Another look at S’pore’s separation

By Patrick Keith (2005, Media Masters Pte. Ltd. 197 pages)
Ousted! so the blurb on the back cover claims, ‘is the first book entirely dedicated to the climactic story of Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia’. As such it should be required reading for all students of Malaysian history, indeed for all Malaysians who have ever wondered what caused the expulsion and how different their lives would be if that had not happened. However, having been published by a small private company in Singapore, the book has gone under the radar of most scholars (there is a mention of the book, among mostly studies and monographs, in the footnotes to Kevin Y L Tan’s ‘Federating for Survival’ on page 131 of ‘50 Years of Malaysia: Federalism Revisited’ Edited by Andrew J. Harding and James Chin, Marshall Cavendish, 2014.) and has also been largely overlooked by the reading public up to now, although it is easily available at only RM45.00. Published in 2005, it tells of events that happened in 1965, forty years after the fact, so to speak.

Patrick Keith, who was at one time a Deputy Director of External Information in Malaysia, was close to the centre of the action, so to speak. He explains in the Foreword why it has taken four decades for the book to be available to the general public. ‘The answer is deceptively simple; its subject matter…. [the author is] encumbered by two correlated factors – the need for self censorship and the risk of courting the wrath of key political camps involved during this turbulent period.’ The blurb on the back makes it clear: ‘This book deals, evenhandedly, with the realities of racial politics – a subject that has all these years been considered “too delicate, too sensitive or, too controversial….there have, of course, been few studies by academics whose carefully-drawn sentiments are comfortably retained within the halls of higher learning.”.

Thus it was felt in 2005 that the events leading to the separation of Singapore from Malaysia could finally be revealed to the general public. However, judging by the present political climate, even today, half a century or so later, some of the matters revealed by the author here may still be considered ‘sensitive’ to some people who might even invoke our Constitution or the law on sedition to prevent public discourse on this subject. Elsewhere in the book, Keith puts the reason succinctly, “These extremists preferred to stick to their version of history which was a book of painful memories.” Apparently this historical narrative of ‘painful memories’ has evolved into the claim of lordship over the ‘immigrant’ races by virtue of a ‘social contract’, the origin of which is just as ephemeral as Rousseau’s.

Only 197 pages long in large print, the book is by no means a simple and straightforward historical account of the separation between Malaysia and Singapore. It is, on the contrary, a tale of ordinary flesh and blood characters with their hopes, fears and prejudices placed at the crossroads of history and forced to make choices then and there, with the full knowledge that they would be judged by the future generations at some point in time. It is also a story of a birth of a nation whose birthright was hijacked immediately after delivery, when the back of its midwife is turned. It is suggested that it is time that we face up with the truth of what happened all those years ago, with courage and compassion, and a willingness to call a spade a spade, leave it at that, and be brave enough to fight for our common heritage.

“Am I politic, am I subtle, am I a Machiavel?” asks Mine Host of the Garter, in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. The same question may be asked as we read of the main characters in this book, which like a play is divided into three acts or sections, each consisting of sub-topics graphically titled thus:

“Section One: The Prince and the Ghostly Snake; The Envelope Affair; Alliance for Independence; Red Ribbons on a Silver Platter; To Hell with Sukarno; Riots from Indonesia; Stab in the Back and A New Storm.

Section Two: The Trapped Lion; The PAP Trounced; Blood must Flow; The Unspoken Word; The ‘Ultras’; and The Unbending Backbone.

Section Three: The Man from Malacca; Confronting Lee Kuan Yew; Dealing with Wreckers; The Fight Goes On; From A to Z and Z to A; The Josey Affair; Destination Disaster and The Final Act.”

The ‘Prince’ in Section One is, of course, Tunku Abdul Rahman, our first Prime Minister, and the ‘Ghostly Snake’ is a case of shingles from which the Prince is recovering in a London clinic. Surrounded by flowers from well wishers, the Prince reads of the events back home and is ruminating on the course he has to take. He is also disappointed with what he has read in the British papers, and reflects on the slights and abuses he has suffered from the colonials. Back to the problems that are plaguing the country at home, he contemplates the reports he has received from his Deputy. We are told that he is, however, not one to rush to take action; a cool head, to him, is a man’s best friend. As Keith puts it: “He was also a virtuoso at turning negative experiences to his eventual advantage. He chose what to feel and when.” His patience however, is soon to be tested to the limits.

The ‘Envelope Affair’ was to the Prince a revelation of the true nature of the person that he has been dealing with:

“It was difficult to dispel the feeling that behind a number of attacks on him in foreign newspapers lurked a non-British figure – the figure of Lee Kuan Yew, leader of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).”

The Prince knew that Singapore was wealthy, with over 400 million Straits Dollars in reserve. Mindful of the backward conditions in the Borneo States he had asked Lee to make a grant of 50 million. After ‘a lot of unpleasant haggling,’ Lee offered a loan on special terms. As for Singapore’s contribution to the Federal coffer, he had asked for 55% of the revenue to be collected from the island. Lee bargained, the Prince agreed to 40%, Lee knocked down another 1%, and, to the shock and horror of the Prince, insisted on that to be put down in writing at that instant, on the back of a ‘grubby’ envelope at the Ritz Hotel. The Prince felt demeaned by such ungentlemanly behavior on the part of his political ally, and it was to affect the decision he has now to make.

The other incident which caused the Prince further embarrassment was the ‘Red Ribbons’ affair. On the 31st day of August, 1963, Lee had on the steps of City Hall in the island state proclaimed its independence from the British to the consternation of Kuala Lumpur, whose declaration of the formation of Malaysia had to wait for confirmation from the United Nations. Adding salt to the wound, Lee said, not without some disdain, “One of the sad things of Malaysia is the naïve approach of some people to whom power was handed over on a silver platter with red ribbons by British royalty in uniform.”

By a strange twist of fate, September 16, 1965, the date for the eventual inauguration of Malaysia was also the fortieth birthday of Lee. Keith says, ‘whether the Tunku was aware of the coincidence or not has never been documented.’ He was shocked, however by the abrupt calling for election in Singapore by Lee on September 3 with polling day fixed for September 21. The Alliance party which put up 42 candidates in the ensuing election failed to win even one single seat, and this only five days after Malaysia was inaugurated, much to the chagrin of the Tunku. It still rankles in his mind.

In the Second section, Keith presents us with the view of the matter from across the Causeway. We are told that during the financial negotiations before the merger Lee had to face a new challenge in the form of the Malayan Finance Minister, Tan Siew Sin. Says Keith:

“To him, the Chinese in Singapore, like all entrepreneurial Chinese anywhere, were practical and pragmatic. Tan decided he must show them that as a minister in the central government he could control their fortunes…..[they] would see where their best interest lay and would support him personally as well as his MCA. Tan decided he would play this card when the terms for Singapore’s entry into Malaysia came up for further discussion.”

Lee’s reaction was sharp and down to earth: “Tan opened our cupboards and found we had money, so he wants 50 million. But this is hard – earned cash, not money from heaven. We are too poor to play Santa Claus. Tan Siew Sin wants the money given to him so he can give it out. He doesn’t want it given direct to Sabah and Sarawak because that might make them independent….”

There was more acrimony between the two after the final negotiations on the proposed merger in London. Lee had counter-proposed an interest free loan of 150 million in lieu of the grant. Tan on his return gleefully disclosed that in London Lee had tried to be ‘too clever’ and had made a fool of himself to the tune of 5 million as he had given away much more in interest on his loan. Lee could only reply, “Utter rot.”

Malaysia had brought prosperity to Singapore. Business boomed, land prices rose and the stock exchange was bullish, but it also brought sorrow to the island. Within months race riots erupted on the island. Keith gave a matter of fact account of the events leading up to and after the unrest. The first feeling of euphoria gave way to a realization that the main ethnic groups did not see eye to eye on their individual status within the federation, differences were exploited by politicians for their own ends, and, fanned by inflammatory speeches by extremist groups hostile sentiments flared into civil disturbance and riots in some parts of the island. The toll: 23 dead; 465 injured, hence the subtitle, ‘Blood must flow’.

As a counterpoint, in this section, it is a pleasure to read Keith’s account of Tan Siew Sin giving the Budget speech on November 25, 1964:

“Budget day was supposed to have been Tan’s moment of glory. For weeks prior to his Budget address, he had kept both sides of the Causeway guessing. He enjoyed their mixed curiosity and anxiety….At half- past – two in the afternoon of November 25, Tan strode into the crowded session of parliament and sensed the sudden surge of excitement. He looked pleased with himself….The Minister of Finance began slowly and deliberately….Tan paused for a sip of water and surveyed his audience…His eyes darted to the clock and he saw it was time to unzip his bag of secrets.”

The Budget Speech also brought forth heated exchanges from both sides of the House. Regrettably parliamentary sessions as they are now are no better, if not actually worse, than they were half a century ago, for then there still was a some sense of decorum, apparently rubbed off from the British. Keith regaled us with a verbatim account of the exchange between D.R. Seenivasagam of the PAP and an alliance back-bencher, Tahir bin Abdul Majid:

Tahir: “Sit down.”

Seenivasagam: “You sit down.”

Tahir: “Shut up.”

Seenivasagam: “You shut up.”

Later, in response to the Minister of Transport’s allegation of Seenivasagam’s unparliamentary remark about the PM:

Seenivasagam: “Clean your ears.”

Sardon: “I have cleaned my ears.”

Seenivasagam: “Clean them harder then.”

From the government back-benches came a loud chorus of voices and then a sharp exchange of abuse: “Stupid ass,” “Bastard,” “Son of a Bitch” and “Pariah.

Keith seems to be channeling Lee when he writes of Lee observing the parliamentary proceedings, ‘Lee had noticed a strange air of unreality about Parliament. It was like watching men chasing after shadows and battling with illusions. They would often pick a trivial subject and debate it as though it were essential. All the while one truly important reality of the Malaysian situation was being avoided in parliament like a plague.’

The subject which was avoided ‘like a plague’ is the racial problem. Not one to avoid a problem, Lee had taken the bull by the horns in his address in parliament:

“They (the Malay Extremists) have triggered off something basic and fundamental. Malaysia – to whom does it belong? To Malaysians. But who are Malaysians? I hope I am, Mr Speaker Sir. But sometimes sitting in this chamber, I doubt whether I am allowed to be Malaysian. This is the doubt that hangs over many minds, and in the next contest, if this goes on it will be on very different lines.”

The simple idea of a Malaysia for Malaysians sought to make ethnic origins irrelevant, it was however to cause a split between the people of the nation into two groups, Malays on the one side, and non-Malays on the other. The call for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ was anathema to the extremists on the mainland to whom Malaya was theirs by the mere dint of their names and religion. Yet to all the other ethnic groups in the federation, it was a rallying call for equal treatment and opportunity. In this section Keith gives us the picture from both sides of the divide.

In his tour of Australia and New Zealand in March 1965, Lee made an impassioned plea for assistance to make Malaysia an equal and open society. He said he was not opposed to the special privileges of the Malays as was alleged by his opponents, but that there was a better way to solve the problem of poverty. His solution was education, an educated man would be in a better position to achieve his aspirations. The speeches he made went down well overseas, especially among Malaysian students, so much so that Radio and TV Malaysia was instructed to give only minimal coverage to Lee.

On the other hand, the thunder from the other side of the Causeway was loud and unrelenting. Keith quotes Jaafar Alba, a recent immigrant from Indonesia after World War II, “To say that the Malays are in the same category as the other races is an insult to the Malays.” Syed Nasir bin Ismail, another Ultra, ‘solemnly pronounced’: “This is an unprecendented insult to the Malays who first came to Malaya about 3,000 years before Christ.” As the clouds gathered, the Tunku, then in Tokyo, was like a man at the end of his tether. He addressed the Ultras in conciliatory tones and called for unity.

In May 1965, in the face of the gathering storm, the Malaysian Solidarity Convention (MSC) was formed by the then six opposition parties, the United Democratic Party, the People’s Progressive Party, the PAP, uPKO, Machinda and Supp with the aim of achieving a Malaysian Malaysia through peaceful and constitutional means. According to Keith, Lee was the ‘prime mover’ behind its formation, giving the rationale behind the formation in the following terms: “We want to established not a new government, but the acceptance of the fundamental principle written in the Constitution that we are all Malaysians regardless of race, creed or colour.”

The MSC was to be the vehicle for the ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ idea. It was clear from the outset that the Ultras saw it, in today’s parlance, as an ‘existential threat’ to themselves, and would never allow it to run its course. The message was delivered by a young Ultra speaking at the opening of the Parliament in May ‘65 after the King’s speech.

Keith describes what happened:

An up and coming Umno backbencher, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was given the honour of proposing a motion of thanks to his Majesty. After a hurried Thank You to the king, the young doctor from Kedah swung into a bitter racial attack on Lee and his supporters. Mahathir said the Chinese in Singapore who supported Lee were selfish and arrogant, living in a purely Chinese environment where Malays could only exist as chauffeurs. The Chinese lived in palaces, went about in huge cars and had the best things in life, while the so-called privileged lived in huts. They have never known Malay rule and cannot bear the idea that the people they have so long kept under their heels should now be in the position to rule.

The speech was greeted with disbelief on the other side of the aisle. Seenivasagam called Mahathir “a chauvinist of the first grade.” The speech had insinuated that the PAP was ‘the enemy within’ determined to destroy Malaysia. From that time onwards it would seem that the die was cast for the separation, neither side could or would concede an inch from their assumed positions in the parliament. The exchange of barbs from both sides was unrestrained, and there were shouts of “traitor get out.” Keith continues:

“Lee went back to Singapore over the weekend and spoke at a small function. He referred to Mahathir’s speech in parliament and said Singapore had never agreed to Malay rule. It wanted Malaysian rule. If there were other people who were determined to have Malay rule, alternative arrangements would have to be made, and the sooner the better. Those states which wanted a Malaysian Malaysia could get together.”

Section Three: This section looks at the crisis from the point of view of Tan Siew Sin, the man from Malacca. It looks first at the achievements his father, Sir Tan Cheng Lock, whose views on racial comity were ideosyncratic, but somewhat advanced for his time. Keith quotes him on his sentiments for racial harmony among the races in Malaya:

“The combination of different races in one state is as necessary a condition of civilised life as the combination of men in society. Inferior races are raised by living in political union with races intellectually superior; exhausted and decaying races are revived by the contact of a younger vitality…..Practically every state in the modern world is multi-national.

Cultural diversity is as desirable as individual diversity. Variety is the indispensible condition of the advance of the human mind.”

It is no surprise that the Chinese in Malacca got on well with the British, and subsequently with the Malays. Tan Cheng lock subscribed fully to that philosophy, but his son found himself confronted with the loud socialistic lawyer from across the Causeway in a union he had hoped could work in the way that they had with the British with mutual respect and accomodation. Tan Siew Sin could see that there was no way the union could work with Lee, the left wing politician of the Fabian Society variety, in charge of Singapore. The mutual animosity reached its height after Tan’s budget speech. Says Keith:

“By June 1965, Tan Siew Sin was convinced he had been right about Lee all along. With the determination of a slighted aristocrat, he decided Malaysia must have no more of this pugnacious, pedantic politician. Lee Kuan Yew was better out of Malaysia. Cut him out.”

Like the Tunku, Tan was a politician of the old school. Differences over issues could be settled over some drinks, and things would be the same again. Tan was content to let the Malay leaders in the Alliance run the country if the Chinese were given citizenship in the federation.

The economy was booming, and the country was making great strides in improving the infrastructure. In short there was a place for everyone in the country. He was confident the Alliance-type of set-up was best for the country. He had tried to win the support of the Chinese businessmen in Singapore, to convince them that both countries can prosper together, but he had been rebuffed. Tan was to be disappointed on all fronts.

In Section Three, ‘The Final Act’, Keith has all the characters on the stage, so to speak. The Prince returns from London.

His Deputy who has kept him abreast of the matters at home, awaits his decision. Lee is cautiously optimistic that a ‘looser federation’ may satisfy the extremists, and might give the Prince some breathing space, he does not know that the Prince has made up his mind. The Ultras are baying for blood: “Lee Kuan Yew is destroying peace and harmony. Discuss nothing with the traitor. Lee Kuan Yew is a snake with two heads. Crush Lee Kuan Yew.” So screamed the placards carried by Umno supporters welcoming the returning Prime Minister. Holding his cards close to his chest the PM answers the reporters asking whether a settlement with Lee is possible; “If it is possible for a man to go to the moon, I don’t see why we cannot find ways to resolve our troubles.”

Keith himself comes on stage with an aside: “Yet the Tunku’s instinct was flashing a warning signal to him and he believed his instinct had never been wrong. As a betting man, he would rather put his money on his instinct…..His instinct was now warning him of imminent danger.”

On August 6, the Cabinet met. The next day the news was conveyed to Lee by the Tunku himself. August 8 was a Sunday, but it was a busy day for all, as the government got ready to present an important motion on the next day. The British High Commissioner was the last to be informed, and that only when he gate-crashed a party for the Tunku at a penthouse in one of the tallest building in Kuala Lumpur.

August 9, Monday morning at 10, on the steps of Singapore’s City Hall, Lee proclaimed Singapore independent from Malaysia. Meanwhile in the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur at exactly the same time, the Tunku presented the Separation Bill to Parliament. He added, in a somewhat reconciliatory tone: “There can only be one Prime Minister for the nation, and so the best course we could take was to allow Lee Kuan Yew to be the Prime Minister of an independent Singapore in the full sense of the word.”

Before the curtain falls on this the Final Act, a voice is heard off-stage. It is Tan Siew Sin, in the debate he had painted a grim picture if Singapore was allowed to stay, his words now echo ominously,” A Sino-Malay clash in Malaysia on a large scale, with the two races roughly equal in number and scattered all over the country, and in many places inextricably mixed, would have been the kind of holocaust beside which racial riots in other countries might appear a mere picnic.”

History was to prove him right in 1969.

In the end, Keith’s tale seems more like a Shakespearean Tragedy say, ‘Othello’, rather than ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’; there was no ‘Machiavel’, though Lee actually shed tears on TV when he announced the separation there was no indication they were crocodile tears. (“It was for all of us a painful meeting. It was not relieved even when I turned to Dr Lim Chong Eu, and when I remarked that Chong Eu thought Lee Kuan Yew should be quite happy that Singapore is now independent and was wondering whether the tears that Kuan Yew shed which he saw on T.V. were of joy or sadness. Lee Kuan Yew replied that he was ‘angry, he was frustrated and sad, because he had worked so hard to bring about the formation of Malaysia but now his efforts ended in this.” Footsteps in Malaysia, Memoirs of Tan Sri Datuk Amar Ong Kee Hui, 2002)

There may be an Iago perhaps, whose stratagems have caused the nation more grief than a simple separation could have caused, among the cast of characters on the stage. The Malayan Constitution had given the Malays special rights under Article 153, however, in the new Malaysian Constitution it raises the question of the rights of the other ethnicities having equal rights under the law, and an equal right of participation in the governance of the country. Nonetheless Lee had been willing to accommodate Article 153, “I keep reminding people that I am a Malaysian. I am learning Bahasa Kebangsaan and I accept article 153 of the Constitution.” However Ultras wanted a Malay Malaysia. Iago had perhaps whispered into the Prince’s ears. It was what they got. Fifty years later, the seed that was planted in 1965 has grown into large tree, but so far that tree has yielded only bitter fruits.

By Patrick Keith (2005, Media Masters Pte. Ltd. 197 pages).

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