Friday, 14 August 2015

We remember... Singapore separating from Malaysia

The Sunday Times speaks to people who were in the news, or whose neighbourhood was in the news, the week that Singapore became an independent country

We felt hopeful, not sad: Othman Wok
Many were keen to be part of multicultural nation
By Ho Ai Li, The Sunday Times, 9 Aug 2015

In 1965, when Mr Othman Wok received a phone call from Culture Minister S. Rajaratnam asking him to go to Kuala Lumpur on Aug 7, he feared Mr Lee Kuan Yew might be in trouble.

"I was a bit worried because some in Umno wanted the Tunku to detain our PM," said Mr Othman, referring to then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, leader of Malaysia's dominant Malay party, Umno.

Tensions between the central government in Kuala Lumpur and the People's Action Party-led state government in Singapore had worsened after Mr Lee made a speech in Parliament and questioned the political dominance of the Malays. He and the PAP had been pushing the idea of a Malaysian Malaysia.

Mr Othman, then Social Affairs Minister, left for Kuala Lumpur on Aug 7. When he reached Temasek House, he not only met Mr Lee but was also told that Singapore and Malaysia would be going their separate ways.

"The PM was quite worried about me. He asked, 'What do you think?'," Mr Othman, now 90, told The Sunday Times. "I said, 'Frankly, I'm a Singaporean. I'm a PAP member. I agree with what the party has decided'."

While there were concerns about the loss of Malaysia as a hinterland, the overall mood was positive, he said. "We felt hopeful and not sad at all. In spite of being forced to leave Malaysia, we believed this could be a good thing for Singapore... we could develop as an independent nation and multiracial society."

Driving back to Singapore, he stopped in Malacca to tell PAP members the news and arrived home tired.

Waking up on Aug 9, he got a call from Parliamentary Secretary for Social Affairs Chan Chee Seng telling him that people were happy that Singapore had separated from Malaysia. Some even lit firecrackers.

Although some Malays here were disappointed that overnight, they had become a minority community, Mr Othman felt no pressure.

"Many Malays here supported the PAP and were keen to be part of a multicultural nation," he added.

Mr Lee mixed well with the Malays and was an able leader, he said. "Some people say he was anti-Malay, but he was not."

Mr Othman assured those who were uncertain. "If you had a government like that under Lim Yew Hock (Singapore's chief minister from 1956 to 1959), surely the Malays in Singapore had no confidence at all."

Referring to the PAP team in charge of Singapore since 1959, he said: "It was a different group of men who had dedicated themselves to Singapore. Honest, sincere, incorruptible."

Mr Othman, who left the Cabinet in 1977, said he is most proud of bringing about free education for the Malays, from primary to tertiary levels.

Noting that 50 years of independence is special, he said: "We are a very good example of how multiracialism can not only survive but also progress well with harmony."

'I felt a sense of liberation from an unhappy marriage'
By Jennani Durai, The Sunday Times, 9 Aug 2015

When Professor Tommy Koh heard from friends that Singapore had separated from Malaysia, he turned on the radio with mounting excitement. "I felt a sense of liberation from an unhappy marriage," he said. "I was determined to do whatever I could to ensure the success of independent Singapore."

Singaporeans were divided, but Prof Koh, 77, now Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was all for separation.

"I had opposed the merger because I did not think it would work. I championed the view that an independent Singapore would survive."

He said recognition of Singapore's independence was not slow to come: "Malaysia was the first country to recognise us. In the next few days, our independence was recognised by more and more countries."

"As we had not prepared for independence, the few people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were learning on the job. Our founding Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam and his small team did very well under the circumstances."

Even though many felt Singapore had no future except as part of Malaysia, Prof Koh was not worried.

"I was not afraid because I had always believed in the cause of an independent Singapore," he said.

"I was, of course, aware of the formidable challenges that faced our new country. At the same time, I was quietly confident that the people and leaders of Singapore would rise to the occasion, and that a bright future lay ahead of us."

Indelible memory of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in tears
By Jennani Durai, The Sunday Times, 9 Aug 2015

Retired doctor Lee Moh Hoon was a stressed medical student with a lot on her mind on Aug 9, 1965, but she vividly recalls Mr Lee Kuan Yew appearing on television to announce that Singapore was no longer a part of Malaysia.

"What struck me was a man moved to tears," said Dr Lee, 74.

"He was a very strong guy. That memory is etched in my mind."

She was in the news this week in 1965 when she was listed as one of the students at the University of Singapore's Faculty of Medicine who had passed Part I of the final professional examinations for the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) degree.

She was one of only three women on the list.

Dr Lee was shocked by Mr Lee's announcement which came at a difficult time for her personally, as she had lost her mother to cancer the month before.

In the subsequent weeks and months, she and her classmates did not give much thought to Singapore's sudden independence, and felt no direct effects of the separation.

"Uppermost in our minds was clearing the final hurdle of the MBBS exams in early 1966," she said.

She had "some fears" about Singapore's ability to survive, given its lack of natural resources, but she put a lot of trust in the country's leadership.

"As teenagers, my best friend Lucy Lim and I made our way to the old Parliament House to enjoy watching Mr Lee sparring verbally with Mr David Marshall.

"His oratorical skills impressed us," she said.

"With that in mind, I was confident that Mr Lee and his colleagues would see us through into the future."

Dr Lee is married to a pastor and the couple have three children and three grandchildren.

The anxiety pulled everybody together, recalls violin maestro
By Ho Ai Li, The Sunday Times, 9 Aug 2015

Violinist Vivien Goh was 17 and preparing to go to the Eastman School of Music in New York state, when Singapore became independent.

"I didn't know what I would come back to, if anything," she said, adding she probably found out watching the news on TV at her father Goh Soon Tioe's music studio.

She felt some anxiety about the future, but had more immediate concerns - her farewell concert at Victoria Theatre on Aug 21, previewed in The Straits Times on Aug 9.

"When I left, it must have been in early September - things were in a flux, but we made sure I could travel on a Malaysian passport," said Ms Goh, a top student in the Senior Cambridge School Certificate Examination who won a scholarship to study in the United States.

"I didn't come back for four years. When I did, Singapore was already a well-established country," she said, noting she had no trouble getting her Singapore passport in the US.

She recalled that many felt anxious, but "it was this anxiety that pulled everybody together".

The result was that Singapore not only survived, but survived well, both economically and on the cultural side, she said.

"Culturally, we have come a long way from that day in 1965," said Ms Goh, a former conductor of the Singapore Youth Orchestra and a Cultural Medallion recipient.

She noted that there are now more concert halls, more Singapore classical musicians who have been trained overseas, better access to musical instruments and a vibrant amateur music scene as well.

She did not imagine back in 1965 that Singapore would develop so well. "I'm proud of the way all Singaporeans came together to make sure the country survived," she said.

Separation trauma of the personal kind for track star
By Jennani Durai, The Sunday Times, 9 Aug 2015

Singapore's exit from Malaysia in August 1965 came at a time when national sprinter C. Kunalan was grappling with separation trauma of a personal nature.

"My wife and I were both estranged from our families at that time. They objected to our relationship as we were of different races," said Mr Kunalan, who is Indian and was courting his Chinese fiancee Chong Yoong Yin at the time. "It was a very traumatic year for us."

He was in the news this week in 1965 when he led a team from the Ministry of Education to a first- place finish in the inter-ministry athletic championships.

Asked where he was when the news of Singapore's sudden independence broke, Mr Kunalan, now 72, said: "Honestly, I have no recollection of that moment. I remember talking about it with my wife and some friends, but there was nothing much to say.

"We were young, we just assumed things would go on."

He said separation had little effect on his athletics career, as Singapore athletes mostly trained here. But he recalled that many in team sports cheered the separation.

"Selection was sometimes very biased in Malaysia. They would choose their own over Singaporeans. It happened mainly in team sports, but even track and field saw the problem a bit during the 1964 Olympics," he said.

"So when the separation happened, many athletes were very happy - now, we're just Singapore. We can do it on our own."

As for the tension at home, there was a happy ending too.

When Mr Kunalan and his fiancee sent wedding invitations to their families in January 1966, his father visited him at the flat where he rented a room.

"When I saw my father at the door, all the hair on my arms stood up," recalled Mr Kunalan. "He told me he saw now that we were serious, and accepted our relationship."

While Madam Chong's mother and siblings were supportive, her father came round only a year after they were married. "Out of the blue, we received an invitation from him to a Chinese New Year reunion dinner. We were so happy," he said.

The couple have three daughters - Soma, Mona and Gina - and three grandchildren.

I sense, I smell and I hear the changes
By Rohit Brijnath, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Aug 2015

Morning has broken on National Day. Two mechanical cranes stand like crooked sentries. Cars hum on finely paved roads. Tall buildings rise like pillars holding up the sky. As far as the eye can see, this is a nation changed. But Mr Tan Guan Heng, 78, well, he cannot see.

His cane tips and taps as he exits his condo just off Serangoon Road and walks beside the Kallang River. Ahead is a narrow bridge which is festooned with Singapore flags. He is blind yet he knows they are there. For when he walks on the bridge "the wind blows the flags across my face". Nations presumably touch us in different ways.

This may be One Nation but every citizen is a separate spectator to history, experiencing his own land and discovering how it changes in his own unique way.

In the early 1960s, when Mr Tan still had his sight, "very few houses had a phone". Now this is a nation captivated by gadgets and his introduction to the advance of technology is often amusing. Once, during his morning walk, a man strolling by said "Good morning" and Mr Tan, ever polite, replied "Good morning". Laughing, he adds, "I didn't realise he was talking to someone else" on a phone.

Unmarried and silver-haired, Mr Tan lost sight in his first eye at 23 due to a detached retina and then his second at 29 for the same reason. In 1965, he saw Mr Lee Kuan Yew crying on television but, by 1966, he was blind. He saw his nation formed but had to feel it grow and sense it develop. His feet that once walked on muddy tracks and in long grass now tell him of "pavements with no potholes".

When he was just 29-years-old, Mr Tan Guan Heng who is now 78, lost his eyesight due to a detached retina. But he can...
Posted by The Straits Times on Sunday, August 9, 2015

He was the first blind president of the then Singapore Association for the Blind. He founded a library which now has "hundreds of titles", including braille and audio books. He introduced a low-vision clinic to help those who can barely see maximise their residual vision.

On this National Day, we celebrate the truth that this nation is built, act by act, by a vast congregation of folk.

Change is often a visual exercise - a new mall, for instance, is first examined by the eye. But the windows to Mr Tan's soul are his ears and his nose. This new Singapore, he'll tell you, is a noisy one, with its pile drivers and road diggers and hawker centres where citizens are squashed together. "People talk so loud," he says with a smile.

You see change, he listens to it. As a young man living in Newton, he could place people through their dialect - Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien - but now amid the babble, he mainly hears Mandarin.

National Day is a public day and yet a private one, a day of revelry yet also of remembrance. And so he recollects the street symphony of a time gone by, as if recalling a precious piece of music. He speaks of the "mee goreng fellow banging his ladle" and the "itinerant hawkers" calling out "chee yoke, kai yoke". He talks of the "trring" of the ice-cream man's bell and the bread man's cry of "roti, roti, roti". He pauses. "It was nostalgic and quite romantic", but of course it was, this was the soundtrack of another life.

He could once see so he can visualise shapes and in his mind he knows what a Mercedes looks like or even a building of 14 to15 floors. Yet Singapore's progress can defeat the imagination and buildings of 40 to 50 floors he "cannot envisage" and the massive hotels he has heard of he "cannot visualise".

Change is also revealed through his nostrils. The fumes of old buses no longer linger and the river he walks along does not stink as it once did at high tide. In such small ways a nation advances. Ah, but when it comes to food he "longs for the original smells. Char kway teow, the way they cook, the way they fry. Now it's all sanitised". He sighs.

He did not attend the parade for it is too crowded for an old gent with a stick, but is pleased that the public perception towards the blind is gently altering. "People are more forthcoming. If you're standing alone, they might ask, 'where do you want to go?' "

As a nation looks back and yet forward, he wishes for more opportunities for the blind and for a "caring society where the disadvantaged and disabled are not left behind". He wishes, too, for a young generation to strive as hard as his did. "We had to pull up ourselves as a nation," he says with quiet pride. But it was not just politicians, he insists, who were responsible for this construction. "Not least of all it was your hard-working Singaporean. Let's not forget the man in the street."

The morning walk is done and he finds his way back home. Like his nation, he has voyaged well. He sold textbooks, has written four books and last week recited for me lines from a poem by William Wordsworth. And now as I leave, those words hang in the humid air:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

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