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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 5

Divorce by stealth

Suddenly, independence

Difficult to fix

No more bullying


Keng Swee urged that the separation be presented to the British as a fait accompli when parliament reassembled on August 9. The necessary constitutional amendments must first be made granting Singapore independence, with all three readings taking place on that day. Ismail readily agreed to this. Razak was greatly amused and said that perhaps PAP tactics were the best.

Ismail said two documents needed to be drawn up: an amendment to the constitution making the secession of Singapore possible, and an act giving Singapore independence under that amendment. In the interests of security, civil servants should not be brought in to prepare these, and he asked if we could do the work. Ismail and Razak must have thought through the necessary constitutional procedures. Keng Swee said Eddie [Barker] (Singapore's minister for law) would try to produce a draft for them in a week to 10 days, and that was agreed. Keng Swee impressed upon both of them the imperative need for secrecy.

On the morning of Friday, August 6, I traveled by car to Kuala Lumpur. Choo and the children stayed behind in the Camerons until Saturday so people would see them and think I was still there.

Neither Keng Swee nor Eddie was sure that the Tunku, who was now back [from London], had not changed his mind, in which case everything was off. But when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur that afternoon, they were there with the documents. After I had studied and approved them, they went to see Razak, Ismail and Kadir Yusof, the attorney general. The meeting went on for hours and hours as I waited impatiently and alone at Singapore House.

Late in the evening, Eddie phoned to say that Tan Siew Sin wanted amendments included whereby we would take over the guarantees that the central government had given the IMF and the World Bank for loans granted to Singapore, a niggling detail. I agreed to that, and Eddie and Kadir Yusof started work on the drafts.

But it took them until well after midnight. When he returned to Singapore House with Keng Swee, Eddie said they had all got drunk while waiting, and when the documents were finally ready, he was the only one sober enough to want to read them before he signed. Razak, who liked Eddie from their hockey-playing days in Raffles College, said, "Eddie, it's your draft. It's your chap who typed the final document, so what are you reading it for?" So Eddie, too, signed without further ado - "sign buta" (signing blindly), as he told me in Malay.

Keng Swee was so soused that he had gone straight to bed. But Eddie went through the documents, was greatly relieved to find no mistakes, then handed them to me. After I had quickly scanned the amendments myself, I looked at Eddie and said, "Thanks, Eddie, we've pulled off a "bloodless coup.'"

With the documents signed, even if the British persuaded the Tunku and his colleagues not to take it through Parliament, once I had published the agreements and the proclamation of independence in the government gazette, Singapore's relationship with Malaysia would change irrevocably.


It was like any other Monday morning in Singapore until the music stopped. At 10 a.m., the pop tunes on the radio were cut off abruptly. Stunned listeners heard the announcer solemnly read out a proclamation - 90 words that changed the lives of the people of Singapore and Malaysia:

"Whereas it is the inalienable right of a people to be free and independent, I, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf of the people and the government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society."

Separation! What I had fought so hard to achieve was now being dissolved. Why? And why so suddenly? It was only two years since the island of Singapore had become part of the new Federation of Malaysia.

At 10 a.m. the same day, in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, the Tunku explained to Parliament: "In the end we find that there are only two courses open to us: to take repressive measures against the Singapore government or their leaders for the behavior of some of their leaders, and the course of action we are taking now, to sever with the state government of Singapore that has ceased to give a measure of loyalty to the central government."

The House listened in utter silence. The Tunku was speaking at the first reading of a resolution moved by deputy prime minister Tun Razak, to pass the Constitution of Malaysia (Singapore Amendment) Bill, 1965, immediately.

Under Malay-Muslim custom, a husband, but not the wife, can declare "Talak" (I divorce thee) and the woman is divorced. They can reconcile and he can remarry her, but not after he has said "Talak" three times. The three readings in the two chambers of parliament were the three talaks with which Malaysia divorced Singapore. The partners - predominantly Malay in Malaya, predominantly Chinese in Singapore - had not been compatible. Their union had been marred by increasing conjugal strife over whether the new Federation should be a truly multiracial society, or one dominated by the Malays.


What were the real reasons for the Tunku, Razak and lsmail to want Singapore out of Malaysia? They must have concluded that if they allowed us to exercise our constitutional rights, they were bound to lose in the long run. The Malaysian Solidarity Convention would have rallied the non-Malays and, most dangerous of all, eventually made inroads into the Malay ground on the peninsula. The attitudes and policies of the PAP had already won the unswerving loyalty of our Malay leaders in Singapore; they never wavered even under the stress of the race riots in 1964, nor did they respond to appeals to race, religion or culture, or to the usual blandishments offered to draw them back into the UMNO fold.

This was the nub of the matter. The PAP leaders were not like the politicians in Malaya. Singapore ministers were not pleasure-loving nor did they seek to enrich themselves. UMNO had developed to a fine art the practice of accommodating Chinese or Indian ministers in Malaya who proved troublesome, and had, within a few years, extended its practice to Sabah and Sarawak. Razak once offered Keng Swee 5,000 acres of the best quality rubber land, to be planted with seedlings of the best high-yielding strains from the Rubber Research Institute. With an embarrassed laugh, Keng Swee protested that he would not know what to do with it and ducked the inducement.

Nor was it easy to compromise us. Keng Swee and I once accompanied the Tunku and Tan Siew Sin to a "mess" in Kuala Lumpur run by wealthy Chinese merchants. These "messes" were men's clubs where excellent food was provided by the best restaurants, where members and their friends could gamble at mahjong or poker, and where attractive call girls and even starlets were available. We had a good meal and when they played poker afterwards, I joined in. But as soon as the girls arrived, Keng Swee and I pleaded pressing engagements and made ourselves scarce. We could not afford to give hostages to fortune. If we had stayed, we would thereafter have been open to pressure from the Malaysian leaders. They considered us difficult, almost as dangerous and elusive to handle as the communists, and much too ideological. Worse, we always acted constitutionally and hence were difficult to fix.


There were other considerations. If we had remained in Malaysia, the commission of inquiry into the 1964 race riots would continue to hear damaging evidence against Jaafar Albar and UMNO, which would receive widespread publicity. Then there would be the hearing of my libel action against Albar and the editor of the Utusan Melayu, who would be thoroughly cross-examined in court on all the incendiary passages they had published about me. That would mean a devastating exposure of key UMNO leaders' methods of incitement to racism and bloody riots.

The Tunku's solution to these problems was Separation. Singapore would be out of Malaysia and he would control Singapore through the supply of water from Johor and other levers of pressure. He told Head [Britain's high commissioner] on August 9, "If Singapore's foreign policy is prejudicial to Malaysia's interests, we could always bring pressure to bear on them by threatening to turn off the water in Johor."

The Tunku and Razak thought they could station troops in Singapore, squat on us and if necessary close the Causeway and cut off our water supply. They believed, not without foundation, that Singapore could not exist on its own - what better authority than the speeches of the PAP leaders themselves, myself included, and the reasons we had given for it? As Ghazali bin Shafie, the permanent secretary, external affairs ministry, said soon after separation: After a few years out on a limb, Singapore would be in severe straits and would come crawling back - this time on Malaysia's terms.

No, not if I could help it. People in Singapore were in no mood to crawl back after what they had been through for two years in Malaysia, the communal bullying and intimidation. Certainly Keng Swee and I, the two directly responsible for accepting this separation from our hinterland, were not about to give up. The people shared our feelings and were prepared to do whatever was needed to make an independent Singapore work.

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 4 UMNO's role in race riots...Breaking up...Gathering opposition...The last straw

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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