Singapore: The Rough Road to Independence 1945-1963

The History of Singapore. Editor: Jean E Abshire. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

When World War II abruptly ended with the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan, Britain returned to administer its restored colony. However, there was understanding on both Singaporean and British sides that they could not return to the pre-war situation. Already in 1943, the British Colonial Office began planning for the gradual shift from British control to self-governance for the Straits Settlements, although the sudden end of the war left the British without a finalized plan and the primary focus for self-government was on the Malay states; Singapore could continue as a crown colony indefinitely. The following years proved tumultuous, and the future that many in Singapore envisioned was one where Singapore was a part of Malaysia. Once the initial years of post-war recovery passed, a communist insurgency on the Malay Peninsula resulted in a state of emergency; and there was a separate, but likewise problematic, attempt by communists in Singapore to gain control of the country. New political forces eventually put down the communist threat and the dream of merging with Malaysia was briefly realized but failed in the face of incompatibility. The independent country of Singapore was born. While much of what transpired related to group dynamics in Singapore and even in Malaysia, the events took place within the larger context of the global Cold War struggle between communism and capitalism.

The Post-War Recovery

Control of Singapore, both military and civilian aspects, was in the hands of the British Military Administration (BMA), which was under the direction of Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia Lord Louis Mountbattan. While Singaporeans initially welcomed the British, who were certain to be less abusive than the Japanese occupiers, the situation after the war was direr than people had hoped. Some of the problems were due to ongoing shortages of food and other necessities. Shipping was difficult; the port had been badly damaged in Allied bombings and needed to be rebuilt and re-equipped, because cranes, dredgers, and other essential machinery had been destroyed or were missing. In addition, the harbor was partially blocked by sunken ships, and most warehouses had been ruined. Even the railroad coming from the Malay Peninsula was damaged, making the import of goods into Singapore very difficult. Worse still, rice-producing countries faced shortages themselves and were not exporting. The prices of available goods were inflated, contributing further to supply shortages. Beyond transportation and food scarcity, further suffering was related to the dilapidated infrastructure in areas of water, electricity, etc. Housing was also a grave problem. There was overcrowding in the urban center before the war, but with the destruction from bombing and the inflation in real estate prices that happened during the Japanese occupation, many people resorted to living in casually erected slums that lacked sanitation. Between the unclean living conditions and malnutrition from the food shortages, the mortality rate in 1945 doubled from its pre-war level.

Further problems were credited to mismanagement and corruption in the lower ranks of the BMA. The climate of the occupation, where rules were ignored in the name of survival, spilled over into the reconstruction era. The black market continued to thrive, as did bribery and other forms of corruption. It continued in the police, who had lost all legitimate authority during the occupation, and in the government with a new cast of players in the BMA. There were few British administrators who were not new to Singapore. The earlier staffers were recovering from their time as internees or prisoners of war, leaving the government primarily staffed with new people, many of whom capitalized on Singapore’s thriving black market and on other opportunities such as bribes for travel permits, trade licenses, etc. While the upper echelons of the BMA were generally honest, the lower levels were so corrupt that the local population called the BMA the Black Market Administration. The BMA also implemented a number of policies, including rationing and price setting to help mitigate food scarcity and inflation. While these policies were not corrupt, they were not effective immediately, and the shortages and high prices continued unabated. Between corruption and inefficiency, the British administration lost all respect in the eyes of the people. The BMA’s efforts to prosecute the Japanese for war crimes further exacerbated the people’s disappointment. Trials relating to crimes against civilian internees and military prisoners of war resulted in some convictions. However, the effort to try the perpetrators of the sook ching, which cost many thousands of Chinese lives, proved more problematic. A series of trials did result in a couple of executions and some life sentences, but the Chinese community felt the administration had put more effort into the trials involving crimes against British or Commonwealth citizens than those involving Chinese victims.

Other social problems, including gambling, prostitution, and opium use, continued from the occupation era. The black market, bribery, and profiteering flourished in the private sector as much as it did in the public sector. In addition, the secret societies began to thrive again.

On a more positive note, the BMA reopened schools in a timely manner. It moved quickly to restore the port and infrastructure; and by April 1946, the port was almost back to normal, and more people had access to water and electricity than before the war. It also did a good job of removing corrupt and tainted police officials and launching a new police recruiting effort. Moreover, within six months or so, the rationing policies began to work, and food shortages became less severe. While the slow progress disappointed the population, the BMA made important improvements in a relatively short time before being replaced by Colonial Office governance in April 1946.

One major legacy of the BMA was a policy related to communist activity. The pre-war colonial administration, seeing communist influences from China as a threat, had taken actions such as banning local Chinese Communist Party branches in Singapore. In response, the Malay Communist Party (MCP) was born in 1930, which the British also attempted to suppress. However, the group that emerged from the war with the greatest respect was, in fact, the MCP. While there was virtually no active resistance in Singapore during occupation, on the Malay Peninsula, the MCP created the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). The MPAJA was comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese people from both Singapore and cities in the Malay Peninsula who fled to the jungles and fought with guerilla tactics against the occupying Japanese. People of varying ideologies participated; but by the end of the war, the MPAJA was closely linked to and heavily populated by communists. The Chinese community felt the British did not afford adequate respect to the fighters as the sole resistance to the abusive Japanese, which caused more resentment. The MCP decommissioned the MPAJA a few months after the occupation ended and decided to use political tactics to promote its agenda of independence from British colonial rule.

In order to recruit for their cause, the MCP opted to organize through labor unions and in opposition to the BMA. The BMA initially recognized the status of the MCP, but when the MCP (and the affiliated unions it quickly and easily organized) began planning strikes and rallies, the organization attracted negative attention from authorities. There was considerable disagreement within the BMA about how to react. Mountbattan preferred a more lenient approach, permitting greater freedom of speech and assembly, but other top officials strongly disagreed and wanted a harsher response. Some restrictions were in place, but several major actions were allowed to take place, including a general strike opposing the unfair detention of a guerilla fighter in January 1946 that involved almost 173,000 people. However, when it was announced that the unions wanted to have another major action a few weeks later on February 15 to commemorate the start of occupation (or “the day the white men ran,” as the Malays called it), the British reacted with less tolerance, suggesting that observing the end of occupation would be more appropriate and issuing a warning of detention and, for noncitizens (the majority of the Chinese community), possible deportation. The MCP went ahead with their planning. Mountbattan worried about making martyrs out of activists but relented, and ten labor organizers were detained and later deported to a Guomindang stronghold in southern China, where they would have met with great difficulties because of their communist affiliations. This set the stage for more than a decade of focused and sometimes harsh anticommunist activity carried out first by the Colonial Office and then by local authorities in Malaysia and Singapore.

State of Emergency and Steps Toward Self-Governance

The economic situation slowly improved with trade reaching prewar levels in 1947, and rubber production surpassing the war-time high in 1948. However, in the sultanates of the Malay Peninsula, the political situation took a problematic turn. The Colonial Office was interested in a close union of the different states/sultanates on the Peninsula, but Singapore was excluded. The two, in the mind of the Colonial Office, were not compatible, despite being connected geographically, economically, and historically. The deal-breaking factor was ethnicity, with Singapore having a large majority of ethnic Chinese while the Malay sultanates had a slight Malay majority. The Colonial Office feared the two would not mix well; if citizens wanted union in the future, it could happen, but not for the time being. A political alliance of Malay traditional elites, known as the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), came to an agreement with wealthy Malay Chinese elites (the Malay Chinese Association) to oppose the Colonial Office plans. The Malay sultans wanted more power for themselves in a federation and the Chinese elite did not like Singapore’s exclusion. The Malay Federation would form, but Singapore’s steps toward self-governance would proceed more gradually.

The MCP was impatient with the slow pace toward self-governance set by the British and, unhappy with the plan of separation, began an anticolonial insurgency on the Peninsula in June 1948. The organization had a vision of an urban communist revolution in Singapore, but that became secondary to the armed struggle in the Malay states. The British responded by declaring a state of emergency in both the Malay states and in Singapore, which lasted for 12 years. The fighting on the Malay Peninsula against the “communist terrorists,” as they were known, never touched Singapore directly, but there were profound political implications in the restrictions associated with the state of emergency.

The British goal was to withdraw from Southeast Asia, leaving in place friendly, malleable governments, which would want to be members of the Commonwealth, and would, thus, still help serve and promote the substantial British interests in the region. Among these ongoing interests were banks, insurance companies, and trading companies, in addition to the rubber, tin, and shipping industries. Military installations, the Sembawang Naval Base, plus airfields and an army base, were also major interests that would help maintain Britain’s prominence on the world stage. All of this played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. The United States was involved more directly in Vietnam and the Philippines, but its Containment Policy, one of the most significant U.S. foreign policies of the Cold War era, focused on limiting the spread of communism; and the United States was reluctant to see any colonies come under the rule of communist, or even neutral, governments. As such, the United States promoted entities in Singapore (certain schools, unions, newspapers, and people within the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce) with connections to the Guomindang government that took refuge in Taiwan after the Chinese Communist Party took over China in 1949. The United States also planted anticommunist propaganda pieces in the Singaporean media and pressed Britain to take action against communist activities. Of primary concern in all of this was the Chinese community.

Singapore served as a base for Britain’s fight against the communist insurgency on the Peninsula, with Sembawang Naval Base supporting Royal Navy patrols of the Malay coasts and the airbases facilitating bombing sorties. The British brought the population in the Malay states into the struggle by moving the schedule for independence ahead to 1957, thus giving the people a vested interest in the fight for the future of their country. The British fight against the communists was successful. While the state of emergency lasted until 1960, the insurgency was put down earlier, giving birth to the Malay Federation as an independent state on August 31, 1957. The dominant political force in the federation was the conservative, anticommunist UMNO, which promoted nationalist policies favoring the Malay ethnic group and focused on ethnic differentiation rather than solidarity.

In Singapore, most of the effects of the state of emergency were political. The declaration of emergency permitted considerable restrictions on political freedoms, including detention without charges or trial, deportation of noncitizens, and restrictions on meetings, rallies, strikes, organizations, etc. The anticommunist focus stifled all left-leaning politics and left space only for conservative political organizations. This happened at a time when local political organizations were beginning to flourish in Singapore. A new array of organizations representing a wide range of the political spectrum, from the left-oriented MCP and Malay Democratic Union to the moderately conservative Singapore Progressive Party (SPP), a group associated with the colonial administration that did not promote any progressive social, economic or political changes. The British administration was slowly opening the door to popular representation on the Legislative Council, heightening the importance of local political parties.

Believing the institutional reforms leading to elected seats on the council did not go far, or fast, enough to move Singapore toward independence, many leftward political actors opposed the reforms. As such, the Malay Democratic Union boycotted the 1948 election for the new Legislative Council seats. Formal political participation (e.g., voting) was restricted to people born in the Straits, British subjects, and those literate in English, which excluded more than half of the adult population of immigrant Chinese, numbering into the hundreds of thousands. The Asians with access to political participation were the English-educated elite, who tended to be more conservative and accepting of the slow pace toward self-government (of a still undetermined form) for Singapore. As space in the Legislative Council opened, the only political organization contesting the election was the SPP. Much to the delight of the British administration, the SPP proved a cooperative partner in the council. However, the British were naively unaware of how unrepresentative the views of the SPP were and how disconnected the SPP was from the Asian masses in Singapore, which tended to see the SPP as the lapdog of the colonial master. The emergency provisions and targeting of left-leaning political groups deprived the community of a potential safety valve for venting frustration with the status quo. The Malay Democratic Union disbanded in the face of anticommunist pressure from the government and the frustrations of the voiceless masses grew.

There were a number of political issues of importance to the majority of people living in Singapore, and these issues were neither addressed by the colonial administration nor advocated on the Legislative Council by the SPP. One of the top political issues was citizenship reform aimed at giving the majority of the Chinese population a political voice. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign for this goal in 1951, but the British administration, supported by the SPP, refused to enact reform.

Another contentious issue was the education system. The British had increased financial support for schools in order to develop the citizenship skills necessary for successful self-governance. However, the administration allowed the funding to follow demand, which tended heavily toward English-medium education. In fact, four times the number of students now enrolled in English-medium schools than before the war.5 The pay for teachers in Chinese-medium schools was far less than those in English-medium schools and the educational options were limited with only a few secondary and no post-secondary Chinese-medium schools. This left Chinese-medium students with few options to continue their schooling, so many chose to go to the People’s Republic of China to further their education. This was problematic due to the anticommunist immigration policy in place in the colony, which banned any immigrants with communist connections. Thus, Chinese-educated young people, most of whom were residents (rather than citizens) and had limited political rights, could go to China, but they could not come home to Singapore and their families. The supporters of the Chinese-medium schools saw the funding disparities, the underdeveloped Chinese education system, and the anti-immigrant policies as signs that the British wanted to destroy the Chinese school system, thereby undermining Chinese language and culture, which provoked ire. This came at a time when the Chinese community was especially attuned to the political developments in China, which sparked a heightened sense of patriotism even among noncommunists; and they were, thus, angered by what they perceived as British hostility toward Chinese patriotism. It was also at a time when the Chinese community was feeling renewed strength from the increased wealth flowing in from the trade that expanded greatly with the start of the Korean War in 1950. A strong resentment developed toward paying taxes to support programs and schools that undermined the Chinese community, language, culture, and even families.

A third major issue was the question of language and, specifically, multilingualism. The British authorities, with ongoing support from the mostly-English-educated SPP, promoted English as the language of the colony. The Chinese community advocated for the Chinese language to be elevated in status and for all four of the major languages—Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil—to be used in proceedings of the Legislative Council as well as municipal organizations.

Finally, the fourth problematic issue was the racial composition of the civil service and other important employment venues, which were still overtly racist in their hiring and promotion practices. In a community that was supposed to be advancing toward self-governance but where the local population still suffered gross discrimination in job opportunities, it was unacceptable that the civil service be staffed heavily by Europeans. Thus, quickly staffing the ranks of the civil service and other organizations with Asians was a top priority for the Asian communities. Historian Carl Trocki noted that, “… as late as 1954, … the British governor of Singapore, Sir John Nicoll, would not hire an equally qualified Asian over a European.”

Relatively unaware of these simmering tensions, the British administration continued to take slow steps toward self-governance, without addressing critical issues. The year 1953 was important in several respects. First, the Rendel Commission was appointed to evaluate the political and constitutional structures of Singapore that would help Singapore move toward self-governance in a still-to-be-determined context. Second, the struggle against the insurgency on the Malay Peninsula was going well, and the government relaxed of some of the harsh restrictions on political activities in Singapore. While the Rendel Commission worked, the Malay Communist Party was busy redirecting its efforts toward Singapore and infiltrated Chinese schools and unions. The frustrations of the disenfranchised Chinese, both with the poor school system and poor working conditions, proved a fertile environment for communist recruitment and, beginning in 1954, Singapore was struck with recurrent waves of political violence. Especially problematic for the British was that the student protesters and labor activists joined forces, broadening the focus of the protests from better educational opportunities and improved workers rights to a radicalized anti-British and anticolonial movement. They viewed the incremental steps toward an unclear political future offered by the British, and controlled by pro-British, English-educated elites, as intolerable. The British offered education reform and improved funding for Chinese-medium schools but with conditions attached relating to oversight of school management on issues such as curriculum. The conditions were met with anger in the Chinese community. The British also tried to promote noncommunist union organizations, which likewise came to naught. Instead, student and labor protests grew; and it was rumored that two of the leading organizers connected to both groups, Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, could bring Singapore to a halt through protest action on any day of their choosing.

In this increasingly hostile climate, the Rendel Commission issued its recommendations. It called for a Legislative Assembly based on geographical constituencies rather than ethnic lines (ethnic-based representation had been advocated by the British earlier but found little favor with the Asian representatives who wanted cross-communal politics) with 25 of the 32 seats being elected and the others appointed. A Council of Ministers would replace the old colonial Executive Committee of advisors to the governor. Two-thirds of the council’s members would be selected by the leader of the strongest party in the Legislative Assembly and the other third would be appointed by the governor. This new government would have authority over all areas except foreign, internal security, and defense policies. The British government accepted the commission’s recommendations, and arrangements were made for an election for the Legislative Assembly to be held in 1955.

The 1955 Election and Its Aftermath

Although many in the Chinese community lacked voting rights, the remainder, when mobilized, was enough to sway an election. The political parties that emerged in the new electoral environment were varied. On the conservative side, the SPP remained to contest the election and was joined by the Democratic Party, formed by some members of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and representing narrow Chinese business interests.

Two major political forces emerged on the left: the socialist Labour Front (LF) led by lawyer David Marshall, and the People’s Action Party (PAP), a group of English-educated, middle-class professionals, led by lawyer Lee Kwan Yew. The PAP would ultimately become the dominant force in Singaporean political life. Lee’s background was not radical; he had been involved with the SPP before leaving the party because he found its vision too narrow. He had done legal work for unions, bringing him into contact with union organizers and people with grievances against the racist hiring and promotion practices of the British. He considered the best path to political power was to tap into the masses of left-leaning workers, especially, but not exclusively, in the Chinese community. The PAP called for an immediate merger of Singapore with the Malay Federation, citizenship reform to permit the naturalization of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Chinese, civil service reform to staff it fully with Asians, the repeal of the emergency restrictions, free and compulsory education, a focus on the development of local industry, and legislative reform relating to unions.

The election took place, with the automatic registration of voters increasing the voting rosters from 76,000 to 300,000, most of whom were Chinese blue-collar workers.7 The Labour Front won the largest number of seats, but not a majority, leaving Marshall in a difficult position in two respects. First, as leader of the strongest party in the Legislative Assembly, he assumed the brand new role of Chief Minister (similar to a prime minister); but the role and its powers were not clearly defined relative to those of the colonial governor, who was supposed to receive the chief minister’s advice but was not bound to act on it. That Governor Nicoll intended to marginalize Marshall was clear from the fact that Marshall was not given office space until he threatened to set up a desk outside in front of the building. Even afterward, his was just a small office underneath the stairs. The second problem was the lack of a legislative majority, creating a reliance on opposition party support to pass legislation and carry out the LF agenda. This agenda was remarkably similar to that of the PAP, calling for the immediate independence of Singapore and merger with the Malay Federation, citizenship reform, Asian staffing of the civil service within four years, abolition of the emergency regulations, and the introduction of all four languages for use in the Legislative Assembly.

Marshall quickly ran into difficulties, much of them dealing with increasing communist activism, some of it violent. One of the most notorious incidents of this tumultuous period came just a few weeks after the election with the Hock Lee Bus Strike, which lasted for almost three weeks before escalating into rioting in which a handful of people were killed and dozens injured. Bus company workers started the protest, but were soon joined by students from Chinese schools. Initially, Marshall responded somewhat moderately, as he had sympathies for the causes of the student and labor protesters. This restraint alienated the British, who wanted a stronger response, and empowered the protesters for further action. At one point, thousands of Chinese secondary school students protested to gain recognition of their student union. Marshall agreed, although with the stipulation that they not engage in political activities. They agreed but broke the promise. While the unrest touched all of society, it profoundly affected the PAP, which was deeply divided between its moderate branch led by Lee Kwan Yew and the militant, communist branch led by Lim Chin Siong, who was a leader in organizing protest activities. Marshall accused the PAP of trying to undermine rule by representative government in favor of mob rule. Indeed, many of the strikes had more to do with political than labor issues. In 1955, of the approximately 300 strikes, it is estimated that only one-third related to labor issues like wages or working conditions.

Marshall used the unrest to push the British government for more power for the chief minister. Initially reluctant, once Marshall threatened to resign, the British conceded for fear that someone more militant would gain the position. This highlights some of Marshall’s most significant accomplishments as chief minister: despite the British intent to treat him like a figurehead, he forced the British to take him and the local politicians seriously. He also launched the LF’s legislative agenda on civil service and citizenship reform.

However, it was in the climate of communist-led turmoil that a meeting took place in April 1956 in London about making additional changes to Singapore’s constitutional status and moving it further toward self-governance. Marshall had a list of demands, and the British were amenable to many of them. However, they held firm on maintaining a strong hand in internal security matters; and Marshall was not willing to compromise his goal of achieving complete internal governance by 1957, the time of projected Malay independence. He returned to Singapore empty-handed and resigned as head of the LF a short time later. He was replaced by the deputy chief minister, Lim Yew Hock, who created a high degree of governmental continuity by retaining Marshall’s cabinet and maintaining the LF’s alliances.

Lim Yew Hock was less tolerant of the communist protests and soon cracked down on activists in the schools. In September 1956, he ordered the disbanding of a number of communist school organizations, closed several schools, and had some students expelled. The PAP’s Lim Chin Siong helped organize a 5,000-student sit-in at six different Chinese schools. When no one could get students to leave, the police used tear gas. Rioting broke out around the city; and in the end, 15 people were dead, 100 injured, and Singapore was placed under curfew for two days.9 Documents found in a related raid on a union headquarters confirmed the connections between the student and labor agitation, resulting in the arrest of several leaders, including Lim Chin Siong.

This challenge to the communists helped undermine the movement and put Lim Yew Hock in favor with the British, who found evidence in the rioting that the communist threat was real and that the PAP was involved. This left Lim Yew Hock in a better position for the next round of meetings on Singapore’s constitutional status in London in March 1957. Lim Yew Hock was more willing to compromise than Marshall, and they came to an agreement on the internal security arrangements that had been a stumbling block previously. The outcome was an Internal Security Council composed of three British members, three Singaporean members and one member from the Malay Federation. The other provisions the British had offered the previous year were accepted and Singapore was one step closer to self-government, although the question of its relationship to the Malay Federation remained. Other crucial provisions included a fully elected assembly (no appointed members), a special provision for citizenship for long-term resident Chinese, and control of trade and commerce.

The communists were unhappy when news of the Internal Security Council reached Singapore. With three British members and one Malay member, the Council was dominated by anticommunists. Seeking more radical action, communists tried to mobilize via the MCP and radicals at Nanyang University, a new Chinese-language university that had been funded with private contributions from all echelons of the Chinese community in effort to improve education opportunities for students in the Chinese-medium schools as an alternative to studying in China. The MCP and Nanyang mobilization targeted the unions and the moderates in the PAP.

Lim Yew Hock, concerned about the new wave of militant behavior, started another campaign against communist radicalism, especially in the unions, even though some of them supported his own Labour Front. Inadvertently, he did a favor to the moderate wing of the PAP that was battling for survival within the party. When the PAP communists were jailed, the moderates received a life-sustaining boost and promptly re-wrote party policies to make it harder for extremists to influence the top levels of the party, marginalizing them at the lower levels.

Progress was made on a number of the political agenda items important to the Chinese community. Staffing the civil service with members of the three Asian communities was proceeding apace. Citizenship was granted to anyone who had been born in Singapore or the Malay Federation, or British citizens who had been in Singapore for two years, or those who had been there for at least ten years and would swear loyalty to Singapore. This gave voting rights to most of the previously excluded 220,000 immigrant Chinese. Finally, education reform gave equal status to the school systems in each of the four languages.

In this environment of greater stability and political progress, the third London meeting about Singapore’s constitutional status took place in April 1958, which largely confirmed and formalized the arrangements of the prior year. In August the British Parliament passed the State of Singapore Act, which converted its status from colony to state, albeit a semi-sovereign state lacking control over all of its affairs, with Britain retaining control over foreign relations, external defense, and, in an emergency, the right to suspend the constitution. However, all other decisions would be in the hands of the local government, an enormous step toward self-governance. This act of parliament set the stage for the implementation of the new arrangements, necessitating the selection of a new, fully-elected Legislative Assembly so an election was planned for 1959.

The 1959 Election and the Road To Merger

While the PAP only made a mediocre showing in the 1955 election, it vowed to do better in 1959. Seeing its voting base in the masses of working-class Chinese, the PAP had weekly rallies. After the Labour Front collapsed in the face of a scandal, the PAP candidates wore white clothing to symbolize their political purity. The party promised clean, efficient politics and pledged to address issues in education, labor, housing, health, social security, economic growth through industrialization, and merger with the Malay Federation as a pathway to full independence from Britain. The PAP swept the election, winning 43 of 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

The PAP victory terrified many conservatives since the party had been associated closely with militant communist action through party leaders like Lim Chin Siong. In many people’s minds, the PAP was still linked with that radicalism, despite the extremists being in jail. Although having moderate roots and having established cordial relations with the British authorities, Lee Kwan Yew also had a record of inflammatory rhetoric and thus was little differentiated from the more extreme Lim Chin Siong and other party leaders known for their anti-capitalist speech and behavior. Anxiety in the business community led companies to move their headquarters from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Malay Federation, which caused capital flight and falling property prices. Given Singapore’s ongoing reliance on international capital, this was a problem. Lee Kwan Yew did not help the situation when he insisted on the release of some of the jailed PAP leaders and then gave them positions in the government, albeit minor ones well away from the center of power.

The PAP’s answer to the capital flight problem was twofold. First, leaders envisioned a new economic plan that focused on industrializing Singapore. This was appealing for a number of reasons. The economy had flourished with the onset of the Korean War in 1950, but when the fighting stopped in 1953, so did the revenue from war-related demand. Unemployment levels were extremely high, feeding support for communism. Singapore’s economy was still heavily based on entrepôt trade, especially rubber, which comprised two-thirds of Singapore’s exports during the 1950s, half supplied from the Malay Peninsula and half from Indonesia. In 1960, Singapore was the world’s largest exporter of rubber. However, the 1950s had been a difficult time for the rubber trade with unsteady supplies and prices. Worse, the future of the rubber trade looked more uncertain as the newly independent Malay Federation was likely to develop its own ports and trade. Further, President Sukarno of Indonesia was promoting economic nationalism by insisting that Indonesian goods be traded only through Indonesian ports. The uneven levels of trade in the 1950s exacerbated the economic difficulties of high unemployment, which was also fed in part by Singapore’s birth rate, one of the world’s highest. The lesson Singapore’s leaders took from this was that entrepôt trade was unreliable and could not provide security and improved quality of life for the people. Singapore needed new economic opportunities, and industrialization was the government’s choice.

The second approach to addressing the capital flight after the PAP election was to push for a rapid merger with the Malay Federation. This would help the Singaporean economy in several ways. First, if Singapore were part of the federation, the rubber supply would likely be more reliable. Second, until Singapore was within a common market with the federation, something Singaporeans expected to come with merger, Singapore would be on the wrong side of Malay trade barriers. Finally, with the hope of new industrialization being the path to stability, full employment, and release from poverty, Singapore needed a larger domestic market for its goods.

Lee Kwon Yew also made it clear that he saw merger as a key to controlling the communists. A Chinese proverb says when you ride the tiger, it is hard to get off, lest you get eaten. When he affiliated himself with the likes of Lim Chin Siong and his followers to gain political support from the Chinese masses, Lee Kwan Yew climbed on the tiger. Now he had to control it. He said that he could not challenge the communists as long as the British still had some control over Singapore; if he did, he would look like a puppet of the British and the communists would appear as “anti-colonial martyrs,” but with merger, the conservative, anticommunist Malay government could help address the communist threat. He also expressed his concern that without merger, Singapore could become an organizational base for communist forces working in opposition to the ideologically nationalist Malay government.

Singapore’s difficult relationship with the Malay Federation was at the center of the merger agenda. Despite Lee Kwan Yew’s warning to Malay leaders that Singapore may be a threat outside the federation, they were alarmed by the level of communist activism in Singapore since 1953, especially since they had just gotten the upper hand on the communist guerilla insurgency on the Peninsula. Moreover, while Singapore and the federation were united by geography, history, and economics, they were divided in other meaningful ways. They had been evolving along different trajectories since the end of World War II, and very different political and social philosophies had developed. In the Malay Federation, the strong political force of Malay nationalism had manifested itself in a preference system that advantaged Malays over members of other ethnic groups. For example, a civil service quota required four Malays for each non-Malay employee. Malays were disadvantaged in economic power (held mostly by ethnic Chinese in the federation), so they were deliberate about protecting political power for ethnic Malays. Malay was the official language, and other Asian languages had no legal status. In contrast, in Singapore, there was less focus on ethnicity in politics. While there had been conflict over English-medium versus Chinese-medium schools, no political party advocated benefits for one ethnic group over another; in fact, with the official multilingualism in the Legislative Assembly and the official equality of each of the four language streams in education, Singapore had moved in the opposite direction of the Malay leaders on a fundamental issue for ethnically diverse societies. Moreover, the nature of Malay nationalism had an anti-Chinese element to it, which was problematic when the population of Singapore had a strong Chinese majority. The ethnic composition of the two states was at the crux of the concerns of the Malay leaders. The 1957 census revealed that of the Malay Federation’s population of 6,279,000, 50 percent was Malay and 37 percent Chinese, while Singapore’s 1,446,000 people were 75 percent Chinese and 13 percent Malay. Moreover, Singapore’s citizenship laws were more liberal than the federation’s, making it far easier for ethnic Chinese to gain citizenship. The Malay leaders feared the dilution of Malay political power in the case of a merger. Between the communist activities and the threat to Malay nationalism, the Malay Federation opposed merger in 1959 and the years prior. With a seat on the Internal Security Council, the Malay Federation already had a voice in protecting itself from security problems that might arise from Singapore and this voice, combined with the unwavering anticommunism of the British, would suffice.

The state of emergency was officially rescinded in 1960, suggesting a lesser communist threat, and the PAP made efforts to reach out to and reassure Malay leaders. The PAP leadership made it clear that it was unimaginable to have a separate future from the Malay Federation, and even before taking power in 1959, had tried to demonstrate their cooperativeness. In 1954 the PAP created a party Bureau for Malay Affairs; in 1956 it advocated for a common school system to build ties between the two populations. In 1959, when Singapore was able to have its first non-British head of state (a largely ceremonial position), the person picked was a Malay. The PAP leaders recognized Malay as the national language. They especially targeted the Singaporean Malay community for social development programs, including more schools and community centers. The PAP’s main focus, though, was to advance society and bridge differences between groups through social and economic development; it was not a differentiating communal approach like that found in the federation.

On the economic front, the PAP attempted to make advances. For example, in 1961, the government established an Economic Development Program focused on import-substitution industrialization, a development approach that calls for the creation and then protection of domestic industries that will produce goods for the home market that would otherwise be imported. One initiative was the development of an industrial park in Jurong on what had been 4,000 acres of swampland. Based on advice from the World Bank, the plan for the park offered a range of tax incentives and tax breaks for both local and foreign investors as well as tariffs to protect the goods produced there. The hope was that labor-intensive industry, such as textiles, would decrease the high level of unemployment. Lee Kwan Yew warned of the importance of social stability and cooperation, “The essential conditions for industrialization will only be realized if there is close cooperation and understanding between Government, unions, and industrialists.”

In the interest of promoting labor stability and appearing more investment-friendly, the PAP government took action against the unions. For example, it passed legislation requiring union federations to register with the government, which could then de-register them for bad behavior, depriving the organizations of the legal right to exist. The government also took direct action against some militant leaders in the student and labor groups and even banished some from Singapore, as the Internal Security Act permitted for non-citizens. The restrictive actions and the PAP’s procapitalist policies reignited the conflicts with the communist wing of the PAP that was still anticolonialist and anticapitalist. The conflict came to a head in 1961 when Lee Kwon Yew’s tiger bared its fangs. The situation was so severe that in May the prime minister of the Malay Federation, Tenku Abdul Rahman, unexpectedly suggested in a speech that Singapore and the federation could move toward greater cooperation. The Malays had become so alarmed by the notion of a hostile, communist-controlled Singapore, should the PAP moderates lose control of the party, that having Singapore inside the federation, in some manner, suddenly seemed preferable to the alternative.

In July there was a special election in one of the voting districts. The communist wing of the PAP, led by Lim Chin Siong, together with some radical union leaders, supported the PAP challenger, David Marshall, now returned to politics as chair of the Workers’ Party. Marshall won, running on a platform that advocated immediate independence from Britain, including the removal of the British from their military bases in Singapore as well as the elimination of the Internal Security Council. Lim Chin Siong advocated these positions, too, and opposed a merger with the anticommunists of the Malay Federation, dismissing the notion as continued imperialism.

These events unleashed a debate in the Legislative Assembly about Lee Kwan Yew’s suitability to lead the country. In a narrow vote, 27 of the 51 assembly members voted in favor of the government. The communist wing of the PAP responded by forming a new party, Barisan Sosialis (BS) or Socialist Front. The new party was comprised of the members the PAP had pushed aside four years earlier, when they rewrote party policy to keep the extremists in the lower levels of the PAP. The defection to the BS, however, cost the PAP most of its lower-level organization and infrastructure that was in touch with the grassroots, which caused another crisis for the party. Some supporters also fled anticipating that the PAP was simply going to implode. In the end, the PAP was left with too few seats in the Legislative Assembly to assure an affirmative vote if it could negotiate a merger with the federation.

The Merger

The tumult of the PAP crisis affirmed the federation’s conclusion that if an acceptable approach could be found, merging with Singapore would be the safest course. Negotiations ensued with the issue of preserving Malay political power at the forefront of the agenda. As a compromise, leaders forged an agreement that would leave Singapore with disproportionately little representation in the federal government in exchange for considerably more local autonomy than other states in the federation. The BS spoke out in opposition and the PAP opted for a controversial referendum held in September 1962 to gauge public support. The public voted on the form of the merger but was not given a ballot option of voting against. The government plan received approval from 71 percent of the voters. The British, who supported the merger, offered their holdings on the northern side of the nearby island of Borneo and this territory was then included in the merger plan.

In the interim, however, the BS was active in its resistance, and worked with opponents in the federation and in Borneo. With others, it sent a delegation to the United Nations to appeal to the Committee on Colonialism, against which Lee Kwan Yew himself went to New York to defend. The opposition was strongest in Brunei on Borneo, where Indonesia, which strongly opposed the merger, helped instigate resistance, and an armed revolt broke out in December 1962. The British military responded by inserting 2,000 troops in the space of only 60 hours, quickly putting down the rebellion. The sultan of Brunei opted out of the merger agreement and planning went forward without Brunei.

However, proponents of the merger could not so quickly quell Indonesian opposition. Indonesia’s interests rested in controlling all of the oil-rich island of Borneo, rather than only the portion that was already part of Indonesia. Sukarno also had a vision of uniting the Malay cultural space under his leadership. Finally, Sukarno worried about Singapore’s ongoing prominence as a trading center, potentially strengthened further through merger, because it interfered with his economic nationalist policy of promoting trade through Indonesian ports.

In January 1963, Sukarno announced that he would not permit a merger to take place and launched a three-year undeclared war, known as Konfrontasi or Confrontation. He sent raiding parties into Borneo and Singapore, and up the Malay Peninsula. In Singapore, beginning in February, Indonesian fighter planes flew in formation as if to attack, forcing British Royal Air Force planes to scramble in response, though the Indonesians never followed through with an air attack. In the months and years that followed, however, the raiding parties targeted Singapore, attacking a petroleum installation and later setting off bombs. Security officials arrested more than 100 Indonesian operatives in Singapore on charges relating to the Konfrontasi. The Indonesian Navy also seized Singaporean fishing boats. The British, in charge of external security, responded with a show of force bringing in large reserves of ships, aircraft, and personnel to the bases in Singapore. Sukarno pointed to the military buildup as evidence that the federation was an imperial puppet.

The situation for the PAP and its political and organizational weakness changed just as the problems with Indonesia were starting. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether the outcome was engineered by the PAP (the dominant viewpoint) or whether the PAP was simply the beneficiary of fortuitous circumstances outside of its control. Regardless of the interpretation, the Internal Security Council (comprised of three Britons, three Singaporeans, and a representative from the Malay Federation) took action against Singaporean communists in what is known as Operation Cold Store on the night of February 3, 1963. Security forces rounded up nearly 150 activists, among them journalists, students, labor unionists, and opposition politicians, who had allegedly supported the uprising in Brunei. They were detained without trial, and no charges were ever filed. The detainees included about half of the Executive Committee of the Barisan Sosialis, including Lim Chin Siong. Rioting by their supporters broke out after the security operation and more arrests followed, resulting in the jailing of many in the second tier of the BS organization. The BS was severely undercut, and the PAP was no longer burdened by BS competition.

The formal merger agreement was finalized in July 1963. The country’s name would be Malaysia; and the federal government would be in charge of defense, internal security, and foreign affairs; but Singapore’s local government had a high degree of autonomy over important areas like finance, education, and labor, as well as administrative authority for the day-to-day running of the island. The merger was to occur at the end of August, but then the Malay prime minister asked for a two-week delay due to issues with the Konfrontasi.

However, much to the surprise of the Malaysian leadership, Lee Kwan Yew went ahead and declared Singapore’s independence from Britain two weeks ahead of the postponed merger date. In the interim, he called for immediate elections to confirm the PAP mandate for governing the new state in Malaysia. The PAP’s strength was still compromised from having lost so much of the lower levels of the party organization to the BS, so the election outcome was not a foregone conclusion. However, the PAP did everything it could, within the limits of the law, to promote its success. Leaders called the election with the minimum amount of warning. Candidates had to present their documents in person, so the jailed BS members could not run. The government restricted some meetings, and froze union funds. The PAP also campaigned on its accomplishments of the previous four years. The government’s Housing Development Board had constructed about as many housing units since 1960 as the prior housing agency had done in 30 years. There were initiatives in health and immunization programs. The government had spent considerable funds on education and assured equality in the four-language school system. There were steps toward greater security, not just in tackling communist-incited unrest, but also secret societies. The government passed a Women’s Charter, granting women greater security and legal rights. It had constructed dozens of community centers that provided people with a place for social interaction and space for programs like literacy classes and recreation. The community centers served as locations for publicizing PAP efforts and thus dovetailed with the campaign efforts. The new economic approach of import substitution, while it had not yet taken off (in fact, the Jurong industrial park had been nicknamed “Goh’s Folly” after the Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee), was very much on the agenda. Finally, of course, the PAP could claim its greatest feat in having successfully negotiated merger with the Malay Federation.

Because of the district-based, winner-take-all election system borrowed from Britain (similar to that used in the United States House of Representatives), the PAP only won 47 percent of the vote, but 37 of the 51 seats (or 74%). However, success came at a cost. The Malay leaders in Kuala Lumpur were not pleased with the premature declaration of independence or the hastily called election. The merger went forward in mid-September as planned but with an added touch of bitterness in this marriage of convenience between Singapore and Malaysia.

Onward to the Republic of Singapore

Lee Kwan Yew’s actions in the final weeks before merger contributed to an already established tension in the relationship with Malay officials. Since Singapore was to retain a significant degree of financial autonomy, the PAP negotiated for beneficial financial arrangements in the merger agreement. The party got what it wanted, but its negotiating partners felt it had pushed too hard and insisted on taking too much. This started the merger off on a bad foot and it soon worsened from there.

In April 1964, national elections were scheduled in Malaysia. Lee Kwan Yew agreed in a sort of gentleman’s agreement to sit out the election and not compete on the national level until the next election. However, Lee Kwan Yew became concerned that Malaysian Chinese would shift their support from the Malay Chinese Association (MCA) to the BS, which opposed merger, and that the merger effort would thereby be undermined. Despite the fact that the MCA was allied with the Prime Minister Tunku’s United Malays National Organization, the PAP entered the election in opposition to the MCA. UMNO leaders saw this as a breach of the agreement between Lee Kwan Yew and Tunku. There was backlash from people fearing the PAP, from predominantly Chinese Singapore, was trying to assert itself too much into Malay-dominated politics, and Tunku publicly reaffirmed his alliance with the MCA and against the PAP. The PAP won only a single seat outside Singapore, which confirmed the poor reception of the PAP’s actions.

The next blow to merger was two five-day episodes of rioting in Singapore between the Chinese and Malay communities, the first in July and the second in September 1964. It was the worst and longest rioting in Singapore since World War II. The Malays were angry that the special provisions for Malays in the other parts of Malaysia, such as the quota system in the civil service, were not to be applied in Singapore. Lee Kwan Yew instead spoke for equality of opportunity across all the ethnic groups. A meeting between representatives from the Malay community and Lee Kwan Yew corresponded to a planned event honoring the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Fighting broke out between Malay attendees and Chinese hecklers. By the time police restored order, 22 were dead and 454 injured. The murder of a Malay bicycle-rickshaw driver sparked the second wave of riots. In that episode, 12 were killed, 109 injured, and more than 1200 arrested for disorderly conduct or curfew violations. Motivated by the tensions caused by the riots, the Indonesians staged further raids in Singapore and in the rest of Malaysia to push the conflict ever higher. In other parts of Malaysia, these events confirmed the perceived anti-Muslim bias on the part of the Chinese, and there was fear the ethnic conflict could spread.

The general PAP attitude toward Malay policies of development and communal relations was also a stumbling block and proved an impossible gap to bridge. As exemplified by the Malay quota system, the Malay political system was built on protecting Malay political power from Chinese influence, since the Chinese had disproportionate economic power. Singaporean politics were about communal inclusion rather than division. The policies for economic and social development also reflected the differing approaches. Singapore advocated for maintaining its free-port policy, while Malaysia wanted trade barriers. As a decision-deferring compromise, they decided on a 12-year period to introduce a common market between the two territorial units. The PAP advocated well-being for all citizens coming from economic progress with socialist-style programs to spread the wealth. The Malay leadership consisted of conservative Malay aristocrats; Tunku was a prince, son of a sultan. They wanted to protect their status and allied with elite Malay Chinese who had little interest in sharing their wealth with the masses. Vastly different and incompatible ideologies shaped the two sets of political elites. Lee Kwan Yew spoke of Malaysia’s “feudal” politics and argued strongly and publicly for approaches conforming to PAP ideas. He wanted to address the problems dividing the societies head on, whereas Tunku and his UMNO colleagues felt the divisions were so deep that only time could bridge societal schisms.

The various problems, including ideological incompatibility, concerns about excessive Chinese influence and inadequate Chinese respect for Malay culture, a lack of trust between the two sets of leaders, and the tensions from the Indonesian Konfrontasi combined to make the situation intolerable for Malay elites. Lee Kwan Yew, who saw himself as above ethnic politics but was the personification of the Chinese threat in the minds of the Malays, became the target for the worry and dislike. The UMNO elite debated the best way to handle the situation and concluded that either the PAP’s leadership of Singapore or Singapore itself had to go. Believing that it would be difficult to remove the PAP from Singapore’s government, the Malay leaders decided Singapore needed to leave Malaysia. Negotiations between the two parties led to Singapore’s announcement of its independence on August 9, 1965. Various Commonwealth members, including Britain and Australia, as well as the United States immediately recognized Singapore as an independent country. In September, the United Nations admitted it for membership. The Republic of Singapore had launched.

The post-war period was a tumultuous time. The difficulties of rebuilding the infrastructure and economy, as well as restoring social trust and order challenged colonial leaders. Then new, radical political forces arose and pushed the country away from Britain on its own distinctive path, with and without Malaysia. All of this happened in an environment shaped by competition between leading ideologies spread around the world through globalization. The struggle between capitalism and communism acutely shaped Singapore’s history during this time.