appeal communism had for peoples fighting colonialism. If we did nothing, if we failed to mobilise them into an effective political movement, the MCP would be the ultimate gainer.
But the bulk of the population were Chinese-speaking. Their avenues for advancement after going through Chinese schools were negligible, and their political aspirations could only be realised through the MCP. They included the hawkers, trishaw men, taxi drivers and runners for the illegal four-digit and chap-ji-kee lotteries. They were the ordinary people who appeared in the outer office of Laycock & Ong, looking for help to get them out of entanglements with the police, the municipal authorities or the government. They spoke no English, and clerks interpreted for them to lawyers who did not speak their dialects.
In 1950, I decided to try to have myself called to the Singapore Bar using only my Chinese name, with my surname placed before my personal name: Lee Kuan Yew. This time, I succeeded; Lee Kuan Yew became my public persona, what I stood for and saw myself as – a left-wing nationalist – and that is how I appeared in newspaper reports of my cases in court. But through all these years, my wife and my personal friends still call me Harry.
However, by the middle 1960s, after I had been through the mill and survived, I got over any sense of discomfort. It was not a reflection on me and my values. I did not name myself. I have not given any of my children a Western first name, nor have they in turn given their children Western names.
Three days after being called to the Bar, I was asked by my old friend, the registrar of the Supreme Court, Tan Thoon Lip, to defend four Malays in a case that would have a profound impact on my views about the jury system in Singapore. In December 1950, a Dutch girl who had been converted to Islam by her Malay foster mother was placed in a convent on the order of the High Court while the judge determined the right of her natural mother to reclaim her.
This decision to represent the postmen was to be a turning point in the history of the trade unions and constitutional mass action. Little did I know that I would be guiding union leaders in a strike that in two weeks changed the political climate. It put the colonial government on the defensive and encouraged workers’ militancy. But it also created the conditions for the communists to reorganise their mass support.
The fight had been for public support and the union won. After this demonstration of the incompetence of the British colonial officers, the people saw that the government was vulnerable when subjected to scrutiny.
I said Dennis had gone to the festival simply for a good holiday, and that he was about as political as a tadpole. Years later, I discovered that this phrase had found its way into their files.
Their defiance of the law was the immediate concern of the court. But the underlying issues were deep and fundamental. The Chinese-educated had no place or role to play in the official life of the colony, which employed only English-educated locals as subordinates. The government provided primary schools teaching in English and in Malay, and secondary schools teaching only in English. But immigrant communities were left to fend for themselves. The Chinese collected donations and built their own schools. Completely self-supporting, they used textbooks published in China and employed teachers recruited in China who taught in Mandarin just as if they were in Guangdong or Fujian province. Culturally, they lived in a world apart.
They felt dispossessed, and their lack of economic opportunity turned their schools into breeding grounds for the communists,
I did not understand the background of the problem at the time, though I knew something was simmering and bubbling away in this completely different world. The students were well-organised, disciplined and cohesive. They had remarkable self-control and were capable of mass action, of collective demonstrations of defiance that made it difficult for the government to isolate and pick out the leaders for punishment. After the arrests, they set out to blow up other issues that would enable them to engineer clashes with the police, to produce martyrs and so arouse public feeling against the government. I understood their motivations and methods only much later.
What we were looking for were serious-minded men for a long-term enterprise, men who would take with equanimity the ups and downs of politics in pursuit of our objectives.
We did not want the middle school students to be in any way associated with us. Any political party in Singapore’s segmented society had to balance its appeal to one section of the community against the fears or resistance it would arouse in another, and for this reason they would not be an asset. They would frighten off the English- and Malay-educated, who were about 40 per cent of the population.
Thus I had two highly respected Malayan leaders attend the inaugural meeting of the PAP because of their personal links with me, and probably also because they thought I could be a useful ally in future. But while the Tunku did not want me to enter politics in the Federation, Tan did. This fundamental difference between the two reflected basic contradictions in their electoral interests. The Tunku wanted the Chinese in small pockets, disunited if possible, disorganised and easy for the Malays to handle. Tan wanted young men who could bring the Chinese community together, and the MCA was very keen on getting Singapore into the Federation to increase their voting strength.
If ever I was in any doubt as to whom they took their orders from, it vanished after this experience. We were a united front of convenience. They wanted their own two men in, and I was only useful as cover for them. I never allowed myself to forget that. I had to speak at one rally for Lim and another for Nair, but my heart was not in it. It was in Sembawang with Ahmad Ibrahim, the unionist from the Naval Base fire brigade, and in Punggol-Tampines with old man Goh Chew Chua, who turned out to be an effective speaker in Hokkien and did well.
The campaign in no way resembled that of 1951 when I was Laycock’s election agent in Katong. That was a genteel affair with tea and dinner parties for a limited electorate of 48,000 registered voters out of a population of 1.8 million. In 1955, with automatic registration of the Singapore-born, there were 300,000 voters, about 60 per cent of them Chinese-speaking.
The atmosphere was very different: the principal languages were the main Chinese dialects, bazaar Malay, which could reach the largest cross-section of the people, and lastly English, which reached the smallest – the top layer of Singapore society who were close to the levers of power but insignificant in voting strength. The street rallies and the meetings in open spaces had speakers standing on lorries or pick-up trucks with microphones and makeshift loudspeakers, and electric bulbs to light them up. They drew huge crowds where Chinese and Malay-speaking voters predominated. The sedate parlour game politics of 1951 was a thing of the past.
The biggest single theme that galvanised the Chinese-speaking was Chinese culture, and the need to preserve Chinese traditions through the Chinese schools. It was not a proletarian issue; it was plain, simple chauvinism.
This time, Chinese orators took off. Speaking in their own dialects – Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew – they were superlative crowd-rousers. They could wax eloquent, quote proverbs, use metaphors and allegories or traditional legends to illustrate contemporary situations. They spoke with a passion that filled their listeners with emotion and exhilaration at the prospect of Chinese greatness held out to them. For the Chinese of Singapore, it was never to be the same again.
Later, I learnt that if any speaker broke the party line, the claques would suddenly go cold on him, however striking his oratory, hissing, booing and making disconcerting noises to distract the crowd. The communists had developed these techniques in mass psychology to a fine art and used them to great effect among the Chinese-educated. So far as I could see, they did not work with the English-educated.
My way of constitutional opposition, working within the law, was in marked contrast to that of the communists, and I got results. But without the communists going beyond the law and using violence, my methods would not have been effective. It was the less unpleasant option I offered that made them acceptable to the British.
They were completely Chinese-educated, but because they spoke English at home with their mother, they became equally fluent in English. And with tuition in Malay, from the age of six, they mastered a third language.
I was told that sometime in 1953 the British press had started to use “Asian” because “Asiatic” had a touch of condescension or disrespect, and the change was a concession to the people of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, now independent. I did not understand how this improved their status. When young London children called me a Chinaman or a Chink, it did not trouble me. If they meant it as a term of abuse, my business was to make them think differently one day.
Marshall had taught me how not to be soft and weak when dealing with the communists. Lim Yew Hock taught me how not to be tough and flat-footed. It was not enough to use administrative and legal powers to confine and cripple them. Lim did not understand that the communist game was to make him lose the support of the masses, the Chinese-speaking people, to destroy his credibility as a leader who was acting in their interests. They were thus able to portray him as an opportunist and a puppet acting at the behest of the “colonialist imperialists”. Of the two, the more valuable lesson was Lim Yew Hock’s – how not to let the communists exact a heavy price for putting them down.
I made it clear that the PAP would not take office if it won the election unless the detained leaders were first released. I did not say this for the benefit of Lim Chin Siong and Fong. Chin Chye, Pang Boon and I had concluded that the Chinese-speaking ground would distrust us as tricksters if we ditched our former comrades in gaol and took office without them. The accounts had first to be squared; only then could we break with them and stand a chance in the fight for hearts and minds. It was not a political gimmick. We had no choice. We understood the values and social norms of our people and we had to be seen to have acted honourably.
The communists did not want Marshall to retire, nor did they want either of us to knock out the other. They wanted both of us in the Assembly, with Marshall baiting, provoking and forcing me into a position more favourable to their cause. With Marshall out of the arena, they would have no prod to use on me; but with me out of the arena, they would be left with an unstable Marshall. He realised, in the 48 hours between his challenge and his retirement, that this time he would not have left-wing support. He knew that if he did not fight me, he would be humiliated but that on his own he would suffer a devastating defeat. He decided to withdraw altogether.
And on 29 June, we did – with 67.5 per cent of the votes. We had defended our policy, and got it solidly endorsed. I said, “We got a higher percentage of votes in 1955 because we might have been all things to all men; now all men and all women know exactly what we stand for and a decisive majority voted for us.”
The pro-communists wanted to demonstrate their revolutionary resolve, not realising that they needed the respectability of the PAP more than we needed their mass support. In the minds of the people, the PAP was already established as a consistent, radical, pro-workers’ party. If we did not misplay our hand, we would always have their general goodwill and support because of the good work we had done so far.
There was no way to filter them out. They were like radioactive dust.
I did not think I would see him again. I did not know who he was and did not want to know. I had to protect my position as the leader of the opposition.
After my experience with communist rallies I instinctively looked for the cheerleaders. I found them above me, choirboys on circular balconies up the pillars. The Roman Catholic Church had used such methods of mass mobilisation long before the communists. The Church must have got many things right to have survived for nearly two thousand years. I remembered reading about a new Pope being elected by some one hundred cardinals who themselves had been appointed by earlier popes. That recollection was to serve the PAP well.
He was not playing tiddlywinks. He was playing the Chinese game of wei qi (the Japanese call it go) in which two players place seeds on a square board until one of them has surrounded the seeds of the other, a chess game of encirclement. For the time being I was the better placed, but he was patiently trying to encircle me with his superior ground forces. If I did not want to lose, I had to take up strong positions that would give me the advantage in defence, even though he had greater numbers with which to launch his attacks. But if he made a false move through overconfidence, the tables would be turned, and I would have a chance to encircle him.
He later explained to the press that he had not disclosed the matter at the time since it would have wrecked the Labour Party and probably the government, which for all its faults was doing a good job. In the middle of 1958, however, it had become obvious to him that the Front was not going to be cleaned up, and he had told me about the money, asking me to keep it confidential (which I did). By then, he had resigned as minister. Having achieved our political purpose of discrediting the SPA for taking money from the Americans, I offered to withdraw my motion. Lim Yew Hock unwisely refused.
The report was published in the press on 27 May, two days before polling day. It only confirmed what voters already knew – that Lim Yew Hock’s government was corrupt, and worse, that it was now in the pay of the Americans. As I expected, the opposition parties were a shambles when nomination day approached.
Inevitably, the English-language press was virulently anti-PAP, unlike the Chinese and Malay newspapers, which were friendly. That animosity had provoked a battle when I fired my first salvo on 15 April: “It is an open secret (that if the PAP won) the Straits Times editorial staff would scoot to Kuala Lumpur. Those who have followed the paper’s views should also scoot with them. (For) If you read what you see in the paper, you will think we are extremists and wild men.”
“If locally owned newspapers criticise us we know that their criticism, however wrong or right, is bona fide criticism, because they must stay and take the consequences of any foolish policies or causes they may have advocated. Not so the birds of passage who run the Straits Times. They have to run to the Federation, from whose safety they boldly proclaim they will die for the freedom of Singapore.”
The editor, Leslie Hoffman, replied the same day: “I am no bird of passage. I, who am responsible for the policy and editorial content of this newspaper, intend to remain in Singapore, even if Mr Lee and the People’s Action Party come to power, and even if they use the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance against me. … My home will be in Singapore.” But he left for Kuala Lumpur before the election was over.
Electioneering meant going to odd corners of Singapore that the English-educated middle class in general would not normally visit. The smells of sullage, the giant rats and mangy strays, the open drains full of garbage and stale leavings from hawker stalls in Chinatown were what I remembered of Tanjong Pagar in the 1950s. At night the hawkers would appear from nowhere and surround our rallies, expecting good business. On the fringes of the crowd there would be large numbers of children, reminders of our high 4 per cent birth rate, out for an evening of fun, some with parents, many unaccompanied. In rural areas like Punggol, Sembawang and Yio Chu Kang, the powerful smell of pig waste was unforgettable and was easily recognised in 1976 when I passed through the countryside of China.
We had 43 MPs-elect on the stage, all dressed in white to symbolise clean government – there would be none of the corruption that had been rife in the past in Singapore and existed in many other new countries. I introduced my new cabinet of nine, including myself. I made a serious, almost sombre speech. There was a huge crowd of some 50,000 on the Padang – orderly, expectant and in good humour.
But no wives were present, a grievance Choo holds against me to this day. She, too, had worked very hard and expected to be there. I said it would lead to trouble with the other wives, and anyway it was just a minor ceremony. She was not placated. But I could not give way.
I knew from experience that enthusiasm was not enough. To give of their best, the ministers had to have air-conditioned offices. That may sound odd, but without air-conditioning, efficient work in tropical Singapore would not have been feasible.
We mounted a series of well-publicised campaigns to clean the streets of the city, clear the beaches of debris and cut the weeds on unkempt vacant land. It was a copycat exercise borrowed from the communists – ostentatious mobilisation of everyone including ministers to toil with their hands and soil their clothes in order to serve the people. We saw no reason why the MCP should have the monopoly of such techniques and organised drives to enthuse the people and involve them in setting higher standards in civic consciousness, general cleanliness and the preservation of public property. One Sunday, Ong Eng Guan would muster government servants to clean up Changi beach. On another, I would take a broom to sweep the city streets with the community leaders.
There were other things we wanted to do. Keng Swee and I planned and formed the People’s Association, a statutory board that would embrace all the important voluntary social organisations, clubs and associations for sports, music, ballet, drawing and cooking. We built over one hundred community centres – big ones in the city, small wooden huts in the rural areas – places for education and recreation. Table tennis, basketball, badminton, Chinese chess, lessons in repairing radios and refrigerators and courses in technical trades were some of the activities. We wanted to give people something positive to do, and get them lined up on the side of law and order.
This was a serious commitment, or I would not have agreed to my wife making it in a broadcast. I wanted to implement it early, although it meant urgent work for the legal draftsmen in the attorney-general’s chambers. They searched for precedents in the legislation of other countries, and drew up the Women’s Charter, which we passed into law within a year. It established monogamy as the only legal marital condition and made polygamy, hitherto an accepted practice, a crime – except among Muslims, whose religion allowed a man to have four wives. The charter was comprehensive and altered the status of women. But it did not change the cultural bias of parents against daughters in favour of sons.
honest, dynamic, revolutionary China. Pang Boon moved quickly, outflanking the communists with puritanical zeal. He ordered a clean-up of Chinese secret society gangsters, and outlawed pornography, striptease shows, pin-table saloons, even decadent songs. It did no harm apart from adding somewhat to unemployment and making Singapore less attractive to tourists. But the seamen who had always been a part of Singapore’s transient population soon found their way to the amenities still offered in the more obscure corners of the island to which we turned a blind eye. Prostitution continued discreetly; we left it alone because we could not ban it without taking silly and ineffective action.
My gum-making brother-in-law, Yong Nyuk Lin, now minister for education, did us proud: in 12 months, he doubled the intake of students, converting each school into two by splitting it to provide a morning and an afternoon session. He ran a crash programme to train the teachers needed, and promoted many of the seniors to be principals, headmasters and headmistresses. He also started adult education classes to teach Malay, now the national language, and launched a Chinese literacy drive, using Mandarin as the common language of all Chinese dialect groups. People wanted to feel they were improving themselves and their prospects, and we gave them the means. We adopted the proven methods of our communist adversaries. As with the mass campaigns, we saw no reason why we should give the MCP a monopoly of such techniques.
But I should have listened more carefully to him instead of regarding his request as an unwelcome intrusion into my plans. I should have seen the significance of such strong communal attitudes for Singapore if it was to become a part of Malaysia. If I had inquired into the background to the education problem, I would have had early warning of the kind of major concessions we must be prepared to make if we were going to work with the Malay leaders in the Federation.
“So the position today is that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is very much in command of the cabinet and the cabinet are impressively united. They have made mistakes, as was to be expected, and with the exception of the prime minister I doubt they are as able as they first appeared to be. They are finding it much more difficult to run a government than to organise a successful political party. But on the whole they have made a good start to carry out their declared policies. The prime minister tells me to postpone judgement on their competence until they have had a year in office. So far most of what he has said has been proved right.
There had been much ado over the flag, for again racial sentiments had to be respected. The Chinese-speaking wanted red for good fortune, the Malays red and white, their traditional colours for courage and purity. But Indonesia already had red and white for their flag, and so had Poland. The Chinese, influenced by the five yellow stars on the flag of Communist China, wanted stars. The Malays wanted a crescent moon. We settled for a crescent moon with five white stars instead of the traditional one star for Islam. The five stars represented the five ideals of the country: democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality. Thus we reconciled different racial symbols and ideals.
We then made Lim Kim San chairman of the HDB. This was a crucial appointment. Kim San had been Keng Swee’s contemporary in Anglo-Chinese School and at Raffles College. He was a businessman, a practical, inventive person who had designed his own sago-processing machine. He managed his father-in-law’s pawnshops and his father’s petrol stations, besides being a director of one of the bigger local banks. He was a man of many skills. Keng Swee wanted to make sure that any money given to the HDB for housing the people would be well spent, and Kim San would see to it. Ong Eng Guan was not to be allowed to waste public money.
Goode pointed out that the Special Branch experts had reported that past events were repeating themselves – there was the same build-up of communist strength to challenge the government – and he asked whether it would not be wise to intervene and crush the monster now before it got too big. I disagreed. Goode pressed me to explain our policy. The broad policy, I said, was not to be outmanoeuvred by the communists. If we did not first prepare the ground so that the neutral Chinese-speaking workers understood that their leaders were being arrested because they were doing harm to the economy and thus threatening their jobs, we would lose them. They must not be allowed to believe that the leaders were detained because they were good trade unionists who happened to be pro-communist.
Ismail did not understand this approach. He explained how a firm line in the Federation had kept down communist subversion. I said Malaya was different from Singapore. The Malayan government could use a heavy hand against the communists and not lose their mass support because it was mainly Malay. However, the Singapore government must try to win over its mass base – the uncommitted Chinese, especially the intellectuals who could influence the uncommitted. Goode was familiar with our thinking, but had brought it out for Ismail’s benefit.
Unlike Nair, Fong was Chinese-educated, a prisoner of the legends of the revolutionary movement in China and without a framework of values that could accommodate the concept of revolutionary social and economic change by peaceful means. To the Chinese-educated like Fong, revolution required violence. Without violence, it was, in Marxist dialectics, “mere reformism”. In any case, he could not resist the emotional pulls of old friendships and traditional loyalties.
I decided there was little to be gained by prevarication. I was in government. If I agreed with him now, he would see from my subsequent actions that I had been lying. I did not give him a direct “no”, but said it was best for him to assume that the PAP would do what it had publicly stated it would do. In other words, my public statements still expressed my policies for the future. We parted with a handshake. He showed no rancour or animosity. He may have been surprised that I refused to commit myself, when I could have said what was expedient and later gone back on my word.
What was particularly worrying was that the Tunku was insensitive to the damage he was inflicting on public sentiment in Singapore by pouring cold water over our hopes. For every time he did so, it was prominently reported in the press, and this meant he was giving the advocates of a separate independent Singapore increasing credibility.
This was a bombshell. There had been no earlier indication of any change in his consistent stand that Malaya could not take Singapore in. The moment I read what the Tunku had said, I knew that the Plen would think I had deceived him when we met in May, that I had lied when, in reply to his question, I said that merger was not likely for many years because the Tunku distrusted the Chinese in Singapore.
I tabled a motion of confidence in the government on 20 July 1961, to sort out the goats from the sheep in the Assembly.
This suited us. The pro-communists had been an albatross around our necks. But we had to be careful how we ditched them. If we appeared opportunistic, dropping them after we had made use of them, we would lose the Chinese-speaking ground. Merger was the perfect issue on which to break.
If we could not survive a split over such a clear-cut issue, we would never survive anyway. We felt released from a very heavy burden. No longer did we have to give them cover. We would either succeed on our own or pack up.
I decided to press the issue since I had enough assemblymen to enable us to see merger through by 1963. I wanted PAP assemblymen to stand up to be counted.
We decided to lift the party whip and let all vote as they wished. We needed volunteers, not conscripts, for the nasty fight ahead. The pro-communists soon gave up trying to win over the Malay and Indian assemblymen, and concentrated on the bilinguals and the Chinese-educated. But they needed time, and many approached the whip, Lee Khoon Choy, to ask that the vote be postponed until the next day. We refused. So they filibustered, making long, repetitive speeches to drag out the proceedings.
Sahora told Chee Seng that her Malay colleagues had been distancing themselves from her at government functions, showing that they despised her. So she had refused to be persuaded by them to support the government. But she liked Chee Seng and agreed to come. Chee Seng immediately arranged for an ambulance to bring her to the Assembly House, where she was carried on a stretcher to the Members’ room. From there, she managed to walk the 15 yards into the chamber just in time for the crucial vote.
Broadset for a Chinese, he had physical energy and a loud voice that was overconfident and a little boastful. He played rugger and chess. On the rugger field his method was to bulldoze his way through without any deception or diversionary tactics, and he was therefore easily foiled. Keng Swee, who had frequently played chess with him, found him bold to the point of recklessness. He was always initiating some spectacular manoeuvre to break his opponent and crash through, forgetting that an experienced adversary would never be tempted to take risks when he could make a steady, relentless advance against an adventurer. This time he was embarked on his biggest gamble – prime minister or nothing.
Lim Chin Siong was silent for a week after the debate on the confidence motion. Then on 28 July, the Straits Times published a letter from him that carried the fingerprints of Woodhull and Puthucheary. “Let me make it clear once and for all that I am not a communist or a communist front-man or for that matter anybody’s front-man. …” he declared. He had not even wanted to re-enter the political arena after being released, and about his appointment to be political secretary to the ministry of finance, he said, “Not only was I reluctant to accept the post, but I had offered to withdraw from politics if he (Lee Kuan Yew) so desired it. He did not desire it. Instead, he wished to show the people that I was identified with the government.”
The seemingly simple constitutional stand Selkirk took achieved three objectives. First, the PAP government had either to take action against Lim Chin Siong and his fellow communists or face the danger of being ousted by them. Second, it offered Lim and his comrades the possibility of a constitutional takeover of power. Third, it showed the Tunku that the consequences for Malaysia would be grievous if he refused to take Singapore in.
The Plen evidently thought we would be fearful of the strength of the pro-communists, which was true. He thought that we were soft, bourgeois, English-educated, pleasure-loving middle-class types, beer-swilling, golf-playing, working and sleeping in air-conditioned rooms and travelling in air-conditioned cars. He did not see that there was enough steel inside this bourgeois English-educated group to withstand the heat he could put on us.
“The broadcasts were a real eye-opener to a schoolboy in his Senior Cambridge year, anxious for a job after his exams to relieve his poor parents. The radio talks laid out the future in stark, real-life terms. I was struck by their candour, the power of the simple, vivid language, most of all, by the inside story of the struggle within the united front against the British colonialists. “The broadcasts were an unprecedented experience. They were not the typical political ones. They contained real-life experiences. They were happening even as they were being aired. The Plen was real. Every broadcast ended with the listener in suspense, and anxious for the next instalment, the way ordinary folk at that time lapped up the kung-fu serials broadcast over Rediffusion by Lei Tai Sor in Cantonese. A master storyteller was at work. But this was not fiction. This was life and death for Singaporeans.”
After our discussions, I told the press that he would like to have Malaysia formed by August 1962, so that the anniversary would fall on an auspicious day. Eight was his lucky number, so he had chosen 31 August as Malaya’s Independence Day. August was the eighth month, and 31 was three plus one, which made four, or half of eight, the Tunku explained.
I learnt later from his old friend from pre-war student days in Cambridge, Dr Chua Sin Kah, that he liked me to stay at the Residency because he wanted to know the kind of person I was, my personal habits and character. And he had reached the conclusion that I was “not a bad fellow”. I sang in my bath and he approved of my songs, like the lilting Indonesian Burung Kakaktua (The Cockatoo), which was then a hit; I played golf and poker; and I drank beer, wine and even took whisky and a little brandy – Three Star Hennessy was the Tunku’s favourite drink. He decided I was not a dangerous communist. Indeed I was very human and an agreeable companion – young, a little too smart for his liking, and always too full of ideas, but otherwise all right.
This meant getting a word in between long sessions of desultory talk about the world, social gossip and lunches for which he often personally cooked the roast mutton or roast beef – he enjoyed cooking and was good at it. After lunch, he would invariably take a nap, and with time on my hands I would go off to the Royal Selangor Golf Club practice tee to hit 100 to 200 balls while I waited for him to get up. At about 4:30 we would play nine holes of golf, and in between shots or before dinner, when he was in the right mood, I would put the question to him. In this way, one item might involve four days of eating, drinking, golfing, and going with him to dinner parties or weddings. On several occasions I accompanied him to Penang or Ipoh or the Cameron Highlands, waiting for a propitious moment.
He was a nice man. But he was a prince who understood power and knew how to use it. He 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. But if he trusted you and you did not let him down, he would – in the royal tradition – always find some way of helping a loyal follower, as he did with Lim Yew Hock. When Lim was out of office, the Tunku made him high commissioner to Australia. When he disgraced himself there by getting lost in a striptease nightclub for a few days, provoking a police search for him, and had to resign, the Tunku got him another job in an Islamic organisation in Jeddah (Lim had become a convert to Islam). It was his way of helping a friend in trouble.
The Barisan’s potential for stirring up trouble had not decreased. I was therefore eager to get things moving, and through my impatience and my very different temperament made the Tunku angry with me. I had not been sensitive enough to realise that once he decided to take Singapore into the Federation, his attitude towards me would undergo a subtle change. He was a prince of the royal house of Kedah. Hierarchy was part of his nature. As long as Singapore was outside his domain, he treated me as the leader of a friendly neighbouring country, a lesser leader to whom he was willing to be courteous. But now, I was going to be part of his Federation, and he was accustomed to having courtiers and retainers around him, followers who were faithful and humble.
The last straw was when I told the Tunku that I was planning a tour of Delhi, Cairo, Belgrade, London, Moscow and Beijing. He was appalled. I was on a dangerous course, associating with the enemy. I was giving the impression that the Russian and Chinese leaders were great men when in fact they were “evil fellows” out to destroy the stability of Malaya. He could not understand my reasoning, that after I had visited these countries and been received by them, I would be better qualified to tell the people I was more convinced than ever that the communist system was unsuitable for Singapore and Malaya. That was not the Tunku’s approach. I was going to be part of his scheme of things and he did not want anybody in Malaysia to fraternise with the enemy. He was angered by my arguing with him over it, and I finally concluded it was not worth my while to clash with him on the issue.
The letter was a giveaway with nothing gained in return. It implicitly acknowledged that the Tunku was the person most likely to be in control from now on, not Lim Chin Siong and the communists, and I knew the Chinese would take this into account when making their choices in the future.
Nasser issued a joint communiqué with me, breaking protocol since Singapore was not an independent country. It said that he supported Malaysia and the “unification of all peoples with similar political and social backgrounds … seeking an end to colonial domination”. It was a political plus for Singapore to be understood and supported by Nasser and Nehru, the two leaders who then set the pace in Africa and in Asia.
My public position would be that it was most regrettable but, from my personal knowledge of the communists, absolutely necessary Next I insisted that the communists should still be at large when the referendum on Malaysia was held. I believed they would call for a boycott that would not be obeyed and this would discredit them. It would be a fatal mistake to detain them before the referendum; that would completely destroy its worth and open me to accusations that they were arrested to help me win and hand Singapore over to the Tunku. There would be protest riots and public disorder.
When Maudling asked about my difficulties with the Tunku, I said, “The Tunku thinks I am clever but wrong and he, though not clever, is right. I win the argument, which embarrasses him, but he feels that my conclusion is wrong though he does not know why.” If he would persuade the Tunku that it was folly to believe that every Chinese was a potential communist supporter, it would have more effect than if it came from me.
The Tunku’s simple belief was that “politics was for the Malays and business for the Chinese”. This might have been so in his father’s time, but was not realistic in 1962.
I returned to Singapore feeling the better for five weeks away from the daily grind of public argument and the pressure of industrial unrest. My spirits were sufficiently restored to return to the ceaseless ding-dong with the communists, exchanging vitriol with them in the press and exercising restraint in the face of provocation by their strikes, go-slows and sit-downs while business suffered, jobs were lost and unemployment increased.
Moore was worried because the Referendum Bill, which had already gone through a select committee, had recommended that since the submission of blank ballot papers would indicate that the voters concerned did not wish to exercise their right to decide for or against merger themselves, the decision would be taken by the majority in the Assembly (meaning the PAP). I had inserted this provision to counter any communist call for a blank vote. But if people wanted to protest by casting blank votes in large numbers and in that way express their opposition to merger and the referendum, Moore thought I had to give them their choice. He tried to dissuade me from going on with the operation, saying people had labelled it dishonest and phoney. I disagreed.
The Tunku was nevertheless a liberal-minded Western-educated Muslim of the pre-war generation. He was a bon vivant and was completely open about it. Like other Muslims of his generation in Britain he ate freely, drank liberally and loved horses and women
He had no pretensions about his own abilities and no inhibitions in describing the capabilities of his fellow Malays. He was disarmingly frank in his self-deprecation, confessing that his Malay father, the sultan, was a weak man and that his strength came from his Thai mother. The Malays, he said, were not very clever or demanding, and therefore easy to please. All he needed was to give them a little bit more and they were quite happy. These views were similar to those expressed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his book The Malay Dilemma, published in 1971. He wrote, “Whatever the Malays could do the Chinese could do better and more cheaply”, and “they resulted from two entirely different sets of hereditary and environmental influences”. Years later, in 1997, when he was Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir said he had reversed his stand and no longer believed what he wrote in The Malay Dilemma.
But in the 1960s, the Tunku would often look around at the officials and ministers in his drawing room before or after dinner and say, “These fellows can’t do business. They have no idea how to make money. The Chinese will do the business. They know how to make money, and from their taxes, we will pay for the government. But because they, the Malays, are not very clever and not good at business, they must be in charge of the government departments, the police and the army.” He had a simple philosophy: the role of the Malays was to control the machinery of the state, to give out the licences and collect the revenue, and most important of all, to ensure that they were not displaced. Unlike the Chinese and Indians who had China and India to return to, they had nowhere else to go. In his soft-spoken, gracious way, he was absolutely open about his determination to maintain the ascendancy of the Malays and ensure that they and their sultans would remain the overlords of the country.
slow horses and fast women.
Our advantage was short-lived. Ahmad Ibrahim’s health had been steadily deteriorating. He had cirrhosis of the liver because of a hepatitis infection years earlier. We had sent him to England for an operation, but the disease had progressed relentlessly, and on 21 August, he died – I was at his deathbed with his wife. Ahmad had great spirit. He had qualities of leadership, which he had displayed to good effect in the Naval Base Labour Union. More important still, he had had the courage to take over the ministry of labour from Kenny to face down the communists. His death was a severe loss, and it left us with 25 votes to 25 in the Assembly once more.
At half past eleven on Sunday morning, the recount was finished: 71 per cent had chosen alternative “A” and 25 per cent had cast blank votes. I was overwhelmed with joy when I spoke to the waiting crowd, and my eyes filled with tears. My words were broadcast live by Radio Singapore from the Badminton Hall: “The verdict of the people is a terrifying thing for the politically dishonest. This verdict is decisive. It is the seal of public and popular approval for merger and Malaysia. … Not to have held the referendum would have been a tragic error, for we would have allowed the communists to make people believe that the so-called masses were against merger. With time and explanation, we can whittle down the remnant pockets of support that they have got by lying, smearing and by intimidation.”
Addressing the Labour conference, I said that the future was inevitably one of change, but that the changes should not be an excuse for Britain to slough off the responsibilities she had inherited with the empire. If they were abandoned, the consequences could be disastrous, threatening small countries like Singapore. Our closest link with an industrial power was with Britain. If we lost that link, we would suffer a severe setback. I added simply but sincerely that Britain and the empire constituted the world that I had known all my life, a world in which the British were central to our survival; whilst we wanted freedom to decide what we should do with our lives, we also wanted and needed our long historical, cultural and economic ties to be maintained. We especially valued our association with the Labour Party, which had helped us during our struggle for independence.
The PAP’s main concern now was to consolidate its gains and make sure Singapore was not dominated and kept down by Malay leaders in Kuala Lumpur. I emphasised to Selkirk that ideally we should delay the arrests until after merger. I stressed to Philip Moore that no action should be taken before the election of the 15 Singapore seats in the federal parliament. I wanted the Barisan to be free to contest them because if they were removed and there was no apparent communist threat, the Alliance could win a fair number of the seats. Later, Lord Lansdowne, minister of state to Sandys, referred to my “surprising candour” in telling him that it was to my advantage to preserve a pro-communist rump in the opposition. Indeed I had my reasons.
I had gone to see the Tunku after I returned from Moscow and had spent a few days with him. My explanation for my visit to the Soviet Union mollified him, but I knew he was not satisfied. He was uncomfortable with someone who had a mind of his own and was too ready to argue and, if necessary, take independent action. True, I did not undermine him, but neither did I listen to him, by which he meant obey him. He and Razak were planning for the period after Malaysia; that included who should be in charge of Singapore to do their bidding, and I sensed that the Tunku was writing me off as a compliant caretaker. He wanted someone who was as obedient and loyal as Tan Siew Sin or Lim Yew Hock. He and Razak both liked Keng Swee, but even Keng Swee was not altogether “safe”. He was too intellectual and not susceptible to persuasion or temptation.
I was fortunate in that the British understood and sympathised with my point of view. They saw that the way Kuala Lumpur governed their own Chinese would not work in Singapore. The Chinese of Singapore would not be browbeaten; they were accustomed to conditions in a British colony, they had never been under Malay rule, and strong-arm tactics would be bound to stir up violent resistance.
Lim Chin Siong joined in the rhetoric, saying that the PAP was souring relations between Singapore and Indonesia over the Brunei revolt by spreading false rumours that Jakarta had engineered it and was anti-Chinese. No one had said this publicly before, and it scared the Chinese-speaking. People could sense that big forces were at work, that Singapore’s choice lay between joining Malaysia and going with the Tunku, or joining an anti-Chinese Indonesia to line up with the Indonesian Communist Party, the Barisan’s ideological partner. Furthermore, the revolt had now given the wrangling members of the Internal Security Council common ground for action.
It was his method of dealing with stubborn parties, wringing concessions from both sides until they finally reached agreement. He had done this before to the Singapore delegation, providing strong drinks but little food to wear us down. It was not unlike what the communists did to us at committee meetings, which they would drag out until enough of the non-communists had gone home before the vote was taken. That evening, anticipating a repeat of this technique, we came prepared with supplies of sandwiches and some bottles of beer, which we brought in typewriter cases to the separate room where we met when we called for breaks for our own delegation discussions. When we ran out of food, our trusted cabinet secretary, Wong Chooi Sen, would telephone Choo at the Park Lane Hotel to order more sandwiches from room service. We did this until Choo reported that room service had run out of sandwiches. To keep our heads clear, we declined Sandys’ hard liquor. This prudence and the supply of food kept our stamina up throughout the gruelling night. We believed Razak’s side was not as well-provisioned.
Finally, near dawn, it was agreed that we would pay 40 per cent of our “national taxes”, or 28 per cent of our total revenue, to the federal government to meet the increased defence expenditure necessitated by the “Confrontation” with Indonesia. In place of a $50 million gift to the Borneo territories, there would now be a $150 million loan, $100 million of which would be interest-free for five years. The common market would be implemented over 12 years, and Singapore would remain dutyfree for most important commodities in the entrepot trade. A special board would gradually equalise tariffs over this period.
The tours were an enormous success. As I argued against the unreasonable demands of Tan Siew Sin and Razak, the people swung behind me. The crowds kept growing bigger and warmer with each visit, the leaders eager to participate in welcoming me and to be seen supporting the PAP government. The officials with me followed up, listening to the people’s requests for surfaced roads, drains, power, streetlights, standpipes, clinics, schools, community centres. The easier needs they dealt with quickly; the more difficult ones I promised to study and meet if practical. Community centres were useful for disseminating information to counter communist propaganda, and we started building them – simple wooden structures with corrugated asbestos roofs and cement floors, each equipped with electric bulbs, a ceiling fan, a ping-pong table, a carrom table and a black-and-white television set.
The welcome committees would wait for me for hours if I was held up along the way. Old women and young girls would present petitions asking me to solve their personal grievances. The Indians would take me into their temples, scatter flowers in my path and put a colour mark on my forehead, a gesture of respect for an honoured guest. The Chinese would also bring me to their temples, and greet me at the entrance with lion dancers and the sound of gongs and drums to herald my arrival. It was good for their devotees to see the prime minister honouring their places of worship. I would burn joss-sticks in front of the altars, some Buddhist, others Taoist. The Malays would greet me with their kompang bands, 12 or 14 young men with tambourines and hand-held drums, and their elders would place on my head a tanjak, the brocade cloth folded into a cap worn by chieftains.
from the upper floors of their premises, and one night in Hong Lim, they yelled threats at me and displayed protest banners from a flat roof. When I told the TV cameraman to turn his lights on them and capture them on film, they switched off their own and vanished. I invited them to come down to show themselves and argue their case with me. They refused, enabling me to point out to the thousands around me that when the communists were confronted with “the masses” out in the open, they switched off their lights and slunk away to hide in the dark.
Sometimes I made as many as ten speeches in a day, each in Malay, English, and Hokkien or Mandarin. I would sweat profusely. I brought three or four singlets and shirts with me and would nip quietly into somebody’s toilet or behind the partition inside a shop from time to time to change into dry clothes, and I carried a small towel to wipe the sweat off my face. I would come home with my right hand bruised and painful from hundreds if not thousands of handshakes, and every now and again a real power squeeze. My back, too, was bruised and blue from bumping against the metal crossbar of the Land Rover. I learnt to offer my left hand to relieve my right, and also to push my thumb and forefinger right up against the other person’s to prevent my fingers from being squeezed, and I had a thick pad of towels wound around the crossbar to act as a shock absorber.
But I was young, under 40. My adrenaline was flowing, and I was inspired by the warm response of the crowd. Speaking in Hokkien and Mandarin, I had convinced the Chinese that I was not a stooge of the British, that I was fighting for their future. The Malays backed me because they saw me fighting the Chinese communists. The Indians, as a smaller minority, were fearful and therefore reassured to find me completely at home with all races, speaking bazaar Malay and English to them and even a few words of greeting in Tamil.
News of how each tour had been more successful than the last spread rapidly by word of mouth in the coffee shops and through the press and television. It generated a groundswell of enthusiasm among the people, especially the shopkeepers and community leaders. I became a kind of political pop star.
In the early days from November 1962 to January 1963, we faced cool, unresponsive and sometimes hostile crowds together, and as I slowly got through to the people, they felt it was as much their achievement as mine. They ranged from the Malay driver of my Land Rover, who had to sit through and listen to hundreds of my speeches in languages he did not understand, perking up each time I spoke in Malay, to officers from the veterinary services, the Public Works Department who looked after the roads and drains, the Public Utilities Board who supplied water and electricity, and the Radio & Television Singapore crew.
When I got to the microphone there was a round of booing and hissing, and as I began to speak the jeer leaders began chanting slogans to drown me out. I kept my patience and appealed for a chance to speak without interruption. But the uproar continued, and after speaking for a few minutes to make sure that the unreasonable behaviour of the rowdies would be obvious to everyone, I signalled to a plain-clothes police officer. Suddenly, the spotlights came on and focused on the noisiest sections of the crowd, and the photographers and cameramen rushed forward to film them. The effect was instantaneous and salutary. They had not masked their faces with handkerchiefs this time. They knew that officers would pore over photographic enlargements to identify them, and there would be retribution if they persisted. The jeers and chanting stopped. The occasion turned out to be a demonstration of my resourcefulness and resolve to meet their threats when they played it rough, and enhanced my standing as a leader prepared to go to the end of the road in any fight.
I made my points quietly in Hokkien – my command of the dialect had become an asset that protected me from Barisan charges that I was betraying the people. People sensed the strength of my convictions.
But I had no intention of wrecking Malaysia. Having negotiated at several constitutional conferences, I knew the legal position only too well: once I was in Malaysia, not only would the army and the police be under the control of Kuala Lumpur, but Kuala Lumpur could declare a state of emergency and govern by decree. So I wanted as many safeguards built into the constitution or spelt out in official documents as possible in case the federal government decided to do anything stupid.
On 11 September, I announced that the differences between us had been settled. It could be said that by using the colonial power to coerce the Malayan leaders, I was earning ill-will and storing up trouble for the future. But my unilateral declaration of independence had been necessary in order to warn the British that I could make things difficult for them and for the Tunku if he did not fulfil his promises. My methods succeeded, but at a price. The Tunku and Razak were confirmed in their view that I was a difficult man to handle, and from then on they would always be guarded when dealing with me.
On 16 September, we held a second ceremony, this time with Sandys representing Britain and Ismail representing Malaya, standing with me on the steps of City Hall as I declared Singapore a part of Malaysia and pledged the loyalty of its people to the federal government. The Tunku was not aware that it was my 40th birthday. If he had been, he might well have changed the date – my birthday could not be his lucky day.
But the most devastating blow for the Tunku was that the PAP had defeated UMNO in all three of its overwhelmingly Malay constituencies, which he had specially come down to Singapore to address on the eve of the election. Faced with the choice of a weak Alliance, a strong Barisan and a credible PAP, the Malays in the southern islands, Kampong Kembangan and Geylang Serai had voted for the PAP. We had strong Malay candidates, the best of whom was Yaacob bin Mohamed. This result was to have tremendous repercussions. We did not know until after the Malaysian election in April 1964 how ominously UMNO viewed this unexpected PAP victory and how vicious their counter-attacks would be.
“This was a famous victory and the crowning achievement to date of Lee Kuan Yew’s career. It is a much more decisive victory than the 1959, since he won then with communist support but on this occasion he fought communists openly and decisively defeated them.
“We have always said in Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew is the only man who can run this city and that the Malaysian government would either have to do business with him or put him in jail. The latter is now unthinkable and we must hope that enough moderation will be shown on both sides to make a working partnership possible. Lee spoke to me on the phone this morning and I took the opportunity of stressing to him the importance of not gloating too much over the Alliance defeat and concentrating on improving his relationship with Kuala Lumpur. He has made so many mistakes over this in the past and it is up to him to make a genuine effort to strike up a new relationship.”
He was convinced that we were in the right, that we must fight, and that we would win.
But my most important backroom player was Keng Swee, with his clear mind and sharp pen. He helped me refine the tactics that defeated the communists. For every clever move they made, we worked out a counter-move. Throughout this fight and for the next 21 years until he retired as deputy prime minister in 1984, he was my alter ego, always the sceptic, always turning a proposition on its head to reveal its flaws and help me reshape it. He was my resident intellectual par excellence and a doughty fighter. There were several other stalwarts, but these three stood out.
At the time, I did not take much notice. I thought it was just post-election morale-boosting. I did not then understand the nuances of Malay talk and it took me another nine months to grasp the real implications. Little knowing that this was the prelude to a bitter campaign of hate, which would come to a head in Malay-Chinese riots, I had blithely told the crowd at a rally in Fullerton Square that time would heal hurt feelings.
I was still talking in terms of UMNO and the PAP fighting our common enemies, the MCP with their united front supporters and Sukarno’s Indonesia, which was under communist influence. I did not know that the Tunku’s lieutenants, like Albar, thought differently. They left the British to protect them from the Indonesians. For them, it was more important to deal with the enemy within – the PAP, which, unless stopped in its tracks, would start to win over Malays from the kampongs in Malaya itself.
I did not understand until nearly a year later that if the PAP wanted to join the Alliance as part of a coalition it must accept the role of an MCA, and bring the Chinese around to cooperating in the national interest to further UMNO’s programme, which basically was to help the Malays.
Head had wisdom, that rare quality of learning from one’s mistakes and, better still, from the mistakes of others. He also understood the Tunku and the hierarchical structure of Malay society. It was not unlike what he had found in northern Nigeria.
His assessments and reports to London made an enormous difference to the outcome of the tussle between the Tunku and his Ultras on one side, and my colleagues and me on the other. The Ultras pressed for a completely Malay-dominated Malaysia. We in Singapore – especially those born in or deeply attached to Malaya like Chin Chye, Pang Boon and Raja – were determined to establish a multiracial Malaysian Malaysia. This was the heart of the matter.
He sensed that I was a restless, active person who was keen to do something to counter Sukarno’s propaganda offensive. He suggested that I get the Tunku to send me to Africa to win their support, which he thought would be useful on the psychological front while the British held the military front. He also foresaw that it would make me better known internationally, which would mean that if things ever came to the point where the Tunku wanted to lock me up, there would be a bigger price to pay.
“Instead of making Malaysia known to the Africans, he would make himself known to the African countries,” he said in parliament on 3 January 1964. He wanted a Federation cabinet minister to head it. The Tunku replied that I had asked his permission to explain Malaysia to friends in that part of the world, and he thought it was better for the people from the new territories of the Federation to go on their own to inform the African states that they had joined it of their own free will. If the government was dissatisfied with the results of the mission, it could send another delegation, in which case he would include Albar in it.
After all the excitement, I was not sleepy. I picked up some reading material from the bedside table. It was a paean of praise for the president, the star of Africa, the saviour of his country. I folded the pamphlet to take home as a souvenir of how not to impress guests.
At 3 am, I woke up feeling an enormous weight on my chest. I feared I was about to have a heart attack. I slept fitfully. At breakfast, I asked some other members of the mission whether any of them had experienced this strange sensation. None had. I wished we had brought a doctor with us. When the main party arrived in a coach from a hotel in town, I was greatly relieved to find that several of them had had the same experience. It was mountain sickness. Addis Ababa was 8,500 feet above sea level.
I had received an unforgettable lesson in decolonisation, on how crucial it was to have social cohesion and capable, effective government to take power from the colonial authority, especially in Africa. When the leader did not preserve the unity of the country by sharing power with the chiefs of the minority tribes, but excluded them, the system soon broke down. Worse, when misguided policies based on half-digested theories of socialism and redistribution of wealth were compounded by less than competent government, societies formerly held together by colonial power splintered, with appalling consequences.
Keng Swee was absolutely against any token participation; he believed it would sour relations between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and jeopardise his plans for our industrialisation within the Federation. I also had my reservations, but since the Tunku had breached his verbal undertaking to me not to participate in Singapore’s elections, I felt no longer bound by my return undertaking and went with the decision of the central executive committee.
I thought I understood them. In fact, I did not. I did not understand that their objection was basic; they did not want the Chinese to be represented by a vigorous leadership that propounded a non-communal or a multiracial approach to politics and would not confine its appeal only to the Chinese.
The excitement the PAP had generated was enormous. I emphasised in my speech that if elected, our nine PAP candidates would trigger a social revolution far beyond their arithmetical significance. “If you demonstrate positively that you are in favour of an honest party with a dynamic social and economic policy, then the winds of change will begin to sweep throughout Malaysia,” I said, borrowing Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase.
In a month of campaigning, I motored up and down Malaya to the towns where we had candidates – Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Malacca and Kluang – and everywhere we held rallies, huge crowds turned up. They wanted to see and hear us. They gave me a big cheer each time. They had heard, read, and in some cases, seen what we had done in Singapore and appeared keen to have us do the same for them in Malaya.
As if to underline the difference between the two, I spoke in Malacca about Keng Swee and Tan Siew Sin, both Malacca-born: “They shared the same grandfather, but there the similarity ends.” As finance minister of Singapore, Keng Swee had pursued policies that had led to financial surpluses, reflecting his harsher and more spartan background. He was a teacher of economics and a social worker. On the other hand, Tan had 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 in order to provide the best dividends for the directors. He was a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth who had moved easily into high political positions in the wake of his father’s reputation. He represented the rural Malay constituency of Malacca Tengah, and so found it unnecessary to learn to speak or write Chinese. Yet, he claimed to lead the Chinese of Malaysia.
Tan Siew Sin was angered, but the Tunku came to his rescue. Sink or swim, UMNO would stand by the MCA; even if there were only five of them left, he would never throw his partners overboard – unlike the PAP, which came into power with the help of the communists and had now got rid of them, the Tunku said. With the Tunku behind him, Tan retaliated in strong terms. The PAP was capable of stabbing one in the back; principle and honour counted for little with its leaders, and Lee himself was like a chameleon, he charged, whose idea of democracy itself was in doubt, judging by the lack of democracy in the PAP.
He had received hundreds of letters from Malays in Singapore, including government servants, complaining about their plight under the PAP, he said. It was a sinister racist line that he was to plug with ever greater venom to make the Malays hate me.
Where had the PAP gone wrong? First, we did not have an indigenous party with branches and local leaders in Malaya. We had moved in workers from Singapore, and although quite a few had been born and bred in Malaya, they did not have that rapport with the grass roots needed to win their confidence. Second, we had no experience of campaigning in the Federation. In Singapore, everything was voluntary, and often even our banners were donated by supporters. In Malaya, everything had to be paid for in cash, including the workers who put up the posters and banners. By the end of the campaign, the PAP was over $60,000 in debt, after having spent some $40,000 of its own funds. Third, our token participation did not give people a good reason to switch from the MCA to the PAP. They wanted to retain links with the UMNO-led government that was in charge of issuing the licences they needed. The way to make a dent and change their voting habits would have been to field a large enough contingent to be credible, to make it worth their while to back us in the expectation that we would be strong enough to cut a deal with UMNO. We did not understand the power equation that was uppermost in the minds of the urban voters of Malaya, 75 per cent of whom were Chinese or Indian and only 25 per cent Malay.
Did PAP participation in the election cause relations between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to deteriorate? Yes, but it made no difference to the main cause of conflict and eventual separation – UMNO’s determination to maintain total Malay supremacy.
After we lost, our relations with UMNO ministers did not deteriorate dramatically, but they could not have remained smooth for long because of this fundamental difference between us. They wanted us to confine ourselves to Chinese voters and stop appealing to the Malays. They would not tolerate any challenge to their hold on their Malay political base. The Malay electorate was out of bounds to non-Malay parties like the PAP. The MCA accepted that restriction. We did not.
For the Malays, too, there were ominous social and political changes, which had intensified their feeling of insecurity. For the first time, the Tunku found he had to defend himself in parliament for giving expatriate officers a 10 per cent pay rise. Not only did the PAP and the Socialist Front MPs attack him, but the Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services and senior government officers in Malaya had also taken a leaf out of the Singapore experience and mounted a protest.
But he was a great rabble-rouser, skilful in working up the mob and, as I was to learn, totally ruthless and unscrupulous in his methods. His English was not adequate for public speaking, but his Malay was superb, his delivery powerful. He did not need to be reported in the English-language press, which would have shown him up as a racist to English speakers not only in Malaysia but internationally. He concentrated on the Malay newspapers, and his most strident lines were confined to them, especially to the Utusan Melayu, which was printed in Jawi (the Arabic script) and not read by the Chinese, Indians, British or other Europeans. The Utusan had been bought by UMNO, and was Albar’s weapon of choice for multiplying the effect of his speeches.
They now mounted 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. The truth was that the Malays were never discriminated against by the PAP government. On the contrary, they were given free education, something not accorded to children of other races, and although there was no Malay quota for taxi or hawker licences as in Malaya, we made sure that there were always Malay shops and stalls to cater for Malay customers in our Housing and Development Board neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, on 13 May 1964, the Utusan reported that there was anxiety and unrest among Malays over the allocation of stalls in the new Geylang Serai market, and in June claimed that the PAP’s policy on schools had led to Malay education becoming retrogressive.
constituencies. I did not realise then that this was part of a campaign. If our supporters did throw firecrackers I should apologise, and I did so on television. On investigation, the charges proved completely unfounded. But regardless of the truth, UMNO leaders were able to work up enough feelings to have me burnt in effigy a week later.
The reality was that the land they were asked to quit was private property. The owner was within his rights to issue the notices, and he would have to negotiate with the tenants and pay them compensation. It had nothing to do with the Singapore government.
The Utusan conveniently ignored this, and on 28 May, reported that 3,000 Malays were threatened with eviction from their homes in Crawford, Rochor and Kampong Glam. I toured these constituencies to tell the people that the quit notices were sent to Malays, Chinese and Indians impartially in order to implement a plan submitted by a United Nations expert to rebuild the city, starting from the outer parts and working towards the centre.
The Utusan conveniently ignored this, and on 28 May, reported that 3,000 Malays were threatened with eviction from their homes in Crawford, Rochor and Kampong Glam. I toured these constituencies to tell the people that the quit notices were sent to Malays, Chinese and Indians impartially in order to implement a plan submitted by a United Nations expert to rebuild the city, starting from the outer parts and working towards the centre. We had to demolish old buildings and rehouse the people affected by this urban renewal scheme. We would provide them with temporary accommodation nearby, and each family would be given $300 to cover the cost of moving and priority to return once the new buildings were completed. We were also under attack on more general grounds. On 23 May, an editorial in the Utusan accused the PAP and me of inciting non-Malays to demand the abolition of the special rights of the Malays. On 11 June, the paper proclaimed, “Singapore UMNO directed to take steps
That all these were flagrant falsehoods was irrelevant as long as they succeeded in inflaming the Malay ground.
The memorandum concluded that at no time did those in authority in Kuala Lumpur restrain those indulging in inflammatory racist propaganda. Nobody put a stop to it, and nobody was prosecuted for sedition, as they could so easily have been. The evidence produced clearly showed that the riots were not a spontaneous and unwilled manifestation of genuine animosities between the races. The purpose of the campaign was principally to reestablish the political influence of UMNO among the Singapore Malays. An even more important objective was to use the Singapore Malays as pawns to consolidate Malay support for UMNO in Malaya itself. By placing the blame for the riots on our government and depicting it as oppressing the Malays of Singapore, the perpetrators hoped to frighten those elsewhere in the Federation into rallying around UMNO for protection.
one effect of the senseless violence was to segregate the two races. The Chinese felt persecuted and looked at their Malay neighbours with apprehension and suspicion, while the Malays who lived in a predominantly Chinese part of the island were afraid of being vulnerable in a race riot. Chinese families that formed minority pockets in a Malay area quietly moved out to stay with relatives elsewhere, even if it meant selling their homes to incoming Malays at a discount. The same process occurred in reverse, with Malay families moving out of mainly Chinese areas to seek refuge in schools and community centres under police protection. It was terribly disheartening, a negation of everything we had believed in and worked for – gradual integration and the blurring of the racial divide. It was impossible to dispel or overcome the deep-seated distrust evoked once irrational killing had been prompted simply by the mere appearance, whether Malay or Chinese, of the victim
People did foolish and vicious things to each other when the enemy was identified only by race, as if it were a uniform.
Before they broke out, international opinion had been developing in Malaysia’s favour. It was folly for the UMNO leaders to allow Albar to mount racial clashes in Singapore and so give Sukarno a propaganda advantage – evidence that Malaysia was a neo-colonialist arrangement with serious racial conflicts threatening its unity as a federation. It was a heavy price for the Malaysian government to pay to teach the PAP a lesson for taking part in the Malayan election and to regain the Malay ground they had lost in the 1963 Singapore election. UMNO leaders knew what Albar was up to from reading the Utusan Melayu, but allowed him to go on.
Razak told him that he saw a way out. He was willing to set up a national government of Malaysia in which the PAP would be represented in the federal cabinet – on condition that I resigned as prime minister of Singapore; I could take up a post at the United Nations and make an effective contribution from there. After two or three years, the position might be reviewed. Keng Swee asked whether, as a quid pro quo, Albar would be removed. Razak answered, “No.”
“Razak admitted that his opinion was sought whether or not trouble would break out in Singapore and he had given as his opinion that trouble would not break out. He admitted that he had made an error of judgement. Had he foreseen it, he would have taken action.”
“Now, this amounts to an admission that he was involved in this whole campaign to whip up Malay racist and religious feelings in Singapore. And Albar’s entry into Singapore and his campaigning in Singapore and the support given to Utusan Melayu had the full backing of Razak. It could not have been otherwise.
“In fact, some days, perhaps more than a week before the riots broke out, I remember Mr Lee was extremely worried and felt in his bones that there was going to be race trouble. Discussed it with me. I was too engrossed on economic and financial matters. I was not fully informed and appeared quite sceptical about this. Again, this is a matter of political judgement – getting the feel of the situation – which I had not. When I questioned Mr Lee very closely, he just sighed and changed the subject. 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, Razak was involved in it and it was clearly his intention to remove Mr Lee from office. That was the purpose of Albar’s campaign.”
On my return, I told the director of the People’s Association to look for retired bandsmen from the Singapore Infantry Regiment, and got my violin-playing contemporary at Raffles College, Kwan Sai Keong, now permanent secretary at the ministry of education, to mount a crash programme for brass bands in all secondary schools. My plan succeeded. On Singapore State National Day in June 1965, the PA band was on parade, and so were bands from a few secondary schools. We had shown Kuala Lumpur they could not hold down a resourceful and determined people. Later, we expanded the programme downwards to take in the primary schools, and then upwards to the university. Soon we had a youth orchestra. I believed music was a necessary part of nation-building. It uplifted the spirits of a people.
If Labour formed the next government, I hoped it would honour the obligations that the British Conservative government had undertaken. I said that given time people in developing countries would evolve a fairer and more just society, like the one in Britain of which they had read. This theme resonated with the prospective MPs, and consolidated my standing with Wilson. That was to make a crucial difference to events in Singapore in the coming year. Later that evening Greenwood told me he had given me a captive audience and I had done a superb job in winning their support for Malaysia.
I was terribly depressed, but determined not to allow the situation to get worse by showing any sign of despair. If we were to fight and win this battle, the morale of the population and their will to resist was of the utmost importance.
He looked at me intently and said, “We cannot let down the Chinese people.” I told him we had our rights guaranteed in the constitution, and I had no intention of allowing this to be ignored. It was our business to unite and mobilise the people to ensure that the constitution was respected. There would be no discrimination between races, other than what was provided for in that constitution, which entitled Malays to special quotas for education, jobs, licences and contracts only in peninsular Malaysia. He said, “You have good relations with the British Labour Party, can you not get them to help us out of this difficulty? Let us be on our own. It is terrible to live like this.”
He shared the mood of the Chinese-speaking community who found it intolerable to live in a constant state of fear. The first communal riots had been engineered, with emotions stoked up over months and then sparked by Malay bersilat groups from the peninsula. Once the senseless beating and killing of innocent passers-by had taken place, it was easy to provoke them a second time. Everyone felt this. The poison of racial suspicions had spread. Relations had become tinder-dry and it would not take much to ignite them again.
But morale in Singapore had sagged. The city looked scruffy. With the weakening of law enforcement, Indian herdsmen had allowed their cows and goats to graze on playing fields and even on the grass verges of roundabouts. A lawyer drove his car into a cow one night just outside the town centre and was killed. From my office window, I could see cattle on the Esplanade. After the two riots, the place was slovenly, with more litter, more cows and goats meandering on the streets, more stray dogs, more flies, more mosquitoes, more beggars. Even the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital were unkempt. I was determined to check this decline.
Then Tan Siew Sin struck again. In his budget speech on 25 November, he announced tough new measures to increase revenue, including a one-half per cent turnover tax on gross earnings and a 2 per cent tax on the total payrolls of all trading and other business houses. This would hit Singapore most. We needed to create more jobs, and increasing the cost of the work force would discourage labour-intensive industries. I pointed out that the measures would not help Malaysia’s industrialisation, and were likely to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. In his first speech in the federal parliament, Keng Swee also said that the taxes were regressive and the timing unfortunate. Singapore would be paying 25 per cent of the national turnover tax and 40 per cent of the payroll tax yields, which was manifestly out of proportion to its population and economy. And when the Singapore Trade Union Congress with well-reasoned arguments objected to the new taxes as anti-labour, Tan accused our government of using all the machinery at its disposal to inflame mob passions against them.
The Tunku himself sounded ominous at a Medical College dinner in Singapore on 9 December, saying Singapore was “full of politics. In Singapore, for instance, you will find there is less harmony than elsewhere in Malaysia. … That was why I was not very anxious to bring Singapore into the Federation.” Our criticisms of the turnover and payroll taxes had struck home, for he added: “If we find that any particular kind of taxation appears to be either unworkable or objectionable, then we can make changes. … If the politicians of various colours and tinges and flashes in Singapore (the lightning flash is the symbol of the PAP) disagree with me, the only solution is a breakaway, but what a calamity that would be for Singapore and Malaysia.”
Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Puasa, the two biggest festivals of the Chinese and Malays, fell on the same day, 31 January, in 1965. In my message, I made a strong pitch for racial harmony to counter Indonesian propaganda, which had aggravated Malay-Chinese feelings. The appeal Sukarno was making to pan-Malayism had made UMNO emphasise its “Malayness” to outdo him. My message provoked a sharp response from the Tunku the next day:
I replied four days later, at a dinner given by the goodwill committees, that if we faced up to the unpleasant facts of life, we were more likely to resolve them than if we pretended they did not exist. Things were being said which, if allowed to go on, would lead to great unhappiness. I was referring to articles in the Utusan Melayu that continued to stoke up Malay feelings against me, the PAP and the Chinese. We published translations in English, Chinese and Tamil of these daily diatribes, and broadcast excerpts in all languages on radio and television. The Tunku knew I had seen through their tactics. He wanted me to keep quiet and talk things over with him privately. But I had first to expose to everyone the vicious racist campaign that Ja’afar Albar and the Utusan were conducting.
I told the Tunku that if we were to pay towards defence then we must be in parliament. There could not be taxation without representation. But he was emphatic; as I wrote to my cabinet colleagues, “his desire to get us out is implacable”. When I added that I might not be able to persuade them to accept my views, the Tunku burst out with considerable heat, “You tell them that I will not have Singapore, that is all. I do not want Singapore in parliament and they can do nothing about it.”
One saving grace in the midst of the growing tension and bitter altercation between Singapore and Malaysian leaders was that confidential dialogue was still possible between Keng Swee and myself on the one hand, and the Tunku and Razak on the other. Razak was comfortable with Keng Swee but not with me; the Tunku also preferred Keng Swee but did not find me unacceptable and would talk to me, so our private and frank exchanges at a personal level were able to prevent disaster.
But the situation in South Vietnam showed that however massive the military cover, however enormous the economic assistance, if the leaders did not set out to secure their own salvation, the end result would still be perdition, both for the helper and the helped. I said: “The more Malay leadership in Malaysia talks in terms of Malay nationalism, the more non-Malays in Malaysia will be in doubt as to their future. Theoretically, there would be three possibilities if disintegration set in: (1) Malaysia’s absorption or conquest by a third power; (2) Supremacy of one community over the others in Malaysia; or (3) A drift towards segregation and ultimately partition. “All three have gruesome implications.”
I explained the pressures the Tunku was under. Sukarno was appealing over his head to the Malays of Malaysia, a large proportion of whom had come not so very long ago from Sumatra and Java. But by trying to outbid Sukarno’s pan-Malayism, the Tunku was alienating the Chinese and the Indians. It was crucial that somebody he trusted, like Menzies, should explain to him that the long-term future lay not in squatting on the Chinese and Indians, but in giving them a place under the Malaysian sun. I pointed out that the three major races in Malaysia – the Malays, Chinese and Indians – had the wellsprings of their culture outside Malaysia, in Indonesia, China and India. The leaders in those countries could pull at their heartstrings as much if not more than could the Malaysian leaders themselves.
It was a gruelling trip. In every city I made speeches, gave interviews on radio and television, and addressed university audiences and the press. It was well worth the effort. I put across a realistic picture of Malaysia and left New Zealanders and Australians in no doubt that we needed and valued their help, that they were right to help us, and that together, we could succeed.
The truth was that my first sin in the eyes of the Alliance leaders was to have received a favourable press in New Zealand and Australia. They also knew from the Malaysian high commissioners in Wellington and Canberra that I had been warmly received by both prime ministers and their cabinets. But their main grievance was that my arguments and my analysis of the situation had carried weight with both governments
“How does giving bus licences or licences to run bus companies to one or two hundred Malay families solve the problem of Malay poverty? The Malays are farmers. In Australia and New Zealand, all the farmers are wealthy people. How is it that in Malaysia farmers are poor? Because there is no agricultural research, seed selection, fertilisation, improvement in double-cropping techniques, what cash crops you can grow.” My statement was reported in the Chinese and English language newspapers but not in the Malay press. Nor was it carried on Radio & Television Malaysia. So as far as the Malays were concerned, there was no denial by me, and the Utusan Melayu was able to keep on stirring up the ground against me.
“I will not need to tell you that, if my own influence is to have significance, I must not form any judgements in advance and it must not be made to appear that I have done so.”
Not satisfied with blocking us, Tan wanted to take over our entire textile quota. The federal government had claimed quotas for woven textiles and made-up garments when they did not even have factories in which to produce them. Meanwhile, three Singapore textile factories had already been forced to retrench nearly 2,000 workers. Keng Swee said ironically that Singapore was being treated not as a constituent state of Malaysia, but as a dangerous rival to be kept down at all costs. The central government wanted to use the Singapore quota to establish a new garment industry in Malaya while depriving large numbers of unemployed garment workers in Singapore a chance of re-employment. In the end, under gentle pressure from Antony Head, Kuala Lumpur was shamed into giving back the quota to Singapore. By then, Keng Swee was convinced not only that we would not get a common market, but that Tan would seek to siphon off all industrial investments into Malaya regardless of what the investors wanted.
“Tan Siew Sin acted on his own to spite us. Tan was very jealous of Singapore and very envious of Mr Lee. He saw the PAP as a threat to the MCA’s leadership of the Chinese in the peninsula and therefore did not want Singapore to succeed. They (MCA ministers Tan and Lim Swee Aun) acted in utter bad faith. And that is why the longer we stayed in Malaysia, the more doubtful we became that we did the right thing.”
From his description of the disorders in Penang in the 1950s, I realised that what Albar and his UMNO Turks had applied in Singapore was a well-tested method. The police and the army held the ring while favouring the Malay rioters – usually bersilat groups, thugs and gangsters let loose to make mischief. Once passions were aroused and enough Chinese counter-attacked, even ordinary Malays joined in. When the Chinese hit back, they were clobbered by the police and army: law and order were enforced against them, not against the Malays. The result was a sullen, cowed population.
We had jumped out of the frying pan of the communists into the fire of the Malay communalists. We had to find a counter to this system of intimidation through race riots, with Chinese being killed and maimed wherever they dared to resist Malay domination.
We decided that one effective defence would be to link the opposition in all the towns in the Federation in one network, so that a riot in one major city triggered off riots in others to a point where the police and army would be unable to cope, and all hell would be let loose. So we set out to mobilise fellow sufferers who could together put up this counter-threat. If we could find them in Sabah and Sarawak as well as on the mainland, the Chinese in Kuching, Sibu and Jesselton (now renamed Kota Kinabalu) would also riot, and any communal intimidation by Kuala Lumpur would risk tearing Malaysia apart.
If people are discouraged and denounced for abandoning communal loyalties because they have found common ground for political action with Malaysians of other races, then the professed concern for a Malaysian Malaysia is open to serious doubts.”
I decided on a libel action to check these excesses, and my lawyers took the opinion of a leading Queen’s Counsel in London. He had no doubt that it was a libel, and when Albar and the Utusan refused an apology and a retraction, my solicitors took action against them. In their writs they spelt out the innuendo of the libel as meaning that I was a hypocrite, an enemy of and a traitor to my own country, a criminal in that I was responsible for the disturbances and incidents of violence resulting in death and injury to members of the public, and that I was unfit to be prime minister of Singapore. In the action, I cited a story the Utusan published on 25 March 1965: “Lee is accused of being an enemy of Malaysia and an agent of Indonesia. WALK OVER MY DEAD BODY FIRST – ALBAR … Tuan Syed Ja’afar Albar, General Secretary, UMNO Malaya last night accused the PM of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew as being an enemy of Malaysia and an agent of Indonesia.” I also cited an article on 27 March: “Albar accuses Kuan Yew of being an agent of the communists. … The PM of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, is an agent of the communists and the Djakarta regime which has the evil intention to destroy Malaysia … Lee Kuan Yew has the evil intention to destroy Malaysia and pit the Malays and Chinese against each other”.
Then Razak attacked me for a “statement” I had never made and had already denied making – that the Malays were not the indigenous people of Malaysia. Saying that this was mischievous and dangerous and had created a serious situation, he issued an ultimatum that the Alliance government would not work with me and “if the people of Singapore wish to maintain their relationship with us, they must find another leader who is sincere”. Two days later, a group of UMNO youths in Kuala Lumpur burnt me in effigy, and on 16 May, another group picketed the Language Institute where the general meeting of UMNO was due to be held. They carried banners in Malay reading “Suspend Singapore Constitution”, “Detain Lee Kuan Yew”, “Crush Lee Kuan Yew”, and when the Tunku arrived, they shouted “Detain Lee Kuan Yew, detain Lee Kuan Yew!” At the meeting, several delegates demanded my detention, but Ismail said, “This is not the way to do things in Malaysia. We must act constitutionally.” The Tunku subsequently described my alleged remark about the Malays not being indigenous to the country as childish, again ignoring the fact that I had never made it.
“‘If Lee Kuan Yew is really a man, he should not be beating about the bush in his statements and should be brave enough to say “I want to secede from Malaysia because I am not satisfied.” He had entered Malaysia with his eyes open and the present Malaysia was the same Malaysia he had endorsed. Why did he not think of all these objections before? Why only now has he regretted? Why?’ asked Albar in a high-pitched tone. His audience replied, ‘Crush Lee, crush Lee,’ and several voices shouted ‘Arrest Lee and preserve him like entrails in pickle.’ Dato Albar smiled for a moment and then replied, ‘Shout louder so that Dr Ismail can hear the people’s anger. I want to make quite sure that everybody hears the people’s anger.’”
Albar was using the same technique he had employed in Singapore before the 1964 riots. The next day, the Utusan carried a story quoting the Menteri Besar of Selangor, headlined “Lee Kuan Yew is the enemy of the people of Malaya”, and another Malay paper, the Berita Harian, reported that the Menteri Besar of Perak had labelled me “the most dangerous threat to the security of the country.” They were working things up to fever pitch.
I gave him this firm assurance: “We have a vested interest in constitutionalism and in loyalty because we know – and we knew before we joined Malaysia – that if we are patient, if we are firm, this constitution must mean a Malaysian nation emerges.”
I quoted what he had said the day before about the Chinese in Singapore: “They have never known Malay rule and couldn’t bear the idea that the people they have so long kept under their heels should now be in a position to rule them.” To rule them? I drew a distinction between political equality and the special rights for the economic and social uplift of the Malays. I accepted the special rights, but if the other peoples of Malaysia were denied political equality with the Malays, we would not need Sukarno and Confrontation to crush us.
“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? You let people in the kampongs believe that they are poor because we don’t speak Malay, because the government does not write in Malay, so he expects a miracle to take place in 1967 (the year Malay would become the national and sole official language). The moment we all start speaking Malay, he is going to have an uplift in the standard of living, and if it doesn’t happen, what happens then? … 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 don’t oppose Malay rights. They, the Malays, have the right as Malaysian citizens to go up to the level of training and education that the more competitive societies, the non-Malay society, has produced. That is what must be done, isn’t it? Not to feed them with this 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. …”
It was the most significant speech I had ever made in Malay, and I made it to an audience of Malay MPs, many of whom represented rural areas, and to a strangers’ gallery, which was packed with more Malays. I had spoken without a script, and for that reason it had all the more impact. As I spoke, there was a stunned silence. The air was electric.
“He spoke for about half an hour. There must have been about 500 or so in the House and in the gallery but you could hear a pin drop. I think if they could have cheered, they would have. Looking back, I think that was the moment when the Tunku and his colleagues felt it was better to have Singapore and Mr Lee out.”
My Malay cabinet colleague, Othman Wok, was in the chamber. He recalled: “The chamber was very quiet and nobody stirred. The ministers of the central government sunk down so low in their seats that only their foreheads could be seen over the desk in front of them. The backbenchers were spellbound. They could understand every word. That was the turning point. They perceived Lee as a dangerous man who could one day be the prime minister of Malaysia.” I had no such illusions. Malaysia would not have a Chinese prime minister for a very, very long time.
The Malays present did not expect me, the supposed anti-Malay Chinese chauvinist out to destroy the Malay race, to speak in Malay with no trace of a Chinese dialect accent that most Chinese would have. I had been born and bred in Singapore, speaking the language from childhood. I could trace my ancestors for three generations in Singapore. They had made as big a contribution to the country as any Malay in the chamber. And I was on their side, not against them. I wanted to improve their lot.
The Tunku and Razak looked most unhappy. I was meeting them on their own Malay ground and competing for support peacefully with arguments in an open debate. I was not rattled by their strident, shrill and even hysterical cries of abuse and denigration. I could hold my own. If allowed to go on, I might begin to win over some Malays. They could see that among the MPs wearing the Haji skullcaps of those who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, heads were nodding in agreement when I pointed out that simply having Malay as the national language would not improve their economic lot. They needed practical programmes directed in the fields of agriculture and education.
He brought up many issues which disturbed the equilibrium of even the most tolerant Members of the House.” He sent me a copy of the book, inscribed: “Mr Lee Kuan Yew “The friend who had worked so hard to found Malaysia and even harder to break it up. Kindest regards Tunku Abdul Rahman 26.5.77”
I did not speak Malay better than the Tunku. Even if I did, I was still not a Malay and could not be the leader of Malaysia. But when he heard me that day in parliament, he realised that I was getting my message through to his own backbenchers. That was unacceptable.
“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 for 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.”
“If we fail now to act on what we resolve, there may be no future, and there may be no equitable society for us, or for our children. The most important and the most fundamental attitude which this convention must manifest is the spirit of resolve and steadfastness in the face of the extremely vicious and near-hysterical criticisms which are hurled against us.”
He spoke simply but with tremendous effect. His speech was so devastating that the English newspapers were afraid to publish his punchlines. He said that every time he listened to a radio broadcast from Malaya, the announcer gave the time as Waktu Tanah Melayu – the Time of the Land of the Malays. Why was it not Waktu Tanah Malaysia? So, too, Malayan Railways was known as Kreta Api Tanah Melayu – Railway of the Land of the Malays. Again, why? Simply but effectively, he highlighted the racism.
I reduced it to a simple formula: 40–40–20. If the Chinese appealed to 40 per cent, using Chinese slogans, they must lose. I left UMNO to conclude what would happen in the long run if they appealed only to the Malays.
“every time Mr Tan Siew Sin goes around beating his chest, this is what he represents, the Malays who voted for him. … So, too, with Dato Sambanthan (MIC). He is another honest man. … He said Ja’afar Albar is a good man. Not communal. Do you know why? ‘In my constituency, which is in Perak, Sungei Siput, 90 per cent of the people are Malays, and Dato Albar goes around and tells them to vote for me. So they voted for me.’ Therefore Albar was not a communalist – because he had told the Malays to vote for UMNO’s favourite Chinese and Indian leaders in order that they can then lead the Chinese and Indian communities in the direction UMNO wanted to go!”
I exposed their tactics again: “Get the truth out, and we will know that we have no reason to be afraid, no reason to be intimidated. … If we are … woe betide us. (To) a people that are cowed, frightened, intimidated, they will say: Riots coming, blood will flow. So we will all go home, close our doors and take the blankets and cover our heads. And they march up and down the streets shouting slogans. The next day, peace!”
I stressed that we must not be against special rights for the Malays and the indigenous people. On the contrary, we should compete to raise their economic level in society. “(But) they (UMNO) don’t want to compete. Competition is bad. We are told, ‘Lay off. Don’t try and do anything good.’ They say they are worried about the Malays? I say, so are we. We want to raise their standard of living, and we will, and faster than they can. At the end of 5, 10, 15, 20 years a new generation will grow up that will no longer respond to the special VHF they use. They will be tuning into the multilingual network. They will be thinking like us, working like us, trained like us, prepared to live with us like Malaysians
He asked PAP leaders to come out into the open and state exactly what they wanted for Malaysia. “We know the PAP wants to partition this country. Does it want to set up a republic? Does it want to get rid of our rulers, our so-called privileges? Tell us, spell it out, come out in the open.”
“Mr Lee used to be sitting with me at this table,” he said, tapping his conference table in the Residency. “We spent many late hours discussing many problems. In spite of everything, he still insisted on joining us. Now why bring up all these issues? It is very bad.” The Tunku said he had to fight against speaking in parliament because if he did so, he would have to attack me and he did not want to do that. I read that as a ray of hope and responded immediately by saying, “Let’s talk and resolve our difficulties, but these talks should touch on certain important and fundamental objectives.” I chided the “hatchet men”, the slogan-shouting communal extremists, for their “rough talk and strong abrasive words. … To these people I make this plea, be like the Tunku, talk nicely, politely and calmly and win the hearts of the people of Singapore.”
We believed that the federal government had influenced Ong Eng Guan to resign, through an MCA member who was Ong’s former political secretary when he was mayor, in 1957–59. They wanted a by-election to test how much support the PAP had. If the Barisan could defeat us, they could neutralise PAP leaders using the Internal Security Act, without much agitation against our detention.
He was tense, fidgety and ill-at-ease. I deplored the damage the Utusan had done and was still doing, pouring out racist poison day after day. I complained about the double-faced policy of UMNO, that while the top leaders reached reasonable agreements and political truces with us, the secondary leaders kept up a screech of hate in the Utusan and the Malayan Merdeka, which circulated in the villages. I said any future agreements must be in writing and made known to all, including the secondary leaders, and that the clamour in the Malay press must stop. Otherwise, any political accommodation was meaningless. Razak replied that this was very difficult and they would have to think it over.
The most significant statement he made was that “we must decide whether you are going to work with us or to fight us”. I said he knew the attitude of the PAP, that we had always wanted to work with UMNO, but that UMNO, and in particular the Ultras, were determined that we should be crushed.
It was a most uncomfortable two hours. Razak did not want to face the issues I raised and there was no meeting of minds. He left me with a clear impression that UMNO would not budge from its basic principle of a Malay-based political system that would not tolerate encroachment by other races on its exclusive Malay domain.
It was Singapore that had to adjust and accommodate itself to the communal structures that had existed in Malaya before merger, and these could not change. Razak was rigid on this, but we could not accept it. I still hoped that the Tunku might be strong enough to be different. It was not to be. A year later, Razak gave a completely different account of what had taken place.
Razak had forgotten that less than a year earlier, in July 1965, Senu and he had publicly claimed that the Alliance had conceived and formulated the concept of a Malaysian Malaysia. He added that once I saw the danger, I pretended to find ways of easing the situation in order to save Malaysia.
I added that it was not the desire of the Singapore government to revive old controversies, but inaccurate accounts of such top-level discussions made it impossible for Singapore ministers to remain silent.
In the interests of security, civil servants should not be brought in to prepare these, and he asked if we could do the work. Ismail and Razak must have thought through the necessary constitutional procedures.
Keng Swee was also worried. He was uneasy about the burden and the blame he would have to bear if the scheme leaked or was aborted. When I was preparing this book in 1994, he gave me permission to read his oral history recorded in 1980–81, and I learnt that he never pressed Razak for a looser rearrangement as I had asked him to. He knew they wanted Singapore out of their parliament and went along with their desire to have us hive off. Keng Swee also said that he wanted that written undertaking from me because he feared I would balk at separation.
I was still uncertain as to what would happen, whether there would be a rearrangement, a separation, or a collision, when Philip Moore paid me a farewell call on 30 July; he was to be posted to the ministry of defence in London. It was a highly charged, emotional parting. The British, above all, had to be kept in the dark about our discussions and I had to make sure I did not give any hint of the changes we were secretly negotiating to Moore who had been so understanding and supportive. I was grateful for all he had done, I told him, but I had to go on with Malaysia regardless of the consequences. I had persuaded the people to join the Federation and I could not abandon them. It was my responsibility to see that the constitution was honoured. I could not back out. His expression showed grave concern for my personal safety and the future of Singapore.
I began, “We have spent years to bring about Malaysia. The best part of my adult life was to work towards Malaysia, from 1954 to 1963. We have had only less than two years of Malaysia. Do you really want to break it up? Don’t you think it wiser to go back to our original plan, which the British stopped, a looser federation or a confederation?” But from his body language, I knew the Tunku had made up his mind. He said, “No. I am past that. There is no other way now. I have made up my mind; you go your way, we go our own way. So long as you are in any way connected with us, we will find it difficult to be friends because we are involved in your affairs and you will be involved in ours. Tomorrow, when you are no longer in Malaysia and we are no longer quarrelling either in parliament or in the constituencies, we’ll be friends again, and we’ll need each other, and we’ll cooperate.”
The Tunku went off to his desk and wrote a letter to Chin Chye, which he handed to me, saying, “Here, give this to him. There is no need to discuss anything. It is finished.”
As I was leaving, I met Tan Siew Sin. I was angry and bitter at his short-sightedness and stupidity. He had thwarted our industrialisation and brought about the separation almost as much as had the Malay Ultras. He had been determined to frustrate us at every turn. Apart from his personal dislike of Keng Swee and me, he believed that any concession to Singapore would help the PAP to win over the Chinese in Malaysia. He could not see that without Singapore, the position of the Chinese in Malaysia must weaken. I could not help telling him that day, “Today is the day of your victory, the day of my defeat; but in five to ten years, you will certainly feel sad about it.”
is the day of your victory, the day of my defeat; but in five to ten years, you will certainly feel sad about it.”
But secure and supreme were relative terms in this case. Four years later, in May 1969, Malay rioters in Kuala Lumpur would kill and maim hundreds of Chinese and burn their homes and cars. In 1973, when Ismail died, Prime Minister Razak promoted Hussein Onn to be his deputy. Loyal though Tan had been to the Alliance and to UMNO, he was a Chinese, and he discovered that he could not be deputy prime minister. He resigned in 1974, overcome with shame and bitter disappointment. He did not understand that he had already lost out when he had unwittingly helped to get Singapore expelled from Malaysia the decade before.
To cut short further arguments, I told Chin Chye that if he did not accept separation I would not go through with it, because it would split the PAP leadership and cause confusion among our followers both in Singapore and in Malaysia. I would abide by the majority decision not to sign, and not to secede. But Chin Chye and Raja must take the responsibility; if blood was spilt, it would not be on my conscience. Soon after that, Chin Chye signed, then Raja.
For those left behind in Malaysia, separation was a disaster because it changed the racial arithmetic. With Singapore out, it was no longer 40 per cent Malay, 40 per cent Chinese, 20 per cent others. The Malays were again in the majority, and there was now little hope of any multiracial party winning power constitutionally even in the very long term.
I had let down many people in Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. They had responded to our call of a Malaysian Malaysia. Had they not done so and there was no danger of widespread racial collisions if the Malaysian government arrested us, Singapore would not have been expelled. Because they rallied round and felt as passionately as we did about a Malaysian Malaysia, we were expelled. By accepting separation, I had failed them. That sense of guilt made me break down. It was my moment of anguish. The deed was done, but I was overwrought at the thought of all the shattered hopes of the millions we had aroused.
I received the following message from Wilson through the acting deputy British high commissioner in Singapore: “I wanted to let you know that we have decided to recognise Singapore as an independent state right away, and that we are announcing this in tomorrow morning’s papers. I have seen your message and I much appreciate your kind words. I am glad to know that you want to work on terms of friendship with us. I must say that I was disappointed that we were not consulted before this important step was taken, because, of course, it has major implications for us. We are now thinking very urgently about these. But you may be sure that we wish you well. I am concerned that Sukarno may try to use this development for his own ends. I am sure you will agree that we must all be careful to avoid anything which might help him to make capital out of it.”
The day after 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 whatever the reasons, we had let them down and let them down badly. I had to sum up the future publicly by telling the press that since it was necessary for us to be “very correct in our relations with our neighbour and one neighbouring government did not interfere in the political affairs of another”, the PAP could no longer be a member of the convention. I was emotional as I went on: “But for a very small number of people, what we stood for could easily have done a great deal of good for Malaysia and established it for many centuries to come as a stable and viable multiracial nation. … Kinship and feelings for one another cannot be legislated out by a political decision.”
The most sincere and thoughtful statement on the separation came from Ismail. He spoke at the United Nations when Malaysia, Jordan and the Ivory Coast sponsored Singapore’s application for membership on 20 September: “Notwithstanding the separation, there is the fullest awareness in the leadership both of Malaysia and of Singapore that, constitutionally separated as the two states may be from each other, the identity of their interests and the intertwined activity of the people in every facet of human life, having been pulled together by the inescapable incidence of geography, subjected to a long and common administration by the accident of history, will, as in the decades past, create the incentive and provide the encouragement to live together as good neighbours. In a variety of common tasks, we share the same attitudes and prize the same ideals. The constitutional bond has been severed; the human bond remains.”
What were the real reasons for the Tunku, Razak and Ismail to want Singapore out of Malaysia? They must have concluded that if they allowed us to exercise our constitutional rights, they were bound to lose in the long run. The Malaysian Solidarity Convention would have rallied the non-Malays and, most dangerous of all, eventually made inroads into the Malay ground on the peninsula. The attitudes and policies of the PAP had already won the unswerving loyalty of our Malay leaders in Singapore; they never wavered even under the stress of the race riots in 1964, nor did they respond to appeals to race, religion or culture, or to the usual blandishments offered to draw them back into the UMNO fold.
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. Razak once offered Keng Swee 5,000 acres of the best quality rubber land, to be planted with seedlings of the best high-yielding strains from the Rubber Research Institute. With an embarrassed laugh, Keng Swee protested that he would not know what to do with it and ducked the inducement. Nor was it easy to compromise us. Keng Swee and I once accompanied the Tunku and Tan Siew Sin to a “mess” in Kuala Lumpur run by wealthy Chinese merchants. These “messes” were men’s clubs where excellent food was provided by the best restaurants, where members and their friends could gamble at mahjong or poker, and where attractive call girls and even starlets were available. We had a good meal, and when they played poker afterwards, I joined in. But as soon as the girls arrived, Keng Swee and I pleaded pressing engagements and made ourselves scarce. We could not afford to give hostages to fortune. If we had stayed, we would thereafter have been open to pressure from the Malaysian leaders. They considered us difficult, almost as dangerous and elusive to handle as the communists, and much too ideological. Worse, we always acted constitutionally and hence were difficult to fix.
If there had been no Indonesian Confrontation, the Tunku and his colleagues would not have had to depend on the help of British, Australian and New Zealand defence forces, and the outcome would have been different. Because these forces helped to defend Malaysia, their parliaments would have reacted strongly if Malaysia had used unconstitutional methods against Singapore.
“But a new and potentially dangerous problem was developing in Southeast Asia. Some three or four months earlier, we had received a warning that Tunku Abdul Rahman, the prime minister of Malaysia, was losing his patience with his parliamentary colleague, Lee Kuan Yew (Harry Lee), the Singaporean leader, to the point where Lee was in danger of being arrested and imprisoned. … The Tunku was becoming more and more incensed with his lively opposition. Some weeks before the Commonwealth conference we had received news of an impending crisis, involving a possible coup against Harry Lee and his colleagues. I felt it necessary to go so far as to let the Tunku know that if he were to take action of this kind, it would be unwise for him to show his face at the Commonwealth conference, since a large number of his colleagues – including myself – would feel that such action was totally opposed to all we believed in as a Commonwealth. “In the event nothing happened, but on the weekend of 13th–15th August (sic) news came through that the Federation had broken up. There had been angry scenes between the Tunku and Lee. This had led to Singapore being virtually expelled from the Federation and told to set up on its own account. Lee was in a desperate state, bursting into tears in front of the television cameras and regretting the break-up. Nevertheless, he was determined to make a go of the newly independent Singapore. … We took the necessary decisions and made the dispositions that had to be made, sending very strong messages to both leaders to avoid any action that could lead to an outbreak of hostilities, or, indeed, of internal subversion. We authorised talks to take place to review the Anglo-Malaysian defence agreement, on a basis fair to all the parties concerned.”
The Tunku’s solution to these problems was separation. Singapore would be out of Malaysia and he would control Singapore through the supply of water from Johor and other levers of pressure. He told Head on 9 August, “If Singapore’s foreign policy is prejudicial to Malaysia’s interests, we could always bring pressure to bear on them by threatening to turn off the water in Johor.” Head commented to Bottomley that this was “a startling proposal of how to coordinate foreign policy”.
The Tunku and Razak thought they could station troops in Singapore, squat on us and if necessary close the Causeway and cut off our water supply. They believed, not without foundation, that Singapore could not exist on its own – what better authority than the speeches of the PAP leaders themselves, myself included, and the reasons we had given for it? As Ghazali bin Shafie, the permanent secretary, external affairs ministry, said soon after separation, after a few years out on a limb, Singapore would be in severe straits and would come crawling back – this time on Malaysia’s terms.
No, not if I could help it. People in Singapore were in no mood to crawl back after what they had been through for two years in Malaysia, the communal bullying and intimidation. Certainly Keng Swee and I, the two directly responsible for accepting this separation from our hinterland, were not about to give up. The people shared our feelings and were prepared to do whatever was needed to make an independent Singapore work. I did not know I was to spend the rest of my life getting Singapore not just to work but to prosper and flourish.