Saturday 8 August 2015

Behind the scenes: What led to separation from Malaysia in 1965

Was Singapore expelled from the Malaysia federation or was the split based on mutual consent? A PhD student pieces together a behind-the-scenes version of events to suggest it was the latter.
By Edmund Lim, Published The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2015

On Aug 9, 1965, towards the end of a press conference after Singapore became independent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said: "There is nothing to be worried about. Many things will go on just as usual. But be firm, be calm. We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion."

Separation Video
50 years ago, on this day, Singapore was thrust into independence. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said then, every time we look back at what happened, it will be a "moment of anguish". But we picked ourselves up and worked hard to build this nation, with our pioneers leading the way. So today, let us give thanks, rejoice, and celebrate all that we have in our little red dot. Happy National Day to one and all! #SG50 #JubileeWeekend
Posted by Lawrence Wong on Saturday, August 8, 2015

Mr Lee's call for unity amid diversity in our multiracial society remains relevant half a century later. Fifty years on, as we near the jubilee year of Independence, it's timely to look back at events leading to the Aug 9 separation.

What were the events and the plans that led to that pivotal break?

What happened behind the scenes? Was Singapore "booted out" by Malaysia or was it a mutually agreed decision?

While researching for my doctorate in history, I set myself the task of piecing together, from available records, a picture of what happened in the weeks leading up to Aug 9, 1965.


In July and September 1964, there were racial riots which led to damage, serious injuries and loss of lives in Singapore. On the economic front, the common market of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore did not materialise.

In November 1964, the then Malaysian Finance Minister Tan Siew Sin proposed raising an extra RM147 million in taxes.

This could have led to Singapore taxpayers contributing more than 35 per cent towards the federal budget, although the Singapore population comprised only about 17 per cent of the whole population in Malaysia at that time.

Furthermore, the proposed turnover and payroll tax would seriously affect businessmen in Singapore. The Malaysian Finance Minister also wanted to increase the contribution of Singapore to the federal government from 40 to 60 per cent of its revenue.

In addition, there were increasing tension and differences between the People's Action Party leaders in Singapore and the leaders in the Malaysian central government.

According to Ms Tan Siok Sun's biography, Goh Keng Swee: A Portrait, on Jan 22, 1965, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman wrote to Dr Goh Keng Swee and offered Singapore full autonomy, except in foreign and defence matters, in exchange for Singapore giving up its seats in the Federal Parliament.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee was involved in a series of discussions with the Malaysian leaders but "all these (negotiations) came to nought", as noted by Dr Goh. Dr Goh recalled, during his interview with Dr Melanie Chew in the book Leaders Of Singapore: "In the early days there were a lot of discussions about changing the terms of Malaysia by the Prime Minister, Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye. It got nowhere."

On June 6, 1965, there was the Malaysian Solidarity Convention at the Singapore National Theatre, where Mr Lee advocated a "Malaysian Malaysia". This upset certain Malaysian Umno leaders.

Around July 13, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak asked Dr Goh, who was then Singapore's Minister for Finance, to visit him in his Kuala Lumpur home. The then Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs Ismail Abdul Rahman was also present at that meeting.

Ms Tan wrote that during this critical discussion, Tun Razak commented: "We can't go on like this."


Dr Goh said that when he and Mr Lee first proposed the merger, they did not expect the situation with Malaysia to deteriorate to this level, "so the best thing would be to call it quits; we should go our separate ways". Dr Goh recalled: "I just want to get out. I could see no future in it; the political cost was dreadful and the economic benefits, well, didn't exist."

Dr Goh proposed: "Well, we leave Malaysia, become an independent state, and you will be relieved of all these troubles, and we would also be relieved of troubles from you. All these tensions that have built up, communal tensions, will all be over. We are on our own, you are on your own."

Tun Razak requested Dr Goh to ask Mr Lee about his views on this matter. On July 20, 1965, there was a second meeting in Tun Razak's office. Dr Goh met Tun Razak and Dr Ismail. Dr Goh said Mr Lee was in favour of the secession of Singapore to become independent. This was to be done no later than Aug 9 as Parliament would reconvene that day and the Bill for the Independence of Singapore would be introduced.

According to Dr Chew, Dr Goh was recorded as saying: "Now on the 20th of July 1965, I met Tun Razak and Dr Ismail. Now this is the 20th July 1965. I persuaded him that the only way out was for Singapore to secede completely."

Dr Goh stated: "You want to get Singapore out and it must be done very quickly. And very quietly, and presented as fait accompli."

Dr Goh commented that Tun Razak and Dr Ismail agreed with the separation. "In fact, they themselves had come to the conclusion that Singapore must get out. The question was how to get Singapore out," said Dr Goh.

In that oral history interview, Dr Chew remarked: "So the secession of Singapore was well planned by you and Tun Razak! It was not foisted on Singapore."

Dr Goh responded: "No, it was not."

Mr Lee stated in his memoirs, The Singapore Story: "Keng Swee came back to report that Razak wanted a total hiving-off. Razak had made two points: first, he wanted Keng Swee to confirm I was in favour. Keng Swee said, 'Yes, provided it is done quickly before Lee's commitment and involvement in the Solidarity Convention makes it impossible for him to get out.' Ismail accepted this point. Razak appeared both relieved and incredulous because, according to Keng Swee, he half-expected me to reject the idea. Keng Swee said I was realistic enough to see that a collision was imminent and that the consequences were incalculable."

Specific plans were made from July onwards. For the third meeting on July 27, Dr Goh took along a letter of authorisation signed by Mr Lee dated July 26. The letter stated: "I authorise Goh Keng Swee to discuss with Tun Razak, Dato Ismail and such other federal ministers of comparable authority concerned in these matters in Central Government any proposal for any constitutional arrangements of Malaysia."


From July to August 1965, Mr Eddie Barker, the Singapore Minister for Law, prepared the constitutional documents and agreements for separation. In the oral history interview with the National Archives, Mr Barker said: "Sometime in the middle of July 1965, I was summoned by the Prime Minister to his office. He asked me whether I thought our Attorney-General could be asked to draft an agreement for the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, and if he did, whether we could keep it a secret. I replied that the Attorney-General was the best man for the job but I was afraid others would get to know about the proposal. The Prime Minister then asked whether I could draft the agreement. I replied that I would try."

Mr Lee recalled: "Eddie drafted the two documents, but I asked him to draw up a third, a proclamation of independence."

There was a fourth meeting on Aug 3, 1965, at Tun Razak's office, again involving Dr Goh. Tun Razak confirmed that Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was in favour of the separation plan.

Dr Goh also discussed with Tun Razak and Dr Ismail the defence proposals. Few people in Singapore were aware of these plans for separation. The British leaders were not aware of these separation plans until Aug 8.

On Aug 6, 1965, Dr Goh and Mr Barker had a final meeting with the Malaysian leaders such as Tun Razak, Dr Ismail and Malaysian Attorney-General Abdul Kadir Yusof to discuss the draft of the Separation Agreement.

Dr Goh said: "My role as a negotiator was to get the Malay leaders into a mood in which they will accept the Separation Agreement with the minimum fuss and bother… And so far as the drafting and discussions of the actual text of the Agreement, well, Mr Eddie Barker had to do that."

Mr Lee recounted in an interview with Fred Emery at the studios of Television Singapore: "On Friday (Aug 6), my Finance Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, rang me… He is now Minister for Defence and Security… He said I have to come down (from Cameron Highlands). It was very urgent. So that afternoon, I packed my bag and came down alone, leaving my family up there. I came down that afternoon and arrived at about dinner time… In Kuala Lumpur, he told me, 'This is it'."


The drafting of the agreement of separation of Singapore from Malaysia was started in July 1965, at the instruction of Mr Lee. The Independence of Singapore Agreement 1965 was signed and dated Aug 7.

When Mr Barker handed the signed documents to Mr Lee, Mr Lee recalled saying to him: "Thanks, Eddie, we have pulled off a bloodless coup."

In his memoirs, Mr Lee stated: "At very little notice, we had thought of a way to achieve what the Tunku could not accomplish with his own staff because it had to be carried out in great secrecy and the shortest possible time, including three readings of a Bill in one session of Parliament on a certificate of urgency, or it could never have succeeded."

Dr Ooi Kee Beng from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies stated a key point regarding the separation in his biography of Dr Ismail.

In the memoirs of Tun Dr Ismail, then Malaysian Home Affairs Minister who later became Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Ismail noted as a first-hand witness and participant of these historical developments that "in spite of what was believed, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia was by mutual agreement".

In Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's eulogy speech on March 29 this year, he recalled: "I remember the night the children slept on the floor in my parents' bedroom at Temasek House in Kuala Lumpur, because the house was full of ministers who had come up from Singapore. Every so often, my father would get up from the bed to make a note about something, before lying down to rest again. But obviously he wasn't asleep. The date was 7 August 1965, two days before Separation."

It was indeed a very challenging time.

On the eve of Aug 9, 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew prepared the coded messages that were to be sent to three Commonwealth prime ministers to inform them of the separation. The first sentence of the message to the Australian leader went thus: "By the time you have decoded this message you will know that the Tunku has proclaimed and I have agreed and simultaneously also proclaimed Singapore as a separate and sovereign nation."

On Aug 9, 1965, at 10am, the Malaysian Parliament reconvened and Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman explained the nature and details of the Separation. There was a vote on the Constitution of Malaysia (Singapore Amendment) Bill 1965 to allow Singapore to separate from the Malaysian federation. It was unanimous, 126-0.

Singapore became an independent and sovereign state.

That morning, Mr Lee explained the reasons for separation to the British, Australian, Indian and New Zealand High Commission representatives.

In the afternoon of Aug 9, 1965, he announced on Caldecott Hill, in the television studio, the independence of Singapore.

In a subsequent television broadcast, Mr Lee stated in his determined manner: "I have a few million people's lives to account for. Singapore will survive."

The separation might appear as a surprise to many. However, it was a mutual agreement between the top leaders of Malaysia and Singapore, with the understanding and support of Singapore Cabinet ministers such as Mr Lim Kim San and Mr Barker.

The other ministers, such as Dr Toh Chin Chye and Mr S. Rajaratnam, were also persuaded to accept this decision for separation. Amid the diversity in the Singapore Cabinet, there was unity.

With the dynamic leadership of Singapore's founding fathers and the strong support of its people, this multiracial nation has survived and thrived, against the odds.

Singaporeans can learn from our founding fathers such as Mr Lee and Dr Goh. With the right will, proactive attitude and purposeful plans, we can succeed, even in the midst of great difficulty and challenges.

The determination to succeed and the united perseverance to work for the benefit of our nation are among the key factors which contributed to the nation's development.

The pioneer team of leaders was made up of talented, capable and committed Singaporeans such as Mr Lee, Dr Goh, Dr Toh, Mr Rajaratnam, Mr Lim, Mr Othman Wok, Mr Barker and Mr Hon Sui Sen. They collaborated and complemented each other, as they contributed actively to the young nation.

During the years after our independence, the evident trust and teamwork among the leaders, together with the support of the people, enabled the country and government to strengthen and grow.

In the final recorded words of Mr Lee at the Aug 9, 1965, press conference at the Broadcasting House: "We unite regardless of race, language, religion, culture."

As we Singaporeans remember our history and celebrate our nation's 50th birthday, let us build on our legacy, plan for the future and work together as one united people, "so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation".

The writer is a Singaporean pursuing his PhD at Nanyang Technological University.

Ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s Independence – Some Malaysian...
Posted by K Shanmugam Sc on Saturday, August 8, 2015

Separation 1965: The Tunku's 'agonised decision'
By Mushahid Ali, Published The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2015

Did Singapore ask to leave Malaysia of its own accord or was it forced out against its will?

Fifty years after Singapore's separation from Malaysia, the question is still moot. This review of the events leading to the separation seeks to throw light on the conundrum.

Singapore separated from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965, by a constitutional fiat that formalised an agreed settlement between the state of Singapore and the federal government.

The act of separation was effected by the Malaysian Parliament adopting an Amendment to the Malaysian Constitution and ratifying an Agreement on Separation signed by the governments of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. It was put into action by a Proclamation of Independence of Singapore by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that was read over Radio Singapore.

That agreement was negotiated by leading members of the two governments to bring about an amicable solution to an increasingly bitter and intractable conflict between their ruling parties.

However, it was then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman who initiated the move to "hive off" Singapore from Malaysia.

As he explained at a press conference after the passage of the Separation Act: "It was my idea that Singapore should leave the federation and be independent. The differences between the state government of Singapore and the central government of Malaysia had become so acrimonious that I decided that it was best that Singapore went its own way. Otherwise, there was no hope for peace."

This confirms that Singapore was forced to leave Malaysia at the Tunku's behest. It was not Singapore that sought to secede or initiated the negotiation to separate from Malaysia, as some scholars seek to argue.

Indeed, in the months leading to its constitutional eviction, Singapore had been warned by Malaysian leaders against seeking secession or a partition of Malaysia between the former states of Malaya and the new states - Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah, as well as Penang.

That partition had been proposed by Singapore as an alternative constitutional arrangement for a looser confederation. The proposal had developed from the call made by political parties grouped in the Malaysian Solidarity Convention for a "Malaysian Malaysia" that would ensure equality among all the states and ethnic groups in the country.

This dual demand infuriated the ruling Alliance in Malaysia, especially the dominant Umno. Sections of the ruling parties called for strong retaliation against Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP), which they accused of treason for seeking secession. Some "ultra nationalists" called for the arrest of Mr Lee and even imposing direct central rule on Singapore.

As the conflict of words raged and Malay passions were roused, Malaysia's senior leaders feared that violence might break out, leading to racial clashes across the whole country.

Tunku's surgical solution

It was against this deteriorating political situation that the Tunku began to consider a surgical solution to this intractable problem, to cut the Gordian knot, as it were.

The Tunku had left for London in mid-June for a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

I interviewed him on behalf of Radio Television Singapore (RTS) before his departure at the Paya Lebar International Airport, but he declined to say anything about the altercations between Malaysian politicians and Singapore leaders.

In London, the Tunku was hospitalised with shingles and he thought long and hard about the problems with Singapore. His conclusion: "There would be no end to the bickering with Singapore except perhaps if Mr Lee Kuan Yew is made prime minister in the real sense of the word."

Indeed, the Tunku asked Minister Lim Kim San, who had gone to London with him, to tell Mr Lee ("your PM") that "he can attend the next Prime Ministers' Conference on his own".

That was the first indication by the Tunku that he would give Singapore independence, Mr Lim later said, although he missed the implication of the Tunku's cryptic remark at the time.

The Tunku wrote to his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak, telling him how he felt about the relations with Singapore and to talk things over with Mr Lee. Tun Razak met Mr Lee on June 29, but found it impossible to reach any meeting of minds. In Mr Lee's recounting of the meeting in his memoirs The Singapore Story, Tun Razak went back on his previous agreement to consider a looser arrangement for Singapore and insisted on total capitulation in political activity, defence, foreign affairs, security and finance.

However, as recounted by Dr Goh Keng Swee, when he met Tun Razak and Dr Ismail (Abdul Rahman), the Home Affairs Minister, in Kuala Lumpur on July 13, Dr Goh proposed that Singapore leave Malaysia to become an independent state. This proposal jived with the Tunku's idea for Singapore to leave the federation.

At a second meeting on July 20, Dr Goh told Tun Razak and Dr Ismail that Mr Lee was in favour of secession of Singapore and it should be done quickly, by Aug 9 when Parliament was to reconvene.

On his return from London on Aug 5, the Tunku was asked by pressmen at the airport, including me, if he would be meeting Mr Lee to discuss the political differences raging between the two sides.

His reply was non-committal, almost nonchalant, saying he would meet Mr Lee if there was anything to discuss. Little did we know that serious talks between Tun Razak, Dr Ismail and Dr Goh were going on in Kuala Lumpur, with Mr Lee in the Cameron Highlands consulted, on the total hiving off of Singapore from Malaysia.

Tun Razak gave a full report to the Tunku on his return home. After Tun Razak and Dr Ismail had negotiated the terms of separation with Dr Goh and Mr E.W. Barker, the Tunku held an emergency meeting of his core Cabinet members on Aug 6, and approved the draft Bills to amend the Constitution and get Singapore to withdraw from the federation.

On Aug 7, the Tunku said, the "big shots" of the PAP (meaning Mr Lee), called at his residency and signed the Separation Agreement, while other members of the Singapore Cabinet signed it in Singapore or at Singapore House in KL.

Even at the last minute, Mr Lee asked the Tunku if he really wanted to break up Malaysia, which they had spent years to bring about. Would it not be wiser to go back to their original plan for a looser federation or confederation?

But the Tunku demurred. "There is no other way out. I have made up my mind. You go your way and we go our own way," Mr Lee recalled him saying.

Secrecy had to be of the essence on both sides of the Causeway for fear of opponents of the separation reacting with violence to the agreement.

Special Parliament session

The first inkling we in RTS had that something was happening was the departure of several ministers from Singapore to KL on Aug 7. I was instructed to fly to KL on Aug 8 to cover the special session of Parliament on Aug 9, a Monday.

I was joined in KL by fellow reporters Lim Kit Siang and Fuad Salim. In Parliament, we found only Mr Devan Nair, PAP MP for Bungsar, present. Some of the Singapore MPs were at Singapore House. Mr Nair and I listened to the Tunku's speech moving the Separation of Singapore Bill on a certificate of urgency, via the in-house sound system in his office.

When the session was adjourned, we learnt the Bill had been passed without opposition, although Umno Secretary-General Syed Jaafar Albar had left the chamber before the vote and expressed his disagreement with the separation. He, like the other ultras, wanted to maintain Malay rule over Singapore, forcibly if need be.

When Separation was announced by the Tunku over Radio Television Malaya and the Proclamation of Singapore's Independence read over Radio Singapore at 10am, Singaporeans received the news with a mixture of relief, regret and foreboding, although some quarters in Chinatown let off firecrackers in celebration.

And when Mr Lee went on Radio Television Singapore to explain the circumstances leading to the separation, it was clear that he had been forced to accept Singapore's eviction from Malaysia.

It was, he said, a moment of anguish for him, having devoted his whole life to bringing about a united Malaysia, whose people were bound by ties of kinship, geography and history.

He and Dr Goh had negotiated the terms of Separation to ensure that Singapore would be truly independent while continuing to have access to the water supply from Johor for its survival.

And Singapore would be on its own for all its multiracial population, living in peaceful amity with the rest of Malaysia. Thus did Singapore achieve independence while avoiding a forcible integration in a Malaysia riven by interracial tension and hostility from a communal political system.

That is the "coup" that Mr Lee and his PAP colleagues carried out for the people of Singapore, to achieve an independent and sovereign Singapore.

However, it was the Tunku who played the decisive role in this saga.

It was his agonised decision to let Singapore go that tipped the scales in favour of separation. Otherwise, the fracas between the state and central governments could well have become more intense and impossible to resolve, with no way out but an inevitable forceful denouement, that is, the arrest of Mr Lee and his senior lieutenants and the imposition of direct federal rule by the central government on Singapore.

The Tunku was magnanimous in telling Mr Lee to leave Malaysia. If there is one person that Singapore should thank for its independence, it is Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, the first prime minister of Malaysia.

The writer, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, was a reporter with Radio Television Singapore from 1963 to 1966 and later with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1970 to 2001.

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