The Online Citizen speaks with Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, a historian on the merger of Singapore and the Federation of Malaya along with Operation Coldstore which can be said to be a period of white terror of our country. He has researched extensively and have been documenting the unclassified documents that have been recently released by the British Government on the two topics.
Q: What is “Merger”?
A: On 16 September 1963, the Federation of Malaya, and the British colonies of Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak merged to form Malaysia.
Q: Why did merger happen?
A: Before 1945, there was only one Malaya, which included twelve states: the four Federated Malay states (Selangor, Perak, Pahang, and Negri Sembilan), the five Unfederated Malay states (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, and Terengganu), and the three Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, and Singapore). People moved freely up and down the country from the northern tip of Perlis to the southern tip of Singapore. Singapore to Malaya was like New York to the USA: the commercial, artistic, and cultural capital. From the late 19th to the mid 20th century, people seeking their fortune moved to Singapore.
In 1945, Singapore was divided from the rest of Malaya. People on both sides of the causeway viewed the division of Malaya into two as highly artificial. Families were divided. Malayans on both sides of the new border thus hoped for reunification.
Reflecting this, every political party in post-war Singapore was committed to the eventual reunification of Singapore with the rest of Malaya. In both the 1955 and 1959 general elections, all parties publicly committed themselves to merger. Merger was the genuine democratic wish of the overwhelming majority of Singapore’s people.
The British also deeply desired merger as it would mean that their commercial and strategic interests in Singapore, including the critical naval base, would be placed under the control of a reliably friendly, pro-British UMNO government. A democratic Singapore with a representative government was likely to move away from Britain and pursue a much more independent path.
Q: Why was Singapore separated to begin with?
A: Colonial Politics. Before World War II, Malaya at the time was roughly 43% Malay and 43% Chinese. After the war, the British were resolved to leave their colonies, but they needed to leave friendly governments behind to ensure their strategic and economic interests would be protected. In Malaya, to guarantee the cooperation of the conservative Malay politicians, as well as to protect their military bases in Singapore, the British split off the Chinese-dominated Singapore from the rest of Malaya, while continuing to rule Singapore as a crown colony. This left the rest of Malaya as around 60% Malay, allowing conservative Malay politicians to comfortably dominate the country. In return, they protected and supported British interests in the Federation.
Q: So why would the Federation politicians change their minds and reunify with Singapore in 1963?
A: Again, politics, this time that of the Malay leadership in the Federation. They actually didn’t want to reunify. From independence in 1957, Federation Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman grew less and less enthusiastic about Singapore. Bringing Singapore back in would have jeopardized UMNO’s political dominance. Thus, until 1961, everyone in the Federation and Singapore referred to merger as a vague aspiration that was “five to ten years away”.
Q: What happened in 1961 that made the Tunku change his mind so quickly?
Yet again: politics, this time, in Singapore. Singapore’s PAP won the 1959 elections and formed the government. But the leadership’s inexperience showed, and they made a lot of mistakes in their first year. They moved away from the progressive platform on which they had been elected, failing to fulfil a number of election promises. To compound this, they refused to admit their mistakes, and acted in a very arrogant and smug manner. Thus, the British and the PAP’s backbenchers grew very frustrated with the government, and the popularity of the PAP government declined heavily from 1959-60.
As a result of this, the PAP began to fracture from internal arguments. The PAP leadership sought to remove the highest source of dissent, Minister for National Development Ong Eng Guan, but the dismissal of such a popular politician only added to the PAP’s woes.
Meanwhile, the PAP backbenchers, grassroots, and trade union leaders, who were much more progressive and liberal than the more conservative PAP leadership, were unhappy with the leadership’s mistakes and arrogance. The biggest issue, however, was over the continued detention of political prisoners. The PAP’s progressive left wing kept reminding Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee that they had promised to work for the release of the political prisoners who were detained by the Lim Yew Hock government in 1956 and 1957. This promise was a major plank of the PAP election platform, and had also been personally promised by Lee to the trade union leaders in 1959. Naturally, this group – the PAP’s progressive left – grew increasingly upset when Lee refused to commit himself to working for the release of the remaining political prisoners.
Q: Wait a moment. Why was the continued detention of political prisoners such a big issue to the PAP’s progressive wing?
A: The PAP’s progressive left all grew up faced with systematic discrimination, violence, and repression from the state. First the colonial government from the 1930s, then the Japanese occupation from 1942-45, then again the British from 1945 onwards. Singapore in this period was an extremely discriminatory place, and the use of violence and terror against the people of Singapore by the state was routine. If you were not English-educated and wealthy in Singapore, you were a second-class citizen in your own country. The colonial state could come and throw you out of your home and destroy your life at any time, without proof, if they were convinced that you were an enemy of the government.
In 1956, the colonial government easily stopped Singapore’s incipient civil rights movement by simply arresting and detaining all of its leaders without trial. As a result, the progressive left realized that simply winning elections was not enough. In order for Singapore to have self-determination, a democratically elected, fully representative government of Singapore must control the internal security laws. It’s important to note here that they did not call for the abolition of the laws, only that they were controlled by a democratically elected, fully representative government of Singapore.
Q: So you’re saying what happened is that by 1961, Lee and the PAP government were growing more unpopular and were not confident of maintaining their electoral base. How does this relate to merger?
Since his own party’s base was not supporting him, Lee secretly turned to the Malayan Communist Party for support. However, despite their promised support, Lee lost two by-elections in Hong Lim and Anson. Lee realised that the MCP was either unwilling or unable to command popular support. He also turned to the British for support. The British did not want to see a truly progressive left wing party win the next election, but felt that they could not openly intervene in the political process without opening themselves to accusations of attempting to rig the democratic process.
To win the next election, Lee needed an achievement he could campaign on. The only popular desire he could deliver quickly was the achievement of merger. The British already wanted merger, but the Tunku didn’t. Thus, to get the Tunku on board, they told the Tunku that the PAP’s unpopularity was a sign that the island would soon be taken over by communists, and only the Tunku could save the island by taking it over. The British also urged the Tunku to accept merger, and offered the inclusion of North Borneo and Sarawak. This would dilute the influence of Singapore’s Chinese in Federation politics, as well as give the Federation access to Borneo’s vast natural resources. Eventually, after much persuading, pleading, and bargaining, the Tunku agreed to merge.
Q: Finally, we have merger. How did everyone react?
A: They didn’t know. Merger negotiations were originally done in secret. Then, in late June 1961, news leaked that Lee and Goh had been secretly negotiating merger with the Federation and British. Singapore erupted in shock, and PAP’s backbenchers and members demanded to know what was going on. They suspected that Singapore was simply trading one colonial master (the British) for another (the Federation). Rather than answer to his party, Lee chose to purge the PAP of the progressive left. The progressive left went on to form the Barisan Sosialis in August 1961.
Q: Okay. What does this have to do with Operation Coldstore?
A: The Tunku was openly worried about the impact of the Barisan Sosialis in a unified Malaysia. He feared their organisational skills and the inspired, “talismanic” leadership of Lim Chin Siong. He thus demanded that Singapore’s political opposition be arrested as a condition of merger.
The British didn’t want to conduct arrests because they already had a poor reputation around the world for colonial abuses. Reports out of Kenya and Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1959 had embarrassed them. Such acts would also have been very unpopular in the UK, jeopardising the government in the next election.
Lee wanted the arrests to be launched after merger, so that the federal government in Kuala Lumpur would take the responsibility. He feared that arresting such popular politicians would severely damage his popularity in Singapore.
Q: Hold on. Lee did not want to use detentions against the political opposition?
A: To be precise, he did not want to take responsibility for the arrests. By launching them after merger, the federal government would take responsibility. However, the Tunku told him that it was a condition of merger that the arrests take place before merger, so that the Internal Security Council comprising the British, Singapore and Federation governments would share joint responsibility. Lee was thus forced to agree.
Q: But this was August 1961. What happened between then and Operation Coldstore in January 1963?
A: The British did not want the arrests, so they stalled and played for time. They repeatedly pointed out there was no evidence of any violent communist subversion in Singapore. If they arrested people without evidence, their international and domestic reputation would suffer.
Q: So the British were happy to use detention without trial in Singapore in the 1940s and 50s, but the moment it might affect their international reputation and make them lose an election in the UK, they baulked?
Q: Also, hadn’t the British told the Tunku that Singapore was on the verge of being taken over by communists? So how could they justify not taking action?
A: They were in a tricky situation. They had to insist there were communists in Singapore, while simultaneously saying there was no evidence to arrest them. Also, they pointed out that it was not illegal to be communist in Singapore.
Q: It wasn’t?
A: No. Just as in Britain, in Singapore you couldn’t arrest someone just on the basis of what they believed. You had to show they were breaking the law, for example by planning violence.
In response, the Tunku and Lee worked hard to find some evidence on which the arrests could be conducted. But when this evidence was given to MI5 in April 1962, MI5 rejected it and basically said that it was entirely ‘surmise’ – that is, speculation, not real evidence.
Q: MI5? As in, James Bond?
A: Not quite. Bond is MI6, the foreign arm of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. MI5 is the domestic arm. Remember, Singapore was still part of the British Empire.
Q: Right. So how did Coldstore eventually happen?
A: The Brunei rebellion broke out on 8 December 1962. The Barisan issued a statement the next day declaring ‘a popular uprising against British colonialism and must command the support of all genuine anticolonialists’. The British, Federation, and PAP seized upon this as an excuse to arrest the Barisan leadership. By endorsing the rebellion, the British could plausibly argue that the Barisan were endorsing violent subversion in Singapore, and thus the arrests had to be made for security and safety.
Ironically, the evidence that MI5 had said was speculation in April 1962 was now quickly recycled to use as a legal basis for the arrests.
Q: Why on earth would the Barisan issue this statement?
A: Several reasons. Firstly, they had issued similar statements before – most recently in January 1962 when they had supported the nationalist freedom movement of West Irian. When this was moved in the Legislative Assembly, it was supported unanimously, including by the PAP. Thus, they had consistently supported violent anti-colonial resistance, and did not see this as any different. They had issued statements supporting revolution in Aden, Cyprus, Algeria, and other colonies.
Second, it was a matter of principle. Lim Chin Siong argued that you can’t be anti-colonial, then stop being anti-colonial when it means you’ll get arrested. That just makes you a hypocrite.
Finally, I think the Barisan were simply politically inexperienced and naïve. Remember, their leadership was composed of trade unionists and doctors, unlike the PAP’s leadership, which was full of lawyers and civil servants. The Barisan saw the world much more in terms of right and wrong, rather than in terms of rules and institutions.
Of course, the British, Federation, and PAP leaders had already decided the arrests would happen, so it didn’t really matter what the Barisan chose to do. For example, the Sarawak United People’s Party condemned the rebellion, but the British colonial government still arrested many of them.
Q: So this led to Operation Coldstore?
A: Yes, Operation Coldstore was scheduled for 16 December 1962.
Q: Wait, Operation Coldstore happened on 2 February 1963!
A: The original Operation Coldstore collapsed when, at the last minute, Lee Kuan Yew inserted fifteen extra names of his political opponents into the arrest list. When the Tunku found out, he furiously accused Lee of manipulating the arrests for his own political gain and refused to allow the arrests to go ahead. Neither man would back down, so the arrests collapsed.
Q: Why did Lee do that?
A: Remember, he was worried about the political consequences of the detentions. So he inserted the names to ensure that even if his own popularity collapsed after the arrests, there would be no real alternative to the PAP at the next election.
Q: So how did Operation Coldstore get resurrected?
A: It took two months of shuttle diplomacy by the British. Finally, Lee was given two major concessions. The first is that the post-arrest press release would refer to Malaysia, allowing Lee to argue that merger depended on the arrests, and thus his hands were tied. The second, and much more controversial concession, is that Lee was allowed to insert three names (out of the fifteen) into the arrest list.
Operation Coldstore then went ahead in the early morning of 2 February 1963. The first day, 111 people were arrested; by April, 133 people had been arrested.
Q: Okay. So let me get this straight. The primary purpose of merger was for political gain, not to reunify a divided nation?
A: Lee Kuan Yew’s and the PAP’s unpopularity provided the opportunity and drove the timing of merger. Without it, merger might not have ever happened – it certainly was growing more and more unlikely in the immediate future as the Tunku and other UMNO leaders grew more and more opposed to it. For Lee and the PAP, merger was an issue on which he could campaign and win the 1963 elections, and for the British, merger guaranteed the protection of their commercial and strategic interests, including their naval base. They convinced the Tunku and Federation leaders to agree by giving them the Borneo states and arguing that merger would allow them to reduce political instability that might arise from Singapore electing a progressive left government. But the condition the Federation imposed was the arrest of Singapore’s political opposition. Thus, throughout all this, the calculations were chiefly political.
Q: And I guess this helps explain why Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965?
A: Well, here’s a question for you: if the Federation’s and PAP’s rationale for merger and the creation of Malaysia was to neutralise Singapore’s political opposition, then once the opposition was gone, what was the rationale for both parties to stay together?
Dr. PJ Thum is a Singaporean academic who teaches history at the University of Oxford. A Harvard graduate in East Asian Studies. And for trivia, did you know PJ swam for Singapore at every level including the 1996 Atlanta Olympics? He is also the first Oxford graduate and first Singaporean to swim across the English Channel in August 2005, completing the journey despite inclement weather in 12 hours and 24 minutes.