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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


A Statesman's Write of Passage

Page 4

UMNO's role in race riots

Breaking up

Gathering opposition

The last straw


I had just finished my round of golf at the Royal Singapore Golf Club at about 6:20 p.m. on July 21, 1964, when the police alerted me that Malay-Chinese riots had broken out during the Prophet Mohammed's Birthday procession and the trouble had spread. I dashed home to change and went to police headquarters at Pearl's Hill, where Keng Swee and I were briefed by John Le Cain, the police commissioner, and George Bogaars, the director of Special Branch. As reports of casualties continued to flow in, first of Chinese victims, then of Malays when the Chinese hit back, Le Cain conferred with police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and ordered a curfew from 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In a radio broadcast at 10:30 that night, I described how, according to the police, the riots had started: Sometime after 5 p.m., the procession of some 25,000 Muslims passed by the Kallang Gas Works in a predominantly Chinese area. A member of the Federal Reserve Unit police sent down from peninsular Malaysia asked a group who were straggling away from the procession to rejoin the main stream. Instead of being obeyed, he was set upon by this group. Thereafter a series of disturbances occurred as more groups became unruly and attacked passers-by and innocent bystanders."

I urged a return to sanity: "What or who started this situation is irrelevant at this moment . . . right now our business is to stop this stupidity. Rumors and wild talk of revenge and retaliation will only inflame men's minds."

But racial passions had been aroused, and mayhem broken loose. The news, distorted and exaggerated, soon spread by word of mouth. All over the island, Malays began killing Chinese, and Chinese retaliated. The casualties came to 23 dead and 454 injured, and when the body-count was made at the mortuary there were as many Malay as there were Chinese victims. Secret society gangsters had stepped in to protect the Chinese and exact revenge, not least for the harsh behavior shown towards them by the men of the Malay Regiment and the Federal Reserve Unit, who were mainly Malay.

The riots raged on intermittently over the next few days, during which the curfew was lifted for short periods to allow people to go to the market.

Later the government published a memorandum setting out the events that had led to the riots. It read: "Unlike in the past, influential political leaders and newspapers were allowed to carry an open and sustained communal and political propaganda for many months. The purveyors of communal propaganda were not obscure fanatics with little resources and facilities to spread their message. This time, the propagandists of aggressive communalism included people and newspapers closely associated with the central government and with the ruling party of Malaysia."

Nobody put a stop to it, and nobody was prosecuted for sedition, as they could so easily have been. The evidence produced clearly showed that the riots were not a spontaneous and unwilled manifestation of genuine animosities between the races. The purpose of the campaign was principally to reestablish the political influence of UMNO among the Singapore Malays. An even more important objective was to use the Singapore Malays as pawns to consolidate Malay support for UMNO in Malaya itself. By placing the blame for the riots on our government and depicting it as oppressing the Malays of Singapore, the perpetrators hoped to frighten those elsewhere in the Federation into rallying around UMNO for protection.

A week after the riots, Othman Wok, who had been deputy editor of the Utusan Melayu, was told by a senior reporter of Utusan in Kuala Lumpur that at 2 p.m., on July 21, he already knew something was about to happen. Othman asked, "But the riots did not start till 4 p.m., how did you know beforehand that riots would take place?" The Utusan reporter replied, "We knew beforehand. We have our sources." Those responsible wanted to reserve the front page for the big news.

The diplomats, both in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, reported back home what had happened. Britain's High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, Antony Head, told London he had "no doubt that this extreme element of UMNO played a considerable part in stirring up the first communal riots which took place in Singapore."

The British high commission in Kuala Lumpur reported: "The riots had a political rather than a religious origin; there had been a similar, but less serious, outbreak the previous week in Penang state. Communal tension has been sharpened during the past few months by a propaganda campaign (conducted primarily by the leading Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu) accusing the PAP government in Singapore of unfair treatment of Malays there. Utusan Melayu often acts as the mouthpiece of UMNO, and in particular of its extremist secretary-general, Syed Jaafar Albar. The loss of the Malay seats in the Singapore Legislative Assembly last September to the PAP rankled, and UMNO resentment was increased by the PAP intervention in the Malayan general election in April (unsuccessful though it was), and by the PAP's continuing efforts to set up a grassroots organization in all the main Malayan towns.

Following the riots in July, Malay-Chinese clashes broke out in Geylang again in August. The Malaysian cabinet, under growing pressure from public indignation in Singapore, ordered a commission of inquiry, with Mr. Justice F.A. Chua as chairman, to investigate the causes of the disturbances here, and also the earlier ones at Bukit Mertajam in Province Wellesley. The federal government, however, ordered it closed to the press and public. The commission did not start its hearings until April 20, 1965.

In his opening address, counsel for the Malaysian government said he would show that the two disturbances were the work of Indonesian agents in Singapore. He had subpoenaed 85 witnesses to provide the evidence of this, but the evidence of the five main witnesses he produced did not show that it was so. All of them firmly denied that Indonesia was in any way connected with the disturbances.

Of greater importance was the light thrown on the riots by Keng Swee. He met Razak in Kuala Lumpur on July 28-29, 1964, one week after the first riots. Razak told him that he saw a way out. He was willing to set up a national government of Malaysia in which the PAP would be represented in the federal cabinet - on condition that I resigned as prime minister of Singapore.

Keng Swee asked whether, as a quid pro quo, Albar would be removed. Razak answered: "No." Razak was emphatic when he told Keng Swee that he had Albar and the Utusan Melayu completely under his control and gave a clear undertaking to Keng Swee that he could control Utusan. Keng Swee made a note immediately after the meeting: "Razak admitted that his opinion was sought whether or not trouble would break out in Singapore and he had given as his opinion that trouble would not break out. He admitted that he had made an error of judgment. Had he foreseen it, he would have taken action."

Keng Swee recorded in his oral history in 1982: "This amounts to an admission that he was involved in this whole campaign to whip up Malay racist and religious feelings in Singapore. And Albar's entry into Singapore and his campaigning in Singapore and the support given to Utusan Melayu had the full backing of Razak. It could not have been otherwise.

"Now, when Razak said that in his opinion, trouble will not break out . . . I frankly don't accept that. No one in his senses would have believed that this shrill racist campaign coupled with a well-organized procession of the Malays in which the bersilat (martial arts) groups came out in force, no one could have believed that. The outcome must be racial riots."


The Tunku must have felt that Malaysia was headed for trouble. When I met him in Kuala Lumpur on December 19, he was not his relaxed and serene self. He skipped his usual pleasantries and jokes, went straight to business, and talked seriously for half an hour. He was direct, and for the first time proposed constitutional "rearrangements." He repeatedly stressed that defense was vital to him. Trade and commerce would continue as usual, but we must help to pay for defense. Singapore was to be "in partnership, independent, but part of the peninsula."

While the hard-hitting public exchanges continued, Keng Swee and I had private discussions with the Tunku, Razak and Ismail [Dr. Ismail Datuk Abdul Rahman, Malaysian minister for home affairs]. I had proposed a disengagement for a few years, with a loosening of federal ties and the granting of more power to the Singapore state government, especially over police and internal security matters.

The alternative to cooperation in a national government would be a state of coexistence: Singapore would not be represented in the cabinet, but both governments would operate independently within their respective spheres of influence, which were to be agreed. However, their fundamental precondition for either cooperation or coexistence was that, not only in Malaya but even in Singapore itself, the PAP should stay out of the Malay world and leave it entirely to UMNO to deal with the Malays.

After several attempts at compromise arrangements, I concluded that the Tunku had hardened his stand.

We were becoming too much of a thorn in their side, especially over finance. Singapore should start collecting its own taxes before the next budget, he said, but should pay a contribution to Malaysian defense since it would become prosperous, thanks to their common market.

Not surprisingly, we made no progress with the "rearrangements."

After a meeting with the National Defense Council on February 9, Razak told Keng Swee that it was impossible for the two sides to depart from political positions that had more or less solidified over the years. What was suitable for Singapore was not suitable for Malaysia and vice versa. Merger had been a mistake. There ought to have been a transition period to avoid a collision and it was now necessary to establish a looser form of confederation.


While negotiations went on, Lee and the PAP were preparing an answer to what they saw as a system of intimidation through engineered race riots - the Malaysian Solidarity Convention.

We set out to mobilize fellow sufferers who could together put up this counter-threat. Our moves to unite did not escape attention. On April 24, 1965, the Tunku disclosed in a speech that there were plans for an opposition get-together. He knew the non-Malays were combining forces to make a stand for a multiracial Malaysia, as against a Malay Malaysia, and he suspected I was to be their leader.

The Tunku had good reason to be concerned. The opposition MPs in the federal parliament had been getting increasingly restive as they listened to the racist speeches made by Albar and the young UMNO Malay leaders. Dr. Lim Chong Eu of the UDP [United Democratic Party] in Penang, the two Seenivasagam brothers of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) in Perak, Ong Kee Hui and Stephen Yong of the Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP) and Donald Stephens and Peter Mojuntin of the United Pasok Momogun Kadazan Organization (UPKO) in Sabah had all by then made overtures to suggest a link-up with the PAP.

Despite false starts, I circulated a note to all ministers: "If we miss this moment, it may be years before we are able to get an equally dramatic occasion for a realignment of forces within Malaysia. On the other hand, taking such a step by which all non-communal parties get together must mean a broad opposition led mainly by the non-Malays against the Alliance led by the Malays in UMNO. Once such a convention has been called and a chain reaction triggered off in men's minds, we can be sure that the fight would very quickly become sharp and acute."


I made my most important speech in the federal parliament to a hostile and tense audience, including a large number of Malay MPs who had been fed daily with anti-PAP, anti-Lee Kuan Yew and anti-Chinese propaganda by the Utusan over the past year. I moved an amendment to express regret that the King's address did not reassure the nation that it would continue to progress in accordance with its democratic constitution towards a Malaysian Malaysia.

I drew a distinction between political equality and the special rights for the economic and social uplift of the Malays. I accepted the special rights, but if the other peoples of Malaysia were denied political equality with the Malays, we would not need Sukarno and Confrontation to crush us. I demolished the accusation that we were pro-Chinese. If we advocated a Chinese Malaysia, we could not attract majority support, as the Chinese were only 42% of the population.

Having reached the most sensitive part of my speech, in which I would expose the inadequacy of UMNO's policies, I decided to speak in Malay. Although my Malay was not as good as my English, I was fluent compared with other non-Malay MPs.

I said that the Tunku had frequently said in public and in private that the Chinese were rich and the Malays poor, but I used some simple examples to highlight a few points. "How does a Malay in the kampong find his way out into this modernized civil society? By becoming servants of the 0.3% who would have the money to hire them to clean their shoes, open their motorcar doors? Of course there are Chinese millionaires in big cars and big houses. Is it the answer to make a few Malay millionaires with big cars and big houses? How does telling a Malay bus driver that he should support the party of his Malay director (UMNO) and the Chinese bus conductor to join another party of his Chinese director (MCA) - how does that improve the standards of the Malay bus driver and the Chinese bus conductor who are both workers in the same company?"

The Tunku and Razak looked most unhappy I was meeting them on their own Malay ground and competing for support peacefully with arguments in open debate. They could see that among the MPs wearing the haji skullcaps of those who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, heads were nodding in agreement when I pointed out that simply having Malay as the national language would not improve their economic lot. They needed practical programs directed in the fields of agriculture and education.

I had not expected my speech to play so crucial a part in the Tunku's decision to get Singapore out of Malaysia. Twelve years later, 1977, in his book Looking Back, the Tunku wrote: "The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was a speech Mr. Lee Kuan Yew made in Parliament, when he moved an amendment to the motion to thank the King for his speech in May, 1965. He brought up many issues which disturbed the equilibrium of even the most tolerant Members of the House."

Page 1 In the beginning...Competing in college...Under Japanese rule

Page 2 Political Allies...A Stormy Courtship...Bitter Run-up

Page 3 Dealing with the Tunku...An uneasy marriage...PAP enters the fray

Page 5 Divorce by stealth...Suddenly, independence...Difficult to fix...No more bullying

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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