Singapore Revisited (VII): Showdown with the Communists

James Myburgh writes on how LKY clawed back popular support through the battle for merger with Malaya

The previous article in this series described the first few years in office of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party (PAP). The article had concluded with the two by-elections in mid-1961 in which it appeared that the bottom was dropping out of the PAP’s popular support.

It had lost a substantial chunk of the support of the Chinese-educated when it had expelled the populist non-Communist Ong Eng Guan from the party. Ong had easily defeated the PAP candidate in the by-election held following his resignation as an MP.

The pro-Communists too had withdrawn their support from the PAP in the Anson by-election in July 1961, and again the PAP candidate had gone down to defeat, this time to David Marshall, the Worker’s Party candidate.

This article describes the final political showdown between the non-Communists and the pro-Communists in the PAP, in the context of Singapore’s move towards independence through merger with the anti-Communist Malay Federation, and other territories, to form the new state of Malaysia. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___


Most African and Asian nationalist leaders of the 1950s had received Western-style educations in the language of the colonial power, something which distinguished and separated them from the great mass of (traditional) society. In his 1956 book Nationalism in Colonial Africa Thomas Hodgkin noted how the African nationalist leaders of that generation were “the products of European schools and universities. They are asserting claims of a kind that have already been asserted by Europeans, around which a European sacred literature has been built up. And they have to state their case in a language that will be intelligible to their European rulers.”

As an opposition politician between 1954 and 1959 Lee Kuan Yew fitted this mould. He had eloquently and acerbically presented the case against the British, in English, in the Legislative Assembly. But while he was fluent in both English and Malay, and had tried to learn Mandarin, he could not actually speak the dialect used by the great mass of the Chinese-speaking population of Singapore, namely Hokkien.

In an article in June 1959 the journalist Vernon Bartlett recalled attending a PAP rally in Bukit Timah in March 1956. “Lee Kuan Yew spoke brilliantly in English, very effectively in Malay, and so haltingly in Chinese that he had frequently to rally his audience by interrupting himself and shouting ‘merdeka’. I can think of no other instance of a Prime Minister who finds it difficult to talk the language of the people he is called upon to govern. It is an obvious handicap although it is a tribute to his ability.”[1]

There was only one small upside to the PAP’s two disastrous by-election campaigns in April and July 1961. Previously Lee Kuan Yew had had to rely on first Lim Chin Siong and then Ong Eng Guan to mobilise the Chinese-speakers for the PAP. Over these months he finally forced himself to learn how to speak Hokkien. “When I started, I was fumbling, awkward, almost comic. But here I was in front of them, suddenly able to express myself fluently in their dialect. I may have been unidiomatic, even ungrammatical, but there was no mistaking my meaning, delivered with vigour, feeling and conviction as I argued, cajoled, warned, and finally moved some of them to go with me.”

On 18th July 1961, the leaders of the pro-Communist camp, Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, S Woodhull and James Puthucheary, met with the British Commissioner Lord Selkirk at his Eden Hall residence to ask what the British response would be if Lee Kuan Yew’s government fell. Selkirk, who regarded Lee with some disdain (a feeling which was reciprocated) said that if this was done in terms of the constitution, he would not interfere in efforts to depose Lee. Selkirk’s view, as expressed in a despatch to London, was that “even if the next Government is much further to the Left or even communist manipulated, we must allow the full democratic processes to work under the Constitution, provided there is no threat to the internal security situation which requires our intervention.”[2] 

Lee Kuan Yew’s response was to press the issue and call for a motion of confidence in his government in the Legislative Assembly. In his address he accused Selkirk and the British of trying to engineer a collision between the non-Communist and the pro-Communist left to force the PAP government to instigate the security clampdown that he alleged the British secretly wanted.[3] In reality he was using this opportunity – whereby it was the pro-Communists who could be framed as the British stooges – to force a split with the pro-Communists.

If the motion were not carried, Lee Kuan Yew told the Assembly, his government would resign, and new elections would be held. In the end the vote early the following morning was passed by 27 votes out of 51. 26 PAP assemblymen voted for it and one opposition MP (CH Koh) did as well. Thirteen PAP assemblymen, along with Ong’s group of three, abstained. Eight opposition MPs, including David Marshall, voted against it.[4]

The 13 PAP MPs who had abstained in the motion now joined with Lim, Woodhull and Puthucheary and announced their intention of forming the Barisan Sosialis (“Socialist Front”) party at the end of July, which they then launched at a mass rally of 10 000 people on 14th August 1961.[5] Dr Lee Siew Choh, a non-Communist, became chairman, Lim Chin Siong secretary general, and Fong Swee Suan the organising secretary. PAP’s majority in the Legislative Assembly now stood at only 26, though there were eight members of the more conservative SPA on the opposition benches.

While Lee Kuan Yew and what was left of the PAP had narrowly retained their majority, they had miscalculated the actual balance of forces between the pro-Communist and non-Communists within the PAP. The pro-Communist breakaway led to the obliteration of the PAP at branch level. Thity-one out of 51 branches crossed over to the Barisan Socialists, as did 19 out of the 23 branch secretaries appointed by the PAP leadership. The Works Brigade and People’s Association mutinied and were wrecked from within.

Many of the young Chinese-educated activists that Lee Kuan Yew and his group had carefully screened for any Communist links (with Special Branch help) and whom they had then promoted, turned out to have been Communist moles. The mastermind of the uprising in the PAP branches and PA was, it turned out, none other than Lee’s parliamentary secretary, Chan Sun Wing.[6]

As Dennis Bloodworth later noted, “if the communists were like radioactive dust” – as Lee Kuan Yew had once described them to him – “the English-educated leaders of the PAP sadly lacked anything resembling a Geiger counter”. How was it that 19 out of 23 organising secretaries of the party had at once defected to the Barisan, along with several other Chinese-educated activists that that Lee and his grouping had appointed to strategic posts, trusting in their non-Communism?

“Part of the answer must be”, Bloodworth noted, “that the communists were professional infiltrators who were not going to be caught out telling a truth”. They had carefully studied Lee Kuan Yew and knew how to get around him by telling him what he wanted to hear. For their part, the PAP’s English-educated leaders were desperate for Chinese-speaking lieutenants. These events, Bloodworth noted, had “revealed the narrow corner into which the English-educated had been driven – their dependence on men they could not quite trust to speak for them to men they did not quite understand.”[7]


In response to these setbacks Lee Kuan Yew and two of his top lieutenants, Ong Pang Boon and Ahmad Ibrahim, took a break from their administrative duties and went into their constituencies to gauge the popular mood over the recent turn of events. This was uncertain but not hostile. There was still everything to play for.

The emergence of the Barisan Sosialis as a communist-dominated opposition – and the British acceptance of their legitimacy – now drove the merger with Malaya forward. It was widely expected that if there was no merger the PAP would be defeated at the next election and Singapore would then sooner rather than later flip over to the Communist camp. This was not acceptable to the Tunku or to the British government in London.

To restore the PAP’s electoral position Lee Kuan Yew also needed to create a perception of the inevitability of merger. As he noted, “The Chinese-speaking in Singapore, like the Chinese-speaking everywhere in Southeast Asia, traditionally preferred to sit on the fence until they saw clearly which way the wind was blowing.” They would support whoever they perceived to be the winning side.

Lee sought to win public opinion over through a series of twelve radio broadcasts over the course of four weeks in September / October 1961. Versions were recorded and broadcast in Malay, English, and Mandarin. In these he explained the history of the PAP’s relationship with the Communist underground – and disclosed the secret meetings he had held with “The Plen” – and made the case for why independence through merger with Malaya was an imperative. As he put it:

“Everyone knows the reasons why the Federation is important to Singapore. It is the hinterland which produces the rubber and tin that keep our shopwindow going. It is the base that made Singapore the capital city. Without this economic base, Singapore would not survive. Without merger, without a reunification of our two governments and an integration of our two economies, our economic position will slowly and steadily get worse. Your livelihood will get worse.”[8]

The Barisan Sosialis sought to undermine the PAP government by stoking industrial unrest and trying to mobilise (unsuccessfully this time) the Chinese middle school students. They were thrown off balance however by the sudden lurch towards merger. Their leaders, including the pro-Communists, were publicly committed to independence through merger. They were thus in the difficult position of trying to head off the move in practice while pretending to be in support of it in principle.

The deal struck by Lee with the Tunku was that while the federal government would take over responsibility for foreign affairs, external defence, and internal security, Singapore would retain significant autonomy in the new federation, including control over labour and education policy. In return it would send only 15 representatives to the federal parliament in Kuala Lumpur, not the 25 to 30 that its population warranted. Singapore citizens would not be allowed to vote in the Malay Federation and vice versa.

In response the Barisan Sosialis called for a full merger with Malaya – on the same basis as the territories of Penang and Malacca – knowing that this would not be acceptable to the Tunku as this would mean that Chinese voters would outnumber Malays. In a radio forum on 21st September 1961 the Barisan Sosialis chairman, Dr Lee Siew Choh, had reiterated this demand. “We are asking for full and complete merger with the Federation with Singapore coming in as the 12th state of the Federation.” In this case the citizens of Singapore would automatically become Federal citizens, he claimed.

The PAP representative on the panel, Goh Keng Swee, then dropped a bomb on this proposal. Goh pointed out that only 320 000 of 650 000 of Singapore’s electorate were born in Singapore and so could automatically qualify for citizenship under the constitution of the Malay Federation. The Barisan Sosialis proposal would thus, in effect, disenfranchise the other half of the adult population.[9]

In the referendum to be held on 1 September 1962 voters were given three choices: A) endorsing merger on the terms negotiated by Lee Kuan Yew; B) a complete and unconditional merger, as the Barisan Sosialis had called for; and C) an entry into Malaysia on terms no less favourable than those of the Borneo territories.[10] The Barisan Sosialis, Ong Eng Guang and David Marshall called for their supporters to cast blank votes. By this stage Lim had been outplayed tactically by Lee – and a sense of inevitability had been created in favour of merger – and the “fence sitters” in the Chinese community were beginning to come down in favour of the PAP. Of the 561 559 votes cast (the electorate was 624 000), alternative A received 397 626 votes, B 9 422, and C 7 911. 144,077 voters submitted blank votes.[11]

Although the matter had been under discussion for some time, the members of Singapore’s Internal Security Council could, up until this point, reach no consensus over whether, when and how security action should be taken against the pro-Communists. The Malay government had demanded a security clampdown ahead of merger and Lee Kuan Yew had, under pressure, acquiesced in principle. Lord Selkirk had refused to agree to this, as there was no good reason for it, and a number of the pro-Communists were “now leaders of one of the main political parties in Singapore and their arrest without justification would, in my opinion, have serious repercussions for all three Governments concerned and also for Malaysia.”[12]


The matter would however soon be forced by Indonesian President Sukarno’s decision to try and “kill Malaysia”. Here it is necessary to go back and fill in some of the political background. Articles II and III in this series described the trajectory of Indonesia in the first several years after independence from the Dutch in 1949. In late 1957 President Sukarno had used the still outstanding ‘West Irian question’ – the failure by the Netherlands to hand over West New Guinea – as a pretext to justify the dispossession and expulsion of the remaining population of Dutch nationals from that country.

Many Western commentators and diplomats, at the time, took at face value Sukarno’s claims and huge sums of ink were expended on discussing the merits of this now largely forgotten issue. If only successive Dutch administrations had been less rigid and more yielding on this matter, the argument went, Dutch nationals in Indonesia would have been left unmolested. Such a view was soon undercut however by the actions taken by Indonesian authorities, led by the army, against the country’s ethnic Chinese minority.

The Chinese were a highly productive and entrepreneurial minority in Indonesia who, despite being banned from owning land, had taken the leading role in retail, commerce, and trade, in Java and elsewhere.

Following the 1949 Hague Agreement about a quarter of the country’s two million ethnic Chinese had chosen to reject Indonesian nationality. With Indonesia’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition to the victorious Chinese Communist Party government, many Kuomintang-supporting Chinese found themselves in diplomatic limbo, with neither Indonesian citizenship nor a foreign government able to represent their interests.

The precise status of other Chinese also remained uncertain through the 1950s, as the Indonesian government and Chinese Communist Party government negotiated around their status. In terms of a 1955 agreement between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Indonesia, ethnic Chinese would have two years in which to choose which citizenship to take. The dilemma was a familiar one to many other ethnically alien minorities following independence.

If they did not take citizenship of Indonesia, then they were vulnerable to being discriminated against on the ostensible basis that they were non-citizens. But, if they did, then they would no longer have a foreign government able to intercede on their behalf, or a place of sanctuary to which to flee, should the situation become intolerable. With the encouragement of Communist China many ethnic Chinese chose the former rather than the latter option.

It was commonly said in the mid-1950s that in Indonesia the nationalist resentments of the Intellectuals were directed against the Dutch, and those of the masses against the Chinese. As a press report from the late 1950s noted, over the years Chinese traders had “penetrated to the remotest village, the most isolated island.”

“Their shops usually stock household requirements, a wide variety of sundry goods, foodstuffs, even fish and vegetables. Many of them even act as moneylenders to farmers, buying and fixing the prices of their products, even supplying their needs. The same is true in fishing villages along the coasts where they dominate the economic life of the fishermen. The Chinese are not new to rural areas. The majority of them have lived there for generations. They speak the language of the local people and in many ways are part of the rural scene.”[13]

In his 1955 reports the journalist Guy Harriott described the Chinese as a “universally detested minority.” “You must remember,” he quoted one Indonesian minister as saying to him, “that the revolution was for the intellectuals against Dutch political colonialism, but for the masses it was against Chinese economic colonialism, and to that extent the revolution has failed, for the Chinese still hold too many of the purse-strings.”[14]

Frantz Fanon noted a similar bifurcation of nationalist sentiment in post-colonial Africa. He wrote that while on the morrow of independence the native bourgeoisie demanded the positions still held by Europeans, those lower down the class hierarchy imitate their leaders by going after the non-nationals with whom they are in more direct competition:

“In the Ivory Coast, the anti-Dahoman and anti-Voltaic troubles are in fact racial riots. The Dahoman and Voltaic peoples, who control the greater part of the petty trade, are, once independence is declared, the object of hostile manifestations on the part of the people of the Ivory Coast. From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked, and in fact the government of the Ivory Coast commands them to go, thus giving their nationals satisfaction.”

The economic turmoil in Indonesia that followed the expulsion of the Dutch in late 1957 was not the cautionary economic lesson that might have been expected. Indeed, it only seems to have served to further inflame the resentments, and whet the appetites, of Indonesian racial nationalists.

With the Dutch gone and all constitutional restraints effectively obliterated the Chinese now came into their sights. In 1958 AJ Muaja published a pamphlet titled “the Chinese problem in Indonesia.” This described the biggest problem facing the country as the hold by that minority on the country’s economy. The Indonesian government had only recently awoken to the danger posed by Chinese predominance in commerce and trade, he wrote, and restrictive measures would soon need to be taken.[15]

Pro-Kuomintang Chinese were the softest targets within that population, and the axe fell on them first. The Indonesian government alleged that Taipei had supported the rebellions in Sumatra and the Celebes. This then became the pretext to act against their nationals across the country. In September 1958, a number of Chinese organisations were banned. Then, on 16 October 1958, the Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Nasution issued an order placing under government control “all schools, business enterprises, estates, industries, insurance companies, shipping and mining firms partially or wholly owned by Chinese not citizens of countries having diplomatic relations with Indonesia. The Ministry of Education was to take over the schools and the business enterprises were to be seized and their assets placed under government control.” This move, the UPI noted in its report from Jakarta, “placed the affected enterprises on virtually the same footing as Dutch firms whose seizure began last December.”[16]

The following day official teams were sent into these firms and schools. Military co-ordinators would run the organisations under martial law.[17] This move was followed up by further restrictions on Chinese schooling and the freedom of movement of aliens.

If the Chinese Communist government thought that its close relationship with Sukarno’s regime would serve to protect its citizens, they would soon be disabused of this notion. Once again, the ever-worsening economic crisis facing the country also failed to stay the government’s hand. An article by a “Special Correspondent” in The Straits Times on 14th July 1959 reported that “This basically rich and resilient economy is in a pitiful mess... The currency is weak at the knees and growing weaker. On the official market the pound sterling is worth 84 rupiahs. On the black-market it fetches more than 400 rupiahs. To keep itself solvent the Government is churning out currency... The results, not surprisingly, is fast-rising inflation. A Bandung economist told me that the cost of living there has risen 20 per cent in the past three months. ‘Luxuries like meat and eggs are for us things of the past’, he said.”[18]

A week later, on 21st July 1959, The Straits Times reported that Chinese businessmen operating in the regional areas of Indonesia had been given until 30th September to submit statements on the disposition of their enterprises, which had been ordered closed by the end of the year. Their two choices were (initially), firstly, to either completely close these enterprises or transfer them to Indonesian ownership; or, secondly, to transfer their shops to the major cities where they’d still be permitted to operate. The Jakarta newspaper Duta Masyarakat justified the ban by saying that Chinese merchants had “greedily squeezed Indonesian businessmen for centuries and should be rooted out the economy.”[19]

The ethnic Chinese population of Indonesia at this point was two and a half million of whom an estimated one million did not have Indonesian citizenship. The press estimates of the number of those likely to be affected by this ban ranged from 200 000 to 500 000 people. To avoid alien Chinese businessmen simply transferring ownership of their retail businesses to family members with Indonesian citizenship, government prioritised the takeover by co-operative organisations.[20]

The Indonesian Spectator magazine noted at this time that “Many Chinese businessmen holding Red Chinese citizenship and affected by this regulation say they are not Communists. They took out Red Chinese citizenship because Indonesia recognised the Peking regime. Now they say they would prefer to live permanently in Indonesia if they could obtain Indonesian nationality. This does not seem feasible because the Indonesian Government reportedly is not enthusiastic about such a possibility.”[21]

The Indonesian government, then enjoying the support of the Soviet Union, disregarded the protests of Communist China at the maltreatment of their citizens. In late 1959 the army began enforcing the expulsion of Chinese traders from rural areas. This attack on the livelihoods ultimately led to an estimated 119 000 ethnic Chinese choosing exodus and “repatriation” to mainland China, a country in which most of them had never set foot before.

A series of two articles in The Straits Times in December 1959 by Dr R. Rajagopal described an Indonesian economy in total crisis.[22] The value of the currency had collapsed, inflation was out of control, retail trade had slumped, industrial output was down, imports of consumer goods had dried up, many industrial plants had folded, or were only operational part time, investment and foreign investment was nil. Government expenditure went to payment of foreign debts ($105m a year) and meeting the costs of a “grossly overstaffed civil service” (of 2,5 million) and its mammoth army of 220 000.

Rajagopal noted that exports had reached a peak in 1957, Dutch assets having only been seized right at the end of that year, of seven billion rupiahs. This had fallen to 4,2 billion rupiahs in 1958. Since then, the fall had continued further. “The projected estimates for 1960 will be far below even the 1958 level since there has been a fall in output in the seized 253 Dutch estates and enterprises which have been placed under army supervision.” The ban on Chinese rural traders earlier in the year meanwhile had resulted in the large-scale and ongoing flight of capital into Singapore, Hong Kong and the Malay Federation running into “billions of dollars”.


One reason Sukarno was able to get away with the systematic ruination of the Indonesian economy was that the Soviet Union and the United States of America were trapped in an ongoing struggle for the loyalties of the new nation, with the focus of the US on securing the Indonesian army for the anti-Communist camp. One US government document described the stakes as follows:

“Indonesia’s large population (sixth ranking in the world), wealth of natural resources, and strategic location constitute a major prize in the East-West struggle. All the major trade routes between the Far East and points west must pass through or near this massive island complex. The loss of Indonesia to the communists would gravely undermine the Free World military position in the Western Pacific.”

The Soviets and Indonesian Communist Party (the PKI) had encouraged Sukarno’s destructive revolutionary racial nationalism, as it suited their ends, while the Americans had tried to appease it, taking a neutral position on inter alia the dispute over Western New Guinea. The worse the economic conditions in Indonesia became however, the closer it moved to the revolutionary moment, and the greater its dependence on Soviet aid. The PKI which was not in cabinet – but had great influence over Sukarno – had power but avoided responsibility for the economically destructive policies it had helped initiate.

In 1960 Sukarno now moved towards launching war against the Dutch for control of Western New Guinea. In a meeting at the White House in October 1960 Joseph Luns, the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, warned President Dwight D. Eisenhower that now that “Dutch nationals had been ousted, property confiscated, debts repudiated, diplomatic relations terminated” there was “no instrument left to Sukarno except the use of force.” 

When Eisenhower asked him whether Western New Guinea was not more of an expense to the Dutch than an asset Luns “confirmed that this was the case”. The Dutch however had a responsibility toward the Papuans, who were a completely different people to the Indonesians, “to uphold the same principle of self-determination under which Indonesia itself had become independent.”

Luns warned that the “only thing which could surely stop Sukarno from aggressive action would be a US warning that it would act against such aggression.” The Americans however prevaricated over granting this request.

The US government was divided about what to do. In a memorandum submitted to the new US President John F Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued that the Netherlands should be prevailed upon to withdraw from West New Guinea. The dispute, he argued, “has permitted Sukarno, as leader of a popular national crusade, to make any challenge to his leadership appear unpatriotic; helped enable the Communists to undermine the conservative influence of Army leaders; and diverted attention from urgent internal problems.”[23]

The Central Intelligence Agency meanwhile argued that such appeasement would buy the United States nothing. In a memorandum it argued that Communist ascendancy in Indonesia could not be curbed for as long as Sukarno remained in power. The CIA stated that:

“We consider it likely that Indonesia’s success in this particular instance will set in train the launching of further irredentist ventures … Success would be bound to cement relations between Indonesia and the USSR, which, in addition to throwing the full weight of its political support behind the West Irian campaign, is liberally providing Indonesia with military aid specifically designed to enable her to oust the Dutch from West Irian by force of arms. President Sukarno’s prestige and power in Indonesia and in Asia as a whole would grow immeasurably since nothing succeeds like success.”[24]

Sensing President Kennedy’s irresoluteness on this and other matters, the Soviet Union now sought to prepare the Indonesians for war with the Netherlands by sending through a huge quantity of armaments along with military advisors. In a memorandum to the Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff warned in December 1961 that the Soviet Union was making a determined effort to win over Indonesia. The Soviets had “wooed the Indonesians by supporting the latter’s position on West New Guinea and have plied them with massive economic and military aid. Soviet military aid commitments total $840 million… A major Soviet objective appears to be the seduction of the one remaining pro-Western element in Indonesia – the Army.”[25]

In early 1962 Indonesia created an area command for West New Guinea under Major-General Suharto and began infiltrating troops into the territory through dropping paratroopers and landing guerrillas.[26] Faced with an imminent war the US now pressured the Dutch, who would not be able to defend West New Guinea against the Soviets and their Indonesian proxies without American help, into agreeing to a withdrawal in August 1962. The United Nations would take over briefly and then, after a brief transitional period, hand over control to the Indonesians. The Papuans and their right to self-determination were sacrificed like pawns to the demands of a voracious Indonesian imperialism.


Although a Soviet-backed war against the Dutch in Western New Guinea had been averted through America’s appeasement of Sukarno, the CIA’s warnings from 1961 were soon realised. With West Irian now in the bag Sukarno now sought to keep national frustrations directed against external enemies – and the army occupied – by challenging and trying to destroy the yet unborn state of Malaysia.

In December 1962 armed rebels had, at the direction of Sheikh Mahmud Azahari, tried to seize power in Brunei in early December with the goal of scuppering Sarawak, North Borneo, and Brunei’s merger with Malaya, and establishing an independent state in its stead. The British had had a day’s warning and were able to secure the airfields from the rebels in time. The revolt was then put down by British and Gurkha troops flown in from the British military bases in Singapore. Lord Selkirk would comment that the “revolution came within an inch of being completely successful”.

The British suspected at once that this had been with the support of Indonesia as Azahari had spent much time in Jakarta recently and would not have acted without a green light from Sukarno. This was confirmed by Sukarno himself, a week after the revolt, when he called on all Indonesians to support the rebels, saying that those who did not do so were “traitors to their own souls”.

In a despatch to Prime Minister Harold MacMillan Selkirk commented that Sukarno’s “words seem to me to echo some of the bouncing threats which we had to listen to from Hitler in the latter thirties, and with the introduction of Russian arms and military preparations for West Irian, he is now a formidable military power who clearly shows signs of wanting to flex his muscles.” The following year Antony Head, the British High Commissioner in Malaysia, would describe Sukarno in similar fashion as “an unpredictable, mystical demagogue with some resemblance to a minor Hitler”.

Azahari had also been seen meeting with Lim Chin Siong in Singapore ahead of the revolt. The Barisan Sosialis now also came out in public support of the rebels. Then, at a rally on 23 December 1962 Lim Chin Siong gave the party’s “wholehearted support” to Indonesia for its pro-revolution stand and said that “we are confident that with the support of the newly emergent nations in the world the people of Kalimantan Utara (North Borneo) will soon achieve their national aims.”[27] A few days later Lim again supported the rebellion in his New Year’s message and warned of the turning point in the political development of Malaya “leading to the establishment of a Fascist and military dictatorship in the country. The left-wing forces must then make the necessary judgment on the matter.”[28]

The tension further escalated after Indonesian Foreign Minister Subandrio announced a policy of confrontation (Konfrontasi) towards the Malay Federation to scupper the incorporation of Sarawak and Sabah into Malaysia (the Sultan of Brunei eventually pulled out of his own accord). Subandrio said such a policy was unavoidable because at “present they [the Malaya government] represent themselves as accomplices of neo-colonialists and neo-imperialists, pursuing hostile policy towards Indonesia.”[29] Confrontation, as pursued by President Sukarno, would come to encompass the breaking-off of trade relations, the infiltration of bands of guerrillas into North Borneo, the seizure of British and Malaysian assets, the landing of Indonesia troops on the Malay mainland, as well as terrorist actions in Singapore itself. This would all, Dennis Bloodworth noted, “heavily compromise the left wing in Singapore”.[30]

The Barisan Sosialis’ actions had created a consensus on the Internal Security Council on the need for action by December 1962, though there were still disputes over its precise scope. Operation Cold Store – carried out in early February 1963 – resulted in 115 suspected pro-Communists rounded up by the police. These included Lim Chin Siong, S Woodhull, James Puthucheary, Lim Hock Siew, Poh Soo Kai, assistant secretary general, D Puthucheary and Fong Swee Suan.[31] The Barisan Socialist MPs were, on the insistence of Lee Kuan Yew, not detained. In his autobiography Lee noted that “this time there were no riots, no bloodshed, no curfews after the arrests. Everybody had expected that there would be a clean-up, and the public understood that the communists had it coming to them.”

A document compiled and released by the ISC explaining the rationale for the operation said that before the Brunei revolt Lim Ching Siong had been in regular secret contact with Azahari. It also accused the Communists in the United Front of “trying their utmost to prevent the State of Singapore from attaining complete independence through Merger with the Federation of Malaya” despite this having been endorsed by an overwhelming majority in the National Referendum.

In an address to the Legislative Assembly on the operation Lee Kuan Yew accused the leaders of the pro-Communist movement, such as Lim, of having made veiled threats of an imminent turn to violent struggle. “To us who have known the Communists for so long, and studied their thinking and their methods, the meaning is clear”, he commented. “They will use constitutional methods as long as these are useful to them. At the same time, they are ready to use more violent methods – strikes riots, and, in the last resort, armed insurrection. These considered statements were made by persons of authority in the Communist front movement and were intended to prepare their cadres for stronger action when the time was ripe.”[32]


The endorsement of Lee Kuan Yew’s position in the referendum, and the detention of many of the most able open front leaders, had put the pro-Communists on the back foot. It would take years for the PAP to restore its party structures.

Lee Kuan Yew sought now to rebuild the PAP’s popular support ahead of the elections he wanted to hold ahead of merger (then scheduled for 31st August 1963) by going out into the constituencies from November 1962 onwards, on an increasingly frequent basis. The shopkeepers, community leaders and leaders of all (non-Communist) local associations would be mobilised in advance by PAP assemblyman and government officials. “I travelled in an open Land Rover, and with a microphone in my hand and loudspeakers fixed to the vehicle, spoke to the crowds that would have gathered and be waiting for me when I made scheduled stops.” The government officials who travelled with Lee then followed up on 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.”

With the Communist threat which had impelled merger forward now in rapid retreat, the government of the Malay Federation sought to row back on the concessions that had been granted to Lee Kuan Yew in the run up to the referendum. Lee had to fight to ensure that Singapore would retain control over broadcasting and the raising of government revenue, after merger. He also suspected that the Tunku would like to have a more pliable and servile Chinese leader in charge of Singapore (such as Lim Yew Hock), of the kind the UMNO leader was used to dealing with in the Malay Federation. At a meeting in late June 1963, presided over by Malay Federation Minister Khir Johari, the SPA agreed to combine with UMNO, the MCA and the MIC to form the Singapore Alliance, to challenge the PAP at the elections expected later that year.[33]

In his autobiography Lee Kuan Yew wrote that his reception on his constituency tours had initially been frosty or indifferent, but as the population saw him standing up against the unreasonable demands of the government of the Malay Federation popular sentiment started to swing behind him.

“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.”

For various reasons the date of merger had been pushed back to 16th September 1963. The Malay Federation government was however stalling on enshrining in the constitution, or official documents, various assurances given to Lee during the final talks on merger held in London in July earlier that year. To force the issue Lee Kuan Yew announced a unilateral declaration of independence on 31st August, and a few days later announced that the Legislative Assembly would be dissolved, and elections held. He privately warned the British that if the Malay Federation did not implement the agreement by nomination day on 12th September, he would fight the election on a platform of seeking a mandate for independence outside of Malaysia. This brinkmanship worked and with prodding from the British the Malay Federation government grudgingly acceded to Lee’s demands.

In early August at a summit in Manila with the Tunku and President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines, President Sukarno had agreed to the formation of Malaysia provided that a UN mission confirmed that it was the will of the people of Sabah and Sarawak. On 14th September the UN Secretary General U Thant, acting on the recommendation of the UN team, confirmed that a “sizeable majority” of the population of these two Borneo territories wished to join Malaysia.[34] On the 16th of September 1963 Malaysia came into being.

Indonesia rejected these findings however, saying it would not recognise the new state, and signs were put up in the Indonesian capital Jakarta’s main thoroughfares saying, “Crush Malaysia”. Following the establishment of Malaysia on the 16th there were two days of rioting in Jakarta in which the Malaysian and British embassies were ransacked, and the latter torched. Houses and cars belonging to British businessmen and diplomats were also attacked. British and Malaysian firms and estates started being seized. Sukarno then announced the halting of all trade with Malaysia and promised to “fight and destroy Malaysia”.[35]


The date of Singapore’s elections was announced on the 12th as to be held on 21st September 1963. It was also announced that Singapore’s 15 members of Parliament in Kuala Lumpur would be drawn from the 51 members elected, in proportion to their party’s share of the vote. The main parties were the PAP, the Barisan Sosialis, Ong Eng Guan’s radical populist United People’s Party (UPP), and the pro-UMNO Singapore Alliance. The Barisan Sosialis put up posters with pictures of their detained leaders including Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan and others. The PAP meanwhile centred their campaign entirely around Lee Kuan Yew.

In their election manifesto the PAP warned that the Barisan Sosialis “hope to win by splitting the 72 percent of non-Communist votes cast in the recent referendum. If this 72 percent could be fragmented between the PAP, the Alliance and others, the Communists hope that the Barisan Sosialis might just slip in. It is, therefore, essential that this non-Communist vote should not be split. If this 72 percent unite solidly behind the PAP, then we can inflict a crippling defeat on the Communists.” In a reference to Indonesia’s policy of confrontation the PAP added that such a victory would also act as a “deterrent to foreign anti-Malaysia elements insofar as they harbour the illusion that the anti-Malaysia Barisan Sosialis has considerable support in Singapore.”[36]

Immediately following the proclamation of Malaysia on the 16th Dr Lee Siew Choh, the Barisan Sosialis chairman, told a mass rally that his party would continue to oppose the new federation, and that it supported the demands of the people of the Borneo territories for self-determination and independence. “Since neo-colonialist Malaysia seeks to frustrate and deny the people their legitimate hopes and aspirations and to prolong colonial domination in South-east Asia, we must continue to oppose neo-colonialist Malaysia. We continue our struggle against colonialism and imperialism in all their forms.”[37]

This alignment of the Barisan Sosialis with the Indonesians and their objectives was not a popular one, especially given that the Chinese minority in Indonesia had recently been subjected to severe maltreatment. Devan Nair, whose wife was standing as a PAP candidate on his behalf in the election, pressed this point home in a speech a day or two later. He noted that “in Indonesia, Chinese shops are looted and burned, Chinese schools are closed down and Chinese citizens go in fear of their lives.” He stated that the Barisan Sosialis would “blindly welcome the Indonesians into Singapore and will co-operate with the enemies of our prosperity and our way of life.” Dr Lee Siew Choh and his party, he added, “appear to think that President Sukarno is a better man than Lee Kuan Yew. We don’t think so. We believe that the interests of the people of Singapore are more important than the anti-Chinese and anti-Malaysian policies of the Indonesians.”[38]

In a broadcast on Radio Singapore on the eve of the elections Lee Kuan Yew further warned that if the Barisan Sosialis won the election through the splitting of the anti-Communist vote, the Malaysian government would declare an emergency and take over. In this case all the safeguards he had so carefully negotiated would be negated. “Such a Communist government, anti-Malaysia as the Barisan Sosialis is, with links taking orders from the Indonesian Communists, will bring calamity on Malaysia.”[39]

In a despatch to London ahead of the poll Deputy High Commissioner Philip Moore reported that although the PAP seemed to have the edge, and may well win a majority, the outcome was still highly uncertain. The PAP had governed effectively and well over the past 18 months, but its primary weakness was “their lack of party organisation in the constituencies and in particular among the Chinese-speaking members of the electorate, who number 63 per cent.”[40]

In the event the PAP secured an unexpectedly large majority. It won 46,9% of the vote and 37 seats to the Barisan Sosialis’ 33,24% and 13 seats. The UPP won 8,39% with Ong holding onto his seat in the Hong Lim constituency albeit with only 44,5% of the vote to the PAP’s 33,3% and the Barisan Sosialis’ 20,6%. The Singapore Alliance won only 8,4% of the vote down from the 27% its constituent parties had won in 1959. It lost all its seats to the PAP including those previously held by UMNO in predominantly Malay constituencies. The PAP also won back the Anson constituency with Marshall, standing as an independent, receiving only 4,9% of the vote.

1959 elections

1963 elections

Percentage point change







281 891


272 924






193 301


+ 33.2%




48 785


+ 8.4%


107 755


48 907




27 448



5 593



2 092



42 805






16 276


10 850




37 411


6 788





581 555

In terms of the spread of the PAP’s votes it received over 50% in 19 constituencies, over 40% in 21, over 30% in nine, and 29% in two. In its anatomy of Lee’s victory in the elections The Straits Times noted this was largely due to the collapse of the right wing, or what passed for it in Singapore. It ascribed this to several factors:

“Undoubtedly Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s tours of the constituencies before the election writ was issued, tours that were highly publicised by the Government and broadcasting services and which had their full share of press attention, impressed many voters. It gave PAP must more than a head’s start. Mr Lee also collected much of the kudos from the merger negotiations, and his party in the battle for Malaysia. The government’s own record, especially in housing and the development of industry, of itself was a good platform, and finally the belief grew that the PAP, and only the PAP, could deal with the Communists.”[41]

Clearly a huge share of the PAP’s 1959 support base had defected to the Barisan Sosialis and UPP breakaways on its left. However, it largely compensated for this by winning over most of the support of the Malays and the English-educated that had previously gone to more right-leaning parties (the Liberal-Socialists did not contest the 1963 election). It had held onto enough of the Chinese-educated to secure itself a plurality of the vote and a majority of seats.

The PAP’s repeated warnings against splitting the vote and thereby handing the elections to the Barisan Sosialis had severely squeezed the support of the Singapore Alliance. Meanwhile the split in the vote between the pro-Communist Barisan Sosialis and the radical populist UPP gave the PAP victory in several more working-class constituencies.


With the victory in the referendum, and defeat of the Barisan Sosialis, in the September 1963 elections, it seemed that in a sense Lee Kuan Yew had crossed the political finish line. Lee was first and foremost a Malayan patriot and merger with the Malay Federation was not just an economic imperative, and a means of neutralising the Communist threat; it was also the fulfilment of a lifelong ideal.

How that ideal began to unravel is the subject of the next article in the series.


[1] Vernon Bartlett, “Lee Kuan Yew: He's the most puzzling politician I've met”, The Straits Times, 3 June 1959, Page 8 (see here).

[2] Telegram from Lord Selkirk to Mr Macleod, DO 169/18 no 59, 21 July 1961.

[3] Hansard, 20 July 1961

[4] Hansard, 20 July 1961

[5] “Barisan Socialis is registered”, The Straits Times, 14 August 1961, Page 9 (see here).

[6] Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party, (Singapore Press Holdings: Singapore, 2009), pp. 211 to 212.

[7] Dennis Bloodworth, The Tiger and the Trojan Horse. Marshall Cavendish. Kindle Edition.

[8] Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. 

[9] Dr Goh says the people must decide', The Straits Times, 22 September 1961, Page 1 (see here).

[10] Hansard, 11 July 1962 (see here)

[11] “Merger 'Yes'”, The Straits Times, 3 September 1962, Page 1 (see here).

[12] CO 1030/1036, no 152 5 Oct 1962.

[13] “Rural Revolution”, The Straits Times, 30 September 1959, Page 8 (see here).

[14] “No landlords in Indonesia, so Reds can't use their strongest weapon”, The Straits Times, 13 April 1955, Page 6 (see here).

[15] The Straits Times, 13 May 1959.

[16] The Straits Times, 17 October 1958.

[17] The Straits Times, 18 October 1958.

[18] “SOEKARNO”, The Straits Times, 14 July 1959, Page 6 (see here).

[19] The Straits Times, 21 July 1959.

[20] “Rural Revolution”, The Straits Times, 30 September 1959, Page 8 (see here).

[21] Jakarta ban to leave 500,000 without jobs, The Straits Times, 2 October 1959, Page 1 (see here).

[22] “The year of the big slide”, The Straits Times, 9 December 1959, page 10 (see here); “A country shackled by debt”, The Straits Times, 10 December 1959, page 6 (see here). 

[23] Memorandum from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to President Kennedy Washington, April 3, 1961 (see here).

[24] Memorandum From the Deputy Director for Plans, Central Intelligence Agency (Bissell) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy), Washington, March 27, 1961 (see here).

[25] Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defence McNamara, JCSM-725–61, Washington, October 13, 1961.

[26] John D Legge, Sukarno: A Political Biography (Kindle Locations 6630-6632). Editions Didier Millet. Kindle Edition.

[27] “Barisan accuses PAP on Brunei revolt”, The Straits Times, 24 December 1962, Page 7 (see here).

[28] “Left-wing forces may have to make judgement – Barisan”, The Straits Times, 1 January 1963, Page 2 (see here).

[29] “Subandrio's speech direct attack: Tengku”, The Straits Times, 22 January 1963, Page 1 (see here).

[30] Dennis Bloodworth, The Tiger and the Trojan Horse. Marshall Cavendish. Kindle Edition.

[31] “Who's who in the big round-up”, The Straits Times, 6 February 1963, Page 10 (see here).

[32] Hansard, 9 April 1963 (see here).

[33] “It's official: SPA in the Alliance”, The Straits Times, 25 June 1963, Page 18 (see here).

[34] “U Thant: Go ahead”, The Straits Times, 15 September 1963, Page 2 (see here).

[35] “Indonesia Halts Lucrative Trade with Malaysia”, New York Times, 22 September 1963; “Sukarno pledges fight to achieve Malaysia’s doom”, New York Times, 26 September 1963.

[36] “Big polls battle begins...”, The Straits Times, 13 September 1963, Page 20 (see here).

[37] “Dr Lee: We oppose Malaysia”, The Straits Times, 17 September 1963, Page 4 (see here).

[38] “Nair lashes out at Jakarta”, The Straits Times, 18 September 1963, Page 11 (see here).

[39] “A calamity if Barisan forms Govt, Lee warns”, The Straits Times, 21 September 1963, Page 11 (see here).

[40] Quoted by Lee Kuan Yew in The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew.

[41] “Anatomy Of Victory”, The Straits Times, 23 September 1963, Page 10 (see here).