Singapore Revisited (VIII): From frying pan to fire

James Myburgh writes on the troubled start to Singapore’s doomed merger with Malaysia

Lee Kuan Yew’s focus from 1959 to 1963 had been to bring Singapore into Malaysia partly for practical political and economic reasons, and partly for idealistic reasons. An independent and united Malaya had always been his goal and that of his English-educated allies.

As explained in the previous article it was through the battle for merger that Lee and the People’s Action Party were able to prevail over their former pro-Communist allies turned adversaries.

This desire for merger had a personal aspect for the PAP leadership as well. A number of senior PAP leaders had been born in, and had family still living in, the Malay Federation. As a practical matter it was inconceivable at the time that Singapore could ever survive as an independent state, cut off from its economic hinterland. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___


Under British rule local political power in the Malay Federation was in hands of the Malays’ hereditary rulers, while the country’s industry, rubber, tin and commerce and industry were run by the British and Chinese. (The smaller Indian minority worked on the railways, in the docks and on the rubber plantations.) As a British government report noted in 1954:

“The Malays have virtually no middle class, and are mainly peasants with little share in the country’s industrial or commercial life, although they largely support the public service and the police; they are still deeply imbued with a sense of loyalty to their hereditary Rulers. The Chinese have a large and powerful middle class and no aristocracy or hereditary rulers. The Malays are Moslems, whereas it is hardly possible to over-rate they importance to the Chinese of the pig in their economy and everyday life. The Malays for the most part live in small villages scattered up and down the coastline and along the river banks, while the Chinese tend to be concentrated in the towns and industrial areas.”[1]

Up until 1953 admission to the Malay civil service had been reserved for British subjects of European descent and Malays, however a provision had then been introduced allowing for one-fifth of new entrants to be from other communities. In other services this quota stood at one-quarter. By the mid-1950s there were also quotas in operation in respect of the issuing of permits or licences for the operation of certain businesses, particularly in road haulage and the taxi industry.

Extensive tracts of land were also reserved for Malays only. Various preferences were also given to Malays in the granting of many classes of scholarships and bursaries and other forms of educational aid. Despite the latter there was a huge gap in educational attainment between the Malays and the Chinese. By 1958 only 13% of the student body in the University of Malaya were Malays. An even lower proportion were studying abroad in Britain and Australia.[2]

A major reason for this lay in the British policy of benign neglect when it came to the education of their colonial subjects. As a 1961 review of Malaya’s first four years of independence in the Manchester Guardian noted:

“The Malays, often indolent, regard Malaya as theirs, and the other races as on sufferance; most of them live simple village lives. The Chinese, for their part, work hard, congregating in the towns, where they dominate the nation’s trade. These divisions have been accentuated by the aberration of British officials in the decades before independence. While the culture-conscious Chinese built their secondary schools across the country the Malays, being happy as they were, built none. Only a small elite of Malays were educated in English. It seems incredible that colonial officials did not see the dangers and did not insist on improved Malay schooling. Today one in fifty Malay primary school pupils receives a secondary education in his own language; in the Chinese schools the figure is one in seven. In the university of Malaya’s medical faculty last year there were 15 Malays in a total enrolment of 470.”[3]

The potential tensions between the Malay and Chinese populations - either over Chinese predominance in the economy or Malay command of the state - were initially mitigated by a lack of serious competition.

The 1954 British government report noted, “The Chinese show no eagerness to enter the Army, the uniformed ranks of the Police and the higher grades of the Civil Service, now for the first time thrown open to them; and in the plans for a national rather than communal system of education they see a threat to the cherished traditions of Chinese culture. The Malays take little advantage of new opportunities to enter the world of business and commerce.”[4]

In 1957 the commission responsible for drafting the constitution of the soon-to-be independent Federation of Malaya was required by its terms of reference to provide for “the safeguarding of the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities.” It recommended that preferences then in existence for Malays be allowed to continue for a substantial period (it suggested 15 years), but they should in due course be reduced, “and should ultimately cease so that there should then be no discrimination between races or communities.”[5]

These recommendations were incorporated into Article 153 of the constitution of the Federation of Malaya. Responsibility for the safeguarding of the Malays’ “special position” as well as the legitimate interests of others given to the head of state, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. This was the king chosen for a five-year term from among the nine sultans. (In 1963 the reference in the constitution to the special rights of Malays was expanded to incorporate the “natives” of the North Borneo territories of Sarawak of Sabah as well.)

According to the censuses carried out by the British in June 1957 the population of the Federation of Malaya was just under 50% Malay to 37,2% Chinese. By contrast Singapore was a predominantly Chinese city. This meant that a simple merger of Singapore and the Malay Federation alone would give the Chinese a slight demographic edge in the new state. See Table 1 below.

Table 1: June 1957 census results for Federation of Malaya and Singapore[6]:


Federation of Malaya




3 126 706


197 067


3 323 773



2 332 936


1 090 570


3 423 506



695 985


124 083


820 068



123 136


34 210


157 346



6 278 763


1 445 930


7 724 693


It was largely to dilute Chinese influence then that the two Borneo territories were brought into the new Federation of Malaysia, and Singapore had to accept 10 fewer seats in the federation parliament than its population warranted.


The Malay Federation had been governed since independence, and before, by an alliance between UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). These were three communally based parties – appealing to the Malay, Chinese and Indian populations, respectively. UMNO’s hold on power depended on the unity of the Malay vote. ‘Vote Malay to keep the Malays in power,’ was its appeal. The MCA and MIC, in turn, did not seek to compete with UMNO for Malay votes.

In the 1959 elections the two main opposition parties before merger were the more extreme Malay-based Pan-Malayan Islamic Party, which had won 21.27% of the vote and 13 seats in the 1959 election, and the left-wing Socialist Front, which had strong support among the Chinese in urban areas. It had won 12,91% of the vote in 1959 and eight seats. Within UMNO itself there was a strong Malay nationalist wing led by the party’s secretary-general and chief propagandist, Syed Jaafar Albar. The Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman himself was a great believer in the traditional division of responsibility between the Malays and the Chinese. As he put it in one speech:

“People take for granted what each race is capable of and able to do better than the other. In politics, administration and perhaps service in the armed forces the Malays are unrivalled because their needs and ambitions are clear-cut. On the other hand, the Chinese and others do not aspire to giddy heights in politics, administration, and armed forces because in these fields the opportunity to make money is limited. They, therefore, go in for business, big and small, and work laboriously without regard to all the risks involved.”[7]

Initially, the Tunku and Lee had agreed informally not to go fishing in each other’s electoral ponds. However, UMNO helped engineer the establishment of the Singapore Alliance in 1963 in an unsuccessful effort to displace the PAP as Singapore’s governing party. Not only had the alliance failed in this goal, but the PAP also won the three constituencies previously held by UMNO. See Table 2 below.

Table 2: Election results in three Malay-dominated constituencies in Singapore








Geylang Serai

7 940


3 832


5 019


6 722


Kampong Kembangan

4 443


4 199


3 692


7 127


Southern Islands

2 598


1 225


2 224


2 764


was a result that did not please UMNO. A week after the party’s defeat the Tunku addressed a rally in Singapore. Though he appealed for calm from his supporters he also spoke darkly of “traitors” in the Malay community who had betrayed UMNO by voting PAP.[8] As Antony Head, the British High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur later noted, the victory of the PAP in these constituencies first triggered “serious apprehensions” in UMNO and among Malay nationalists. “The P.A.P. is a multi-racial party with the declared aim of spreading its influence and attracting members of all races from all over the Federation. The fact that it had succeeded in getting a number of Malays in Singapore to vote for it was a political red light for the Malays.”[9]

In his speech at the PAP’s victory rally, the day after the Tunku had spoken, Lee said that the PAP accepted that for the next decade or two the Prime Minister of Malaysia must be a Malay, and added it was not “out to capture power in Kuala Lumpur.”

“We want to cooperate and work in the common interests of Malaysia. We want to help them understand what we fear, sometimes they do not understand the problem of the urban Chinese, the city, the towns where over the last few years the M.C.A. and the M.I.C. have lost ground to a host of opposition parties in Malaya: PPP, Socialist Front, UDP. They are a protest vote, and it can be resolved provided there is an intelligent appraisal.”[10]

Lee Kuan Yew felt that UMNO’s meddling in Singapore politics meant he was no longer bound by his undertaking that PAP would keep out of Malayan politics. Early the next year the PAP leadership decided to put up a token number of candidates for elections to the federal parliament in the elections in Malaya to be held on 25th April 1964. These would be in constituencies contested by the MCA, but not UMNO. Goh Keng Swee counselled against this decision and refused to participate in the subsequent campaign.

In his speech at a mass rally in Kuala Lumpur on 22nd March 1964, launching the PAP’s campaign, Lee Kuan Yew said that his party was putting up candidates in a limited number of urban seats to “trigger off the social revolution in Malaya” while trying to avoid upsetting the Malay leadership or risking a misunderstanding with the rural Malay base. The purpose he said was to prove that the “urban population in Malaya want social change, want a more just and equal society.” If the PAP’s candidates won, this would impel the UMNO leadership to “adjust their social and economic policy to take into account the wishes of the people in the towns.”[11]

In a statement issued in response to this speech Syed Jaafar Albar asked what Lee Kuan Yew meant when he talked about “social revolution”? Was Lee advocating “the eventual disappearance of the Sultans of Malaysia? Or does he mean the nationalisation of rubber estates and tin mines? I hope the Malays do not take Lee literally when he talks about revolution. Revolution is a gory and bloody business”. He also accused Lee of antagonising Singapore’s 200 000 Malays. “The PAP leader need not go very far to find their ill-feeling towards him, his Malay stooges in the party and the PAP itself.” He said that the PAP had won the constituencies previously held by UMNO largely based on non-Malay votes. The Malays in Singapore government service were, Albar further claimed. unhappy because they were being treated like “step-sons” by the PAP government and PAP bureaucrats. “Lee Kuan Yew is so contemptuous of the Malays that his government refused to appoint any Malay to serve on statutory bodies in Singapore.”[12]

In his response to the PAP’s efforts to displace the MCA, the Tunku made clear that UMNO would never ditch its Alliance partners. Addressing a mass rally at the end of March he said that “Even if there are only five MCA members left or five MIC, we will always stand together united in common purpose.” Unlike other parties, referring to the PAP, he said UMNO would “never throw our partners overboard.” The Alliance had always stood together through thick and thin, no matter what the difficulties. “If we sink, we sink together – and then, I say, the whole country will sink with us.”[13]

The message of Minister of Finance and President of the MCA, Tan Siew Sin, to the Chinese community was simple: “Do you want to be on the winning side or on the losing side?” In a speech at the close of the campaign he stated: “If you are on the losing side and are represented in parliament by an opposition MP you will not get the things you ask for easily. On the other hand, if you are represented by a member of the ruling party there will be a much better chance of requests being met if they are reasonable.”[14]

This message struck home. Although the PAP attracted large crowds on the campaign trail, its challenge fizzled out at the ballot box. It won only one out of nine wards (Devan Nair in Kuala Lumpur), coming second in only two others, with the MCA (Alliance) winning six, the (left-wing Chinese-based) Socialist Front one, and the MCA-offshoot the United Democratic Party the other. The Alliance secured 40,3% of the vote in these nine constituencies, the Socialist Front 34,2% and the PAP only 18,6%.[15] Overall the UMNO-MCA-MIC alliance won 89 seats out of the 104 seats being contested. The Alliance also saw off the challenge from the pro-Indonesian and Malay-extremist Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP) which had its representation cut from thirteen to nine.

In hindsight, Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his biography, the PAP lacked an organisational structure on the ground. Its challenge was also not serious enough to be credible. “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.” Indonesia’s policy of confrontation had also played into UMNO’s hands, with public opinion rallying around the Tunku’s leadership.


Following the Alliance’s victory in the elections the PAP persisted with its efforts to try and build up an organisational presence in the towns of Malaya. The Alliance government now sought to teach PAP a lesson it would not forget. UMNO radicals escalating their propaganda against Singapore claiming the PAP government was anti-Malay. The main organ for doing so was the leading Malay-language newspaper, Utusan Malayu, for which Lee had once acted as legal advisor, but which had since been taken over by UMNO. Radio Indonesia also sought to stir the communal pot.

The Singapore government was accused of excluding Malays from work in the factories of the new industrial estate at Jurong. The government responded by pointing out, once it had established the actual figures, that 16 percent of workers were in fact Malays, compared to the ten percent that they made up of Singapore’s total population.[16]

Claims were also made that Malays were being threatened with eviction in various areas of the city, as part of its re-housing programme, the insinuation being that they were being driven out of their homes based on their race.

In a speech in early June 1964 Lee Kuan Yew condemned this “mischievous propaganda from certain quarters that the Government is out to oppress the Malays. This propaganda has been directed particularly against the Government’s scheme to develop Geylang, the Crawford and Kampong Giam areas.” He pointed out that of the 2 500 families who have had to move from the Kampong Glam-Crawford areas to make way for a public housing development scheme, only 250 were Malay.[17]

The Singapore government also noted that it provided “free tuition for all Malay students who are Singapore citizens or children of Singapore citizens studying in primary and secondary schools and in institutions of higher learning. The number of such students in 1963 on free tuition at the universities and other higher institutions was 48. Malay students on free education in primary and secondary schools number over 45 000.” In addition, it also offered “bursaries of various categories to Malay students in secondary schools and the higher institutions.”[18]

In a further effort to counteract such propaganda, on 22nd of June 1964 the Singapore Minister for Social Affairs, Othman Wok, invited 114 Muslim non-political bodies to a meeting with Lee Kuan Yew on 19th July to discuss the “practical and realistic steps” that could be taken to raise the educational and living standards of the Malay population in Singapore and help resolve genuine problems. Although this was not publicised UMNO soon heard about it and sought to pre-empt it by scheduling a rival convention on the “Situation of Malays in Singapore” on 12th July 1964.[19]

In terms of the Singapore constitution negotiated during merger, government was under an obligation to protect the “special position” of Malays as the indigenous people of the island, but they were not entitled to the various forms of racial preferences or “special rights” that applied in Malaya itself.[20] (The Malaysian government was also then pushing ahead with plans to make Malay, then the national language, the sole official language by 1967.)

Singapore UMNO however announced that it planned to table proposals at the upcoming meeting urging the government to introduce legislation to guarantee Malay employment in the state, establish a special Malay settlement, have lower rents for Malays in Housing Development Board flats, ensure wide use of Malay in government and business, and provide scholarships to Malays.[21] In other words, to extend the privileges prevailing in Malaya to Singapore itself. Vague but ominous threats were also issued. The leader of UMNO in Singapore, Senator Ahmad Haji Taff, said that the convention would “study the plight of the Malays affected by the government’s development plans. Unless this plight is looked into by the government and steps taken to help the people affected, there is no telling what they might do.”[22]

In a speech in early July Lee Kuan Yew stated: “We cannot allow one community to intimidate another. Just as I could not allow the Chinese Communist to intimidate the rest of the community so I will not allow the Malay communalist to intimidate the others. It cannot be done! This place has to be run on a basis of fair play and fair share for all, and on the open argument.” He expressed confidence that Singapore would be able to see off the line being propagated mostly by people who had come in from Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere. However, referring to December 1950 Muslim riots in Singapore, he said: “I have only one fear – that some unfortunate incident takes place.” [23]

In his address to UMNO’s convention on the 12th, Albar denied that he was trying to stir up racial strife on the island. The object was only to express dissatisfaction at the “fate” that had befallen the Malays in Singapore. The Malays on the island, he suggested, had been oppressed by the British, then the Japanese, and now the PAP. He also appealed for Malay unity: “If we are united, no force can break us. Not even a thousand Lee Kuan Yew’s”. He went on:

“So let us be united. Let us not split and be divided amongst ourselves. Let our unity not be broken in the forthcoming meeting of July 19. If Mr Lee Kuan Yew wants to make amends, he must consult us, the true representatives of the Malays, and not consult with those organisations which he has united.”

The meeting appointed a 23 strong “action committee” which claimed the right to speak for the entire Malay community in all future dealings with the Singapore government. It also resolved that the government-sponsored meeting the following Sunday should be boycotted.[24] Utusan Melayu warned that if the Singapore government refused to engage with the Malay community solely through the action committee, then “neither the Malays or Jaafar Albar should be blamed for the consequences.”[25]

Lee pressed ahead with the scheduled meeting despite such threats. Of the organisations which had accepted the invitation to attend only a handful withdrew after the boycott call.[26] In the end 101 of 114 organisations invited, along with 300 Malay leaders, attended.[27] In his speech to the 1 000 strong gathering Lee noted that Indonesia was claiming, in their propaganda, that “confrontation” was an effort to help the Malays “take over the wealth and position of the Chinese as represented in Singapore.” For their own reasons elements in UMNO had now joined in this campaign.

He said that the Singapore government had done nothing “which is dishonourable or wrong to the Malays and we are prepared to have our record put under the closest scrutiny.” But there were “genuine difficulties caused in our society by unequal development between the Malays and the other non-Malay communities in Singapore. The Government has a responsibility not only because of the special position which is recognised in the Singapore Constitution but also because it will do harm to the unity and integrity of the nation if one section of the community is lagging behind.”

The solution to this problem, Lee stated, lay primarily with education. “Once the Malays are as well-educated and qualified as the others, then their capacity to hold better jobs and have a better standard of living will automatically follow.”

“Unfortunately, as a result of a different cultural development and many years of British colonial education policy, the Malays at present have not as yet got up to the same level of the other communities. The Government is prepared to consider all practical suggestions as to how the level of education of Malay youth can be increased in order that they can come out into the world as well equipped and trained as any of the other communities.

The second problem, employment, is the direct result of the education policy in the past. Very few Malay students go on to secondary school and very, very few go on to universities and other institutions of higher learning. The great majority finish at primary education leaving them unqualified for any of the better jobs. Today we face a problem which we have inherited from past education policy. Somehow we must resolve this.”[28]

In the five-hour long discussion Lee made clear that while the government would do everything to enable Malays to compete on the highest level there would be no quota system in employment. “For more than 140 years Singapore had believed in the system of free competition. This system would go on.” Government would also not consider demands for the introduction of quotas in trading licenses, or land reservation for Malays. Lee said that any rental subsidies for flats, if given, would be done through ‘means testing’ so that they went to the Malay poor only. [29]

In his speech Lee also made very clear that, though it would meet with them, the Singapore government did not accept the “Malay Action Committee” – “which includes P.M.I.P. extremists and racists” – as its interlocutor with the Malay community.

“For any ... group to demand the right to represent all the members of a community and so demand the exclusive right to advise what the Government should do, is a challenge to the Constitutional rights and obligation of the Singapore Government. We do not intend to abdicate from our right to govern. It is the intention of this Government to do what is right and fair, and we will not be intimidated from doing our best in looking after the interests of the people of Singapore including the Malays who have, under our Constitution, a special position.”[30]

Lee had thus made clear that he would not accept UMNO’s rules of communal politics, or the importation of racial preferences into Singapore.


In a statement issued in reply, the head of the Malay Action Committee, Ahmad Haji Taff, said that the meeting had been an “insult to the Malays”. Responding to the allegation of communalism Taff commented:

“The Prime Minister himself is trying to break the harmony and good relations between Malays and Chinese which have existed from time immemorial. Our campaign has been directed solely at Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his government for not implementing the special rights clause in the Constitution – not campaign against the Chinese.”[31]

On the Tuesday 21st July Muslims in Singapore held their annual rally and procession in celebration of the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday. This was a non-partisan affair, and the PAP was one of the organisations participating, as was UMNO. The gathering began at the open playing field (the ‘Padang’) in the centre of the city.

In a highly inflammatory address to the crowd the UMNO Secretary General in Singapore Dato Syed Esa Almanoer said that Muslims and non-Muslims could exist together on friendly terms, “but in everything that we do there must be a limit and if it has come to that limit that such people who are non-Muslims, who have disturbed our religion and who have driven us from our homes then Islam says such people are cruel wrong-doers.” The crowd of 25 000 then made its way, in a mile long procession, to the premises of the All-Malaya Muslim Missionary Society in the Malay settlement of Geylang Serai.

According to the account put together by the police in their briefing to Lee that evening, trouble started at around 5pm as the procession was winding its way through Lorong Soopoo, a Chinese area, near the Kallang gas works. A (Chinese) member of the federal police asked some stragglers to re-join the main stream of people. Yet instead of being obeyed he was set upon. More groups became unruly, and passers-by and spectators were attacked. The communal rioting – with Malays and Chinese attacking and counterattacking each other – spread from the Geylang area into the city itself.[32]

In an effort to put a lid on the situation a curfew was imposed from 9.30pm. In a broadcast that evening Lee commented:

“All the indications show that there has been organisation and planning behind this outbreak to turn it into an ugly communal clash. All that was needed was someone to trigger it off. Then the news spread like wildfire with each attack followed by a counterattack. We can and we will sort these things out later on. But right now, our business is to stop this stupidity. The vast majority of our people want to live in peace with each other. To them I make this appeal to stay indoors tonight and make it easier for the police and military to deal with marauding groups who are out to make mischief.”[33]

The Tunku was in Washington DC at the time that the rioting broke out. In his address to the nation on the evening of the 21st the acting Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdul Razak, had appealed for calm.[34]. On a visit to Singapore a few days later he blamed a bottle-thrower for providing the initial trigger but admitted there was as yet no evidence of Indonesian involvement.[35]

It was a cause for huge frustration to the PAP that they no longer had any control over internal security and had to rely on federal government forces to restore order. PAP leaders were angered by the initial delay in the imposition of the curfew and the deployment of the riot police.[36] The Malay Regiment and the Federal Reserve Unit, which were mostly Malay, were regard as having acted in a harsh manner towards the Chinese population.[37] The PAP government did what it could by setting up goodwill committees headed by community leaders and elders in all 51 electoral wards in an effort to dampen down the inflamed communal tensions.

Despite the PAP government’s best efforts, the riots raged on for days, with extensive curfew restrictions remaining in place until 2nd August. By the end of the violence 23 people had been killed, and 454 injured. There were similar numbers of Malay and Chinese dead.

In his autobiography Lee comments on the shattering effects of the riots:

“…many Chinese were intimidated as a result of the open bias of the Malayan troops and police during the riots, and 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.”

UMNO sought to blame the PAP’s alleged mistreatment of the Malays for the violence. An editorial in the party’s official organ Merdeka on 27th July, published while the riots were still ongoing, commented:

“In our opinion, the PAP government may have made some mistakes which caused dissatisfaction and frustration among a section of the people concerning their future. In this respect, it is obvious that the PAP government has not been fair in meeting the wishes of its people, particularly the section which feels they are being suppressed and victimised.”

It went on to call for a change in the top leadership of PAP:

“We feel that in the interest of peace in Singapore in particular, and Malaysia in general, the top leadership of the PAP should be changed, for only in this way can the heightened feelings of a certain section of the population by quietened.”[38]

An offer was also made behind the scenes to the PAP through which Lee would resign as Prime Minister and take up a top position at the United Nations, and in return the PAP would be given cabinet posts in the federal government. This was rejected by the PAP.[39]


For the PAP leadership UMNO was very much responsible for this outbreak of communal conflict. In guarded comments to the diplomatic community on 30th of July Lee Kuan Yew noted that his government had effectively neutralised the extremists and chauvinists in the Chinese community in Singapore. The question now was whether the UMNO leadership would do the same with the radicals in Malay ranks. “What we must not forget” he commented “is that the Malay leadership in UMNO also faces their extremists, or, for convenience of terminology, their 'ultra's'. The question now is whether rational and moderate leadership on the Malay side can smack down their 'ultra's'.”[40]

The PAP called for a commission of inquiry into the riots, but this was initially turned down by the government in Kuala Lumpur in favour of a “post-mortem”. Albar for his part continued with his wild invective against Lee. In a speech following the riots he claimed that “there is a devil in Singapore who sets the Malays and the Chinese against each other.” He accused Lee of being a cowardly leader who hid “in a steel trunk” during the riots, only coming out after peace had been restored. “Personally, I would prefer an Inquiry Commission to be set up to find out why the incidents occurred so that the world may know that Lee Kuan Yew’s hands are stained with blood.”[41]

A memorandum later compiled by the Singapore government carefully documented the stream of racial propaganda that had emanated from UMNO radicals and in the Malay-language press in the run-up to the 21st of July, and after. This had been persisted with despite communal clashes having already broken out by mid-July in the Labuan and Bukit Mertajam area of Malaya. The memorandum stated:

“A sustained campaign of nearly three months, spread all over Malaysia through a pan-Malaysian newspaper, in which Singapore Malays were depicted as being hunted down by a non-Malay, PAP government in a predominantly Chinese city like Singapore, must have made an impact on the sensibilities of the various races, more so as this campaign was carried out by influential and responsible UMNO leaders and publicised through Utusan Melayu.”

“The riots” it argued, “were willed by irresponsible and reckless propaganda based on falsehoods and distortions of facts.”

“Their purpose was principally to re-establish the political influence of UMNO among the Malays in Singapore. An even more important objective was to use the Malays in Singapore as pawns to consolidate Malay support for UMNO in Malaya. By placing the blame for the riots on the Singapore Government and depicting it as oppressing the Malays of Singapore, Malays outside Singapore could be terrified into rallying around UMNO for protection.”[42]

Western diplomats concurred with this interpretation. In a despatch to London on Malaysia’s first year, Antony Head noted that the “strongly chauvinistic and often violently anti-Chinese and Lee Kuan Yew” extremist element of UMNO had “played a considerable part in stirring up the first communal riots which took place in Singapore.” [43] The view of Goh Keng Swee, based on a conversation that he’d had with Razak at the time, was that the riots were instigated by the UMNO leadership with the deliberate purpose of forcing Lee Kuan Yew from office.[44]

In his autobiography Lee notes that he later came to learn that what these methods had been used by UMNO before, notably after Penang had been incorporated into Malaya in the late 1950s.

“The police and the army held the ring while favouring the Malay rioters – usually bersilat [martial arts] 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 policy and army: law and order were enforced against them, not against the Malays. The result was a sullen, cowed population.”

After further communal riots in September, this time apparently instigated by the Indonesian agents, a commission of inquiry was set up and held its first hearings in late April 1965. It would not end up reporting, however.


At the apex of the conflict was the personal incompatibility of Lee and the Tunku. In Antony Head’s assessment the former was a “highly intelligent, a skilled and ruthless politician driven by boundless ambition and more or less incapable of restraint”, while the later was a “somewhat old-world aristocrat with little or no brains who has hardly read a book and who relies on intuition and his general standing in the country for both his influence and his method of governing.”[45]

While the Tunku expected deference from Lee, once merger was complete, this was not forthcoming. Though Lee always disavowed this goal, the British also suspected Lee of having ambitions to eventually displace the Tunku. One of the charges made by UMNO propagandists against the PAP leader was that he had claimed, while speaking in Chinese, that the Tunku was not a politician of “high calibre”. Though Lee denied having publicly made these remarks, this line of attack resonated as it could be reasonably suspected that this was his privately held view.

Then there was the political conflict between the PAP and UMNO and its alliance partners the Malaysian Chinese Association. Here the most immediate electoral threat posed by the PAP was to the MCA for the support of the urban Chinese population in Malaya. The President of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Tan Siew Sin, was also the Malaysian Finance Minister.

To Goh Keng Swee’s immense frustration Tan did everything he could do to prevent the Singapore economy from getting off the ground. The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) was required to submit to Kuala Lumpur application for approval for prospective investors for pioneer certificates which would grant them tax exempt status for five or ten years. Almost all of these were turned down. There was also no progress in the formation of the common market between Singapore and Malaysia, and an attempt by the federal government to hijack Singapore’s textile quota was also only stopped following British intervention. This all served to undermine the key economic rationale for merger.

The PAP and the Alliance also represented two vastly different governing philosophies. The PAP were resolutely anti-communal democratic socialists. Although they drew most of their support from the Chinese population, they were also Malayan nationalists who had shown the ability in the 1963 elections to win over Malay voters as well. By 1965 they had built up a record of dynamic and clean government in Singapore.

By contrast, UMNO had structured politics in Malaya on communal lines, sought to defend the special privileges of Malays, and to defend Malay dominance over the state. Their MCA partners accepted these rules of the game, their concern being primarily to look after elite Chinese business interests. The Alliance government was also far less effective than that of the PAP and by 1965, according to the British assessment, there had been a lowering of standards in the Central Government bureaucracy” as well as evidence of corruption spreading “within the Central Government machine and among certain Ministers.”[46]

Underlying the political and ideological conflict were long-standing communal tensions between Malays and the Chinese. Broadly speaking the Malays felt insecure as the Chinese were perceived as more driven, better-educated, competitive, and hard-working. And without political power and special privileges – such as the quotas limiting Chinese entry into the civil service – they would end up subordinate to the Chinese in all fields of life. By 1964 the Malays were still a long way away from closing the gap in educational attainment with the Chinese and Indian population. Only 28% of the students in the University of Malaya at this time were Malays and almost all were Malay or Islamic studies students.

The Chinese population meanwhile feared the growing influence of the Malay chauvinists in government, were worried over the assertion of Malay as the sole national and official language, and about being permanently relegated to an inferior status in the country.

As Antony Head put it in a 1965 despatch: “These mutual fears and suspicious existed in the old Malaya; but they were lulled during British rule because the Malays relied on us to see that the Chinese did not get on top of them; and the Chinese relied on us to see that the Malays were not too tough with them and did not treat them roughly and too blatantly as second-class citizens. With the end of British rule fears and suspicions between Malays and Chinese grew.”[47]

The final unravelling of Singapore’s merger with Malaysia is the subject of the next article in this series.


[1] 'United Kingdom policy in Malaya': Colonial Office memorandum for UK high commissioners in Commonwealth countries, CO 1030/67, 14 Sept 1954.

[2] “The Special Position”, The Straits Times Saturday. Dec. 13, 1958 (see here).

[3] Our correspondent, “Malaya's four years of independence”, The Guardian (1959-2003); 1st September 1961; Pg. 10.

[4] 'United Kingdom policy in Malaya': Colonial Office memorandum for UK high commissioners in Commonwealth countries, CO 1030/67, 14 Sept 1954.

[5] Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission, (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1957).

[6] “Still more males than females”, The Straits Times, 8 October 1958, Page 5 (see here) “Singapore census for 1957: 1,445,930”, The Straits Times, 28 November 1958 (see here).

[7] “Tengku: Don't be alarmed”, The Straits Times, 7 September 1964, Page 9 (see here).

[8] “Tengku in Singapore calls for unity”, The Straits Times, 28 September 1963, Page 1 (see here).

[9] ‘Malaysia: the first year’: despatch from Antony Head, British High Commissioner, to Mr Bottomley, Secretary of State, Commonwealth Relations Office, 15 October 1964 PREM 13/428, pp 174–179 15 Oct 1964.

[10] Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s speech at the PAP victory rally at the City Hall steps, 28 September 1963 (see here).

[11] Speech by Lee Kuan Yew to mass rally at Suleiman Court, Kuala Lumpur, Monday, 22nd March 1964 (see here).

[12] “What about the Sultans? Lee is asked”, The Straits Times, 26 March 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[13] “Tengku: Sink or swim together”, The Straits Times, 29 March 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[14] “Make sure you back a winner, Siew Sin tells the Chinese”, The Straits Times, 23 April 1964, Page 8 (see here).

[15] “Parliament: The results in full”, The Straits Times, 27 April 1964, Page 8 (see here).

[16] “One-sixth of Jurong work force is Malay”, The Straits Times, 11 July 1964, Page 4 (see here).

[17] “Lee: Govt. out to help Malays”, The Straits Times, 8 June 1964, Page 4 (see here).

[18] “S'pore Govt awards four varsity scholarships in Malay studies”, The Straits Times, 16 July 1964, Page 6 (see here).

[19] “'S’pore Govt has right to solve problems of communities'”, The Straits Times, 18 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[20] Section 89 of the constitution stated that “It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial minorities in the State”; and that, “The government shall exercise its functions in such a manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of the State, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.” “'S’pore Govt has right to solve problems of communities'”, The Straits Times, 18 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[21] “Singapore Umno: Guarantee jobs for Malays”, The Straits Times, 30 June 1964, Page 11 (see here).

[22] “S’pore Umno convention will be an ‘eye-opener’ for govt”, The Straits Times, 7 July 1964, Page 18 (see here).

[23] Transcript of speech by Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the Kampong Kapor Community Centre 3rd Anniversary Celebrations, 5th July 1964 (see here).

[24] “Only 23 men can speak for the Malays S'pore meeting decides”, The Straits Times, 13 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[25] Singapore government memorandum quoted in Alex Josey, Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years,, pg. 240.

[26] “'Spore Govt has right to solve problems of communities'”, The Straits Times, 18 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[27] “Pledges to help, but 'no' to jobs quota”, The Straits Times, 20 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[28] Text of speech by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, at the meeting with Malay non-political bodies at the Victoria theatre, Sunday, 19 July 1964 at 10.30AM (see here).

[29] “Pledges to help, but 'no' to jobs quota”, The Straits Times, 20 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[30] Text of speech by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, at the meeting with Malay non-political bodies at the Victoria theatre, Sunday, 19 July 1964 at 10.30AM (see here).

[31] “UMNO to Lee: We're fighting you—not Chinese”, The Straits Times, 21 July 1964, Page 18 (see here).

[32] Broadcast by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew over Radio and TV Malaysia, Singapore, Tuesday 21st July 1964 (see here).

[33] Broadcast by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew over Radio and TV Malaysia, Singapore, Tuesday 21st July 1964 (see here).

[34] “Appeal for calm”, The Straits Times, 22 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[35] “Under control: Razak”, The Straits Times, 23 July 1964, Page 1 (see here).

[36] 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), pg. 282.

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

[38] “UMNO paper: Change Spore leaders”, The Straits Times, 27 July 1964, Page 4 (see here).

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

[40] Text of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s speech at the Consular Corps Luncheon, Thursday, Adelphi Hotel, Singapore, 30th July 1964 (see here).

[41] Alex Josey, Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years, pp. 242.

[42] Quoted in Alex Josey, Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years, pp. 242-243.

[43] ‘Malaysia: the first year’: despatch from Antony Head to Mr Bottomley PREM 13/428, pp 174–179 15 Oct 19641.

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

[45] Malaysia: the first year’: despatch from Antony Head to Mr Bottomley PREM 13/428, pp 174–179 15 Oct 1964.

[46] ‘Malaysia: will it succeed and how long will we stay?’: despatch from Antony Head to Mr Bottomley PREM 13/430, ff 41–47 21 July 1965.

[47] ‘Malaysia: will it succeed and how long will we stay?’: despatch from Antony Head to Mr Bottomley PREM 13/430, ff 41–47 21 July 1965.