As I said earlier, the Malay Peninsula (or Malaya) and Singapore are like conjoint twins. A causeway, carrying a vital supply of drinking water to Singapore, forever linked them together. It’s also a bridge for the migration of Chinese, but few Malays, from the north. Need I repeat that Singapore was predominantly Chinese? The first indication we were near the island was the strong smell of ocean air wafting through the back seat. Salty to everything: your eyes, nose, and taste. The air seemed to have thickened, like stench from garlic in a Chinese kitchen. The sunlight trailing us gradually permeated the thin blanket of cool air, working better than any alarm clock to announce the arrival of a new day. We were about to cross the causeway that linked the mainland to the island of Singapore.
At this point of time—historically speaking—Malaya and Singapore were like an amicable couple living in two separate bedrooms under the same roof—the British administration. True to real life, once a happy couple decides on marriage, divorce for some seems inevitable. Malaya and Singapore behaved no differently, as you will soon see.
The year 1959 was memorable not because I arrived on the island for the first time but because of the appearance—like the bright star in Bethlehem of yore—of a young Cambridge-educated lawyer, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, who would lead the People’s Action Party (PAP) into prominence and dominance in Singapore politically. That meant the end of colonial rule and the beginning of full internal self-government under Lee. Defense and foreign affairs were still in the hands of the British. He became the first prime minister of Singapore on June 3, 1959. That did not make governing the island any easier, faced as it was with unemployment, lack of housing, and education issues. Would he approach his old golfing partner north, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister of Malaya, for a panacea to the island’s internal problems and to achieve full independence from Britain?
Something like a scoop from behind-the-scenes goings on, Time magazine (April 12, 1963) reported that, “With his young nation booming, Abdul Rahman looked with increasing fear at the predicament of neighboring Singapore, just three-quarters of a mile across the Johore Strait. There Communism was spreading like an infection among the underfed, underemployed masses in Singapore’s squalid, teeming tenement quarters. By strikes, riots and boycotts the Peking-oriented Communist-front Barisan Socialist Party tried to topple the tottering government glued together by Singapore’s shifty, brilliant Cambridge-educated Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.” This provided a rational explanation why Lee tried to convince the Tunku that “Singapore’s rickety coalition could never survive another election, and that a Red Singapore could only spell trouble for Malaya.”
The Tunku feared “a Chinese Cuba” next door. So to hold in check the communist subversion in Singapore, a merger with Malaya might do the trick. He could lend Lee a helping hand by using Malaya’s powerful internal security force. The real hurdle that bothered the Tunku: Malays dominated the social landscape in Malaya, the Chinese likewise in Singapore. Could the two survive in a marriage?
But Lee Kuan Yew was a no-nonsense, pragmatic leader who sought and believed in greater stability through regional economic and political alliance. So when the Tunku proposed the formation of Malaysia—a federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak—Lee took to the streets and asked all Singaporeans to support this political cause. Actually Malaya took the initiative with total British support, a good way to accelerate the process for Britain to grant total independence to the former colonies. The cry for independence was in the air. Lee campaigned confidently for this merger…to gain full independence from Britain…and received 70 percent of the votes.
Sadly, the union lasted from September 16, 1963 to August 9, 1965. In this particular short-lived union, like a marriage, there were two conflicting sets of opinions, voices, and desires. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) ruled the Malaysian Central Government and didn’t like the intrusion of PAP and the Singapore Chinese into Malaysia. It was bad enough, truth be told, that the “astute, prosperous, hard-bargaining Chinese dominate business, industry and trade” and “have economically far outstripped the rural, easygoing Malays.” The inbred Chinese businessmen were accused of erecting a “wall of prejudice” against aspiring young Malay businessmen.
For his part, Lee himself felt “Malaysian Malaysia!”—a cry for solidarity—should include everyone in the new Malaysia. He was against the exclusivity of the bumiputra (sons of the soil) policy; the Malay race somehow got all the attention to the detrimental neglect of others in the new political reality. For example, by Malayan law, citizenship is automatic if you are a Malay. Whereas a Chinese has to meet certain stringent requirements—they did that to my parents. The system favors the Malays in government jobs, applications for scholarships, and granting of new business licenses.
Now they build mosques every day—with tax money, I am sure—if there is a community of Malays (Islam is the state religion). But no churches or temples—Buddhist or Taoist or Hindu—for the non-Malays. (Look no farther north at Japan, less than six hours flight from Singapore. Many Chinese in Japan must be resigned to the fact that, despite decades of residency on Japanese soil, they will never be granted Japanese citizenship. Yes, there are Chinese ghettoes in Japan today.)
Several race riots ensued, accompanied by skyrocketing food prices because of disruption in transport. Lee tried compromise—a powerful marriage counselor might have changed the course of history—but the Tunku was adamant and expelled Singapore from Malaysia. He felt Singapore “showed no measure of loyalty to its central government.” On August 7, 1965, Lee Kuan Yew signed a separation agreement to make sure the two countries would continue in the areas of trade and defense.
Here you can listen in to Lee’s own words in a televised press conference about the devastation he felt after the breakup: “For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I believed in merger and unity of the two territories…Now I, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf of the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign, democratic, and independent nation, founded on the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most and just equal society.”
Yes, pundits got busy immediately and predicted the early demise of Singapore as a nation.
Why? Singapore had no army.
Why? Singapore had no natural resources, importing most of its water and food.
Why? Leftist students roiled college campuses.
Why? Communists infiltrated the unions.
Why? Unemployment was 14 percent, further exacerbated by thousands left jobless when the British closed down their military operations on the island a few years down the road.
Why? Singapore, a poor, restive nation, deserved to die.
Not yet. The obituary was premature. Not when you had someone like Lee Kuan Yew to take charge.
Yes, his own words in his memoir tell the truth: “We faced tremendous odds and an improbable chance of survival…We inherited the island without its hinterland, a heart without a body.”
But undaunted and goaded on by sheer determination, “seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most and just equal society” was Lee’s top priority, based on “the principles of liberty and justice.” Creating an integrated and harmonious society was Lee’s genius. He was not about to let loose a young nation to pursue its own whims and fancies. As if to ensure its survival, he got the international community to recognize Singapore’s independence and sovereignty and promptly jointed the United Nations on September 21, 1965.
As if to ensure its survival, Singapore also joined its neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand on August 8, 1967 to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, pronounced Ah-See-Ahn). All were concerned with nation building, national economic development, and the cancerous spread of communism (remember the American so-called Domino Theory to justify its increased, ferocious combat role in Vietnam? First Vietnam, then Cambodia, Thailand, Malaya, and Singapore?). Paradoxically, it was only a few years ago that Indonesia and the Philippines launched a campaign of invective against the birth of Malaysia. The latter, some speculated, a British ploy to extend their influence to other parts of Southeast Asia?
Until Singapore’s survival was assured, the government in Singapore wasn’t shy about micromanaging every aspect of daily life on the island. Coincidentally, Lee’s critical years—1959 to 1965, from self-rule to brief union with Malaysia, to full independence—paralleled the same precarious period of my life in Singapore, seeking desperately to make sense of who I was, what I was doing there, and where I should be going. (A nation, like a person, goes through essentially the same trauma: growth and responsibility, dependence, independence, and interdependence.) My life—with all its vicissitudes—seemed a microcosm of what Singapore was going through, from establishing its identity to independence and achieving a modicum of maturity by the mid-1960s. From 1959 to 1965, I was a student at an interdenominational college and witnessed, but was not fully involved in, the policies and events that were to radically change, shape, and inform the social, economic, and political landscape of the island.
Lee embarked ambitiously on reinventing Singapore and exploited whatever means—however unpopular or questionable—to achieve his goals. He would be the first to tell you…people admired but not emulated him.