Why the British separate Singapore from Malaya and then engineered the merger of peninsular of Malaya and the island of Singapore


The following is an extract from Dr Poh Soo Kai’s speech delivered at the launch of “LIVING IN A TIME OF DECEPTION” on 2 April 2016. The event was held at Gerak Budaya in Petailing Jaya.

DSC_0138For my audience today in Malaysia, who are not so interested in Singapore history, I want to talk about the period when Singapore came into Malaysia and the subsequent separation.

The cardinal reason why the British engineered the merger of peninsula Malaya and island Singapore in 1963 was to safeguard the effective use of their military base in Singapore.

After the 2nd World War, the British government was short of cash and unable to maintain most of their military bases scattered around the world, yet it was determined to keep the Singapore military base under its direct control.

This was manifestly clear from the MacMichael Treaty, immediately post 2nd World War, which created the Malayan Union that excluded Singapore, leaving it in British hands. The opposition of the people in mainland Malaya and island Singapore towards this Malayan Union scheme, as embodied in the nationwide Hartal movement of 20 October 1947 for a unified and progressive Malaya, was completely ignored by the British.

Britain needed to keep the Singapore military base in this region because the spectacular rise of the anti-colonial movement in the Far East had brought Mao Tse Tung to power in China and Sukarno in Indonesia – the two most populous countries of the region. The threat, posed by China and Indonesia to Britain’s imperialist ambitions in the aftermath of World War II, was palpable. Hence, the British military base in Singapore was essential.

The British archive revealed that one of UK strategic aims in the Far East was to “maintain an independent contribution to the nuclear deterrent against China.” Therefore, by 1961, Britain had stationed planes, capable of carrying nuclear bombs aimed at China, in its Singapore military base. In the same vein, Britain adopted a very pro-active stance towards Indonesia to topple Sukarno.

The effectiveness of the Singapore base in advancing British interests was certainly demonstrated in the role it played in dispatching troops to squash the Brunei rebellion in December 1962.

However, with the resurgence of the left-wing in Singapore in 1961 as seen in the electoral victories in Hong Lim and Anson, Britain was not at all assured that its military base in Singapore would be effective in what the British referred to as “a sea of hostile local population.”

DSC_0149In 1961, Lee Kuan Yew’s government seemed unable to resist the popular left-wing forces calling for independence and control of internal security. As the Singapore military base was still necessary in Britain’s strategic evaluation of the region against China and Indonesia, it must now be protected under a different arrangement.

Britain, therefore, took the Malaysia merger proposal out of the cupboard, gave it a dusting and put it on fast track. Lord Selkirk, the British High Commissioner, made it exceedingly clear that the merger of Singapore into Malaysia was a non-negotiable term of the new political entity.

As far as the Tunku in Malaya was concerned, he was not keen to have what he saw as “a left-wing and Chinese majority” Singapore. The British had to entice him by including the Borneo territories of present day Sabah and Sarawak in the Malaysia package.

As for Lee Kuan Yew under threat from the recent left-wing electoral victories, his hope was that with merger, the Tunku would arrest his left-wing opponents in Singapore for him. But the Tunku would not take that odium for Lee. Finally, Operation Coldstore of 2 February 1963 was a tripartite undertaking of the British, Malaya and Singapore that crippled the open democratic left-wing movement of Singapore.

As we see from here, the three parties involved in setting up Malaysia had no vision of forming a nation; they came together for political reasons of their own.

Once inside Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew sought to replace Tan Siew Sin and the MCA as the Tunku’s Chinese partner in the Alliance coalition. Clearly Lee was not against the communal politics of Malaysia in ideology or principle. However, when he failed to persuade the Tunku to let go of Tan Siew Sin, he then decided that he would enter the Malaysian general election of 1964 to prove to the Tunku that he commanded more Chinese support than the MCA even though he had promised the Tunku that he would not take part in that election coming so close on the heel of merger. Lee broke his word. To Lee’s consternation, the PAP failed miserably in the 1964 general election, winning only one out of five seats contested. Lee was staring into a bleak and dim future in Malaysia!

At this juncture, it is timely to recall an earlier conversation Lee had with PBC Moore, then acting British High Commissioner in Singapore, in which he informed Moore that if he had no place in Malaysia, the odds for success of Malaysia would be nil.

Lord Selkirk, in his clairvoyance, had indicated that in such an eventuality, Lee Kuan Yew would resort to racial politics in Malaysia, and as intended and expected, UNMO would retaliate and communal sparks would fly. And thus was ignited the July 1964 rioting in Singapore.

DSC_0128It was in this unhappy state of affairs that in December 1964, the Tunku wrote to Lee, suggesting that they should discuss the possibility of constitutional rearrangement between the two territories that did not necessarily hive off Singapore. However had it not been for intervening events that were fast changing Britain’s continuing need for the base in Singapore, the Tunku would have been powerless to propose any constitutional re-arrangement with Lee.

The first intervening event was that by October 1964, the Chinese had exploded its first atomic bomb. As a consequence, the Singapore military base’s raison d’etre to contain China by nuclear deterrence was moot.

The second intervening event was the impending downfall of Sukarno. By December 1964, the British were rather confident that their machinations in Indonesia would be bearing fruit and that the end of Sukarno was round the corner. Even Sukarno himself had premonitions as he entitled his speech in January 1965 as “The year of living dangerously.” Sukarno did not last out 1965.

In view of these two factors, the usefulness of the British military base in Singapore was rapidly diminishing; and the British permitted the Tunku and Lee to explore a new arrangement between Malaya and Singapore in the period around the end of 1964 and beginning of 1965.

At this stage, the new arrangement still envisaged defence and foreign affairs to remain in the hands of the Tunku with only some form of autonomy accorded to Singapore. However by July 1965, when it became obvious that Sukarno’s fall was in the cards, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia – an option favoured by Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee – was raised in the talks between Razak and Goh.

To hasten the pace for separation, the PAP held the Malaysian Solidarity Convention in May 1965. It is to be noted that the left-wing parties in Malaya declined the invitation to participate in this so-called “Malaysian Solidarity.” Masquerading under a purportedly neutral and inclusive slogan “Malaysia for Malaysians,” the Convention took on an overtly anti-Malay line, resulting in communal tensions between Malays and Chinese. Thus, to prevent further communal violence, in August 1965, separation – as desired by Lee and Goh – became a reality. Yet Lee shed crocodile tears on television!

By happy co-incidence, as would innocently appear to British imperialist designs, Sukarno fell at the end of September 1965 in the incident known as G30S (which I will not go into here.) Suffice to say any remaining reason for UK to hold on to the Singapore military base became invalid.

Malaysia had come into being – not because there was any genuine desire to build a nation out of the territories of Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo territories. Its raison d’etre was solely to protect the British military base in Singapore. Once the usefulness of the base was gone, UK packed up and left.

Unfortunately in the process, the PAP played the communal card to the hilt – whipping up both Chinese and Malay chauvinism – with its Malaysian Solidarity Conference and Malaysian Malaysia slogan. The result has been communal tension, on both sides of the causeway. Friendly fraternal relations gave way to hostility. Malaya and Singapore are much farther apart today than in 1962.



About fn8org

For computers, it means to start again in safe mode. For us, we hope we can also start again in safe mode. But it's more like re-booting our systems and starting from much needed basics for democracy in Singapore.
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