When Singapore Was Forced Into Independence

In 1965, the tiny island-city of Singapore was unwillingly forced into independence and became one of the world’s smallest nations.

Lee Kuan Yew                                                    photo from WikiCommons

The modern history of Singapore begins in the early years of the 19th century, when the British and Dutch were each vying for domination of the lucrative trade with the East Indies in the Pacific. The Dutch already had colonies in what is now Indonesia, and the British, to protect their own trade routes to the Indies and China, established a port on the strategic island of Singapore, off the coast of the Malay peninsula, in January 1819.

The first British Governor was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, an employee of the British East India Company, who consolidated the areas of Singapore, Penang and Melaka into the “Straits Settlements” under English control. At this time, Singapore was already a mix of different ethnic cultures, languages and nationalities, many of whom quarreled with each other. And so, in a classic British strategy of “divide and conquer”, Raffles divided the city into four zones which were segregated by ethnicity. The majority of the population, which was Chinese, were in China Town, while the smaller Indian population was in the neighborhood known as Chulia Kampong. The Muslim population, made up of Malay natives and descendants of Arabic immigrants, were in another neighborhood called Kampong Gelam. And finally the white British colonialists and their servants had their own section of the city, known as European Town.

Singapore remained a British colony and an important naval base until December 8, 1941, when the Japanese invaded the Malay peninsula and moved against the island as part of their thrust towards the Dutch East Indies, capturing 80,000 British troops in what was the largest surrender in the UK’s military history. At the end of the war, the Japanese turned their conquests back over to England, and in 1946 the Straits Settlement union was dissolved, with Singapore becoming a separate Crown Colony.

But the wartime occupation had sparked nationalist feelings in the colonies, and soon, following the example of India, there was a thriving independence movement in Malaya and Singapore. In 1959, London tried to quell this by allowing limited autonomy, under which the UK would maintain control of foreign-policy matters and an elected government would control local affairs. The elections in Singapore were won by the People’s Action Party under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, which took an overwhelming majority of seats.

In 1960, the former British colonies of Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah all declared independence from England, and in 1961 made plans to join together and form a new unified independent country to be called Malaysia. In Singapore, Lee and the PAP, concerned that the island city-state was too small and too lacking in resources to be successful as an independent country, announced that they would also join the new nation, and in July 1963 the agreement was signed. The Federation of Malaysia was set to be formally established in 1965.

But almost immediately there was trouble, as the divides in ethnic nationalism, long encouraged by the British, once again bubbled to the surface. Most of the population of the proposed new nation were ethnic Malays, who were largely Muslim and poor, while Singapore and its thriving business class was dominated politically and economically by its Chinese population. While Lee and the People’s Action Party had power in Singapore, the largest party in the Malay areas was the United Malays National Organization. UMNO’s goal was to promote and protect the political and economic status of the Malay population, while Lee and the PAP wanted a multi-racial and multi-cultural state.

Ethnic tensions escalated quickly. The UNMO, looking for a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, introduced a number of resolutions establishing political and economic quotas which favored the ethnic Malay majority, and Article 153 of the Constitution committed the Malaysian Government to “safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak”. At the same time, Singapore was demanding regional autonomy and protection for its own ethnic groups. Lee argued, “It is wrong and illogical for a particular racial group to think that they are more justified to be called Malaysians and that the others can become Malaysian only through their favour…. 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 a Malaysian.” There were arguments over political representation, concentration of wealth, taxes, trade rules, and religious/ethnic policies—and new disputes broke out when both ethnic-based political parties began running candidates and winning seats in the territories controlled by the other.

In 1964, during the Muslim holiday of Mawlid which celebrated the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, violence broke out within Singapore as ethnic Chinese came under attack by rioting Malays who beat people in the streets and burned Chinese-owned businesses. The Malay government in Kuala Lumpur took to denouncing the Singapore government as “communist”.

By August 1965, things had deteriorated, talks had stalled, and there seemed to be no way to calm the situation. And so the Malay government unilaterally decided to impose its own solution: the legislature voted unanimously to expel Singapore from the country. The proclamation read, “Singapore shall cease to be a State of Malaysia on the 9th day of August, 1965, (hereinafter referred to as ‘Singapore Day’) and shall become an independent and sovereign state separate from and independent of Malaysia and recognized as such by the Government of Malaysia.” Malaysia was to be a firmly Muslim Malay country, and Singapore was not welcome in it.

Although this was not what the PAP (or most Singapore residents) wanted, they had no choice in the matter. On August 9 both sides announced that Singapore would now be an independent country, whether they wanted it or not. During the announcement, a visibly shaken Lee told his citizens, “For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in the merger and unity of the two territories.”

Singapore remains the only country to have had political independence unwillingly forced upon it. But they made the best of the situation, and through a carefully-managed program of economic expansion, ethnic integration, and foreign investments, the “Lion City” became one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. That success came at a price, though: Singapore is essentially a single-party state, with the People’s Action Party remaining in power through draconian security laws and authoritarian state control.

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