Flanking the sea artery connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and virtually linking the Asian mainland with the Indonesian archipelago, the island of Singapore occupies a strategic position in southeastern Asia. Toward its 220 square miles of territory have converged races from all the Orient, but especially the southern Chinese in their ubiquitous quest for commercial opportunities. When Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading post near the Singapore River on February 6, 1819, the island's only inhabitants were a few hundred Malays. Four months later, however, he wrote: "From the number of Chinese already settled, and the peculiar attraction of the place for that industrious race, it may be presumed that they will always form the largest part of the community." Today, some 75 percent of Singapore's million and three-quarters inhabitants are Chinese- the largest urban concentration anywhere of overseas Chinese.

Undisturbed by British colonial authorities in respect to language, schooling and customs, the Singapore Chinese established an exclusive cultural community and readily absorbed new hordes of immigrants over the years. Their ancestral ties and affections have habitually pulled them toward the homeland. Like most Chinese, they adjudge their culture to be of a superior order (especially vis-à-vis the Malay); moreover, since the advent of the Communist régime, they are proud of the great strides Mainland China has made and of its new stature as a world power. During the past three years, the English-educated Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has made energetic propagandist efforts to create a Malay image and to infuse elements of a Malayan culture; but the majority of Singapore Chinese-those schooled in the Chinese medium, plus the illiterate-have shown little evidence of modifying their basic emotional orientation. Indeed, they receive daily nourishment in that direction from the two main Chinese newspapers (with circulations larger than any others outside the Chinese Mainland), as well as from Radio Peking, whose programs come in more clearly than any other foreign broadcast.

The Mainland's wide attraction for the Chinese masses in Singapore causes understandable anxiety in the West. The island is strategically important, for it is the seat of British Defense Headquarters for the Far East, and of the only British naval base east of Aden. The United States Forces in the Pacific maintain close liaison with this Headquarters, and vessels of the Seventh Fleet visit the base periodically. South Viet Nam, just 500 miles to the north, is under heavy pressure from Communist guerrilla forces actively supported by North Viet Nam and, at least morally, by Peking. A few miles south of Singapore begins the outermost fringe of a myriad of islands comprising Indonesia, where the Communists remain a constant threat. Should the Communists win out in South Viet Nam or Indonesia, the elements in Singapore which urge the Chinese to activate their sympathies for the Mainland would be emboldened to move more vigorously, and they might achieve results. For quite apart from the sentimental predilections of the Chinese for the Mainland, they are a practical-minded people, quick to adapt themselves to new political permutations, and the expediency of accepting control from Peking might appeal to them.


Other factors besides the cultural proclivities of the Chinese population make the Singapore problem important for the West. Like other Asiatic areas, Singapore has been caught up in the revolutionary currents which have accelerated the collapse of colonial empires and shaken the foundations of feudal and capitalistic economies everywhere. The emerging Malayan nationalism of the region failed to take root in Singapore because it lacked an ethnic and cultural basis, but anti-colonialism and socialism did actively appear there and gave a powerful impulse to demands for far- reaching social and political change. Socialism, ranging from vague sentimentalism to doctrinaire Marxism, found strong favor especially among students in the Chinese-medium schools and among trade unionists. When, emboldened by Mao Tse-tung's successes, the Communists made a direct bid for power in the Malayan peninsula and plunged it into a decade of bitter guerrilla warfare, Singapore Reds developed their own terrorist campaign. Exploiting Chinese chauvinism in the Middle Schools and labor movement, they instigated an activist propaganda drive which manifested itself in strikes, intimidation, sabotage, arson, riots and murder. A series of turbulent episodes culminated in 1956 in student strikes in which 13 were killed and 140 injured. In consequence, the Lim Yew Hock government jailed a number of ringleaders and the Singapore "hotbed" temporarily cooled off.

Meanwhile, the pro-Communist elements had found sympathetic support within the leftist-opposition People's Action Party (P.A.P.) under Lee Kuan Yew, an intellectual socialist who dubs himself a non-Communist but not an anti- Communist. The P.A.P. seized on the issue of imprisonment without trial (as permitted under security legislation) and clamored for the release of the trouble-makers. As a vote-getting device, this was soon to be put to the test. For the decision had been taken in London in 1958 to authorize a new constitution to establish an internally self-governing State of Singapore; and elections for the first Legislative Assembly were held May 30, 1959.1 The P.A.P. obtained 54 percent of the popular vote, but thanks to the fragmentation of the opposition it converted this into 43 of the 51 Assembly seats. As a condition to becoming Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew demanded, and secured, the last British Governor's acquiescence in the immediate release of eight of the detainees, including the arch-leaders Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan. After Lee assumed office on June 5 he named Lim, Fong and others to sinecures as "political secretaries" under cabinet ministers. Thus the two key extreme leftist and chauvinist leaders in Singapore were not only physically free but also (despite vague pledges to the Prime Minister of good behavior) strategically positioned to resume their political activities.

Lee Kuan Yew apparently did not view the appointments in that light: he had no intention of giving Communists a free hand. He believed that Lim Chin Siong had been chastened by his imprisonment and could, with due precautions, be given an opportunity to prove himself under the surveillance of a trusted minister. It was not until a year later that the Prime Minister became convinced (as he admitted on September 22, 1961) that Lim was only "playing a game for the Communist cause" and that, indeed, he was "the most important open front leader of the Malayan Communist Party."

The confidence of business elements in Singapore had nevertheless been shaken, and they precipitated certain capital movements northward to the Malayan Federation. But during 1960, the P.A. P. on the whole gained respect as it showed an increasing sense of responsibility. True, Chinese chauvinism was not being appreciably affected by the "Malayanization" program, and its educational citadel, Nanyang University, stubbornly resisted the Government's efforts to institute controls. Moreover, Communist elements were steadily infiltrating into influential positions in key trade unions and becoming increasingly militant. But faced with the hard facts of Singapore's economic life, the Government somewhat belatedly suspended legislation favorable to extremist union elements and set up industrial arbitration procedures along Australian lines. Work was started on an Economic Development Plan, grants and loans were obtained from the United Kingdom, and a program to attract new industries was speeded up. At the end of 1960, Lee Kuan Yew impressed many observers as having turned out to be a reasonably moderate statesman. This, of course, considerably lessened his popularity with the leftist-inclined Chinese masses. But he was secure in his overwhelming legislative majority and seemed determined to promote Singapore's economic growth and maintain political stability.


The cautious optimism of 1960 faded in the mounting political tension of 1961. As a result of a bitter personal clash between the Prime Minister and Ong Eng Guan, an ousted P.A.P. Minister, Ong resigned from the Assembly; and in a by-election in April he defeated the Government by such a majority that it seemed as though Lim Chin Siong and his pro-Communist associates must have committed political sabotage. The facade of P.A.P. solidarity-in reality, an uneasy coalition between English-educated socialists and Chinese chauvinists and extreme leftists-had begun to crack. The fissure was finally burst completely asunder in a second by-election in July, made necessary by the death of a P.A.P. member. The Government lost to David Marshall, once Chief Minister and now a political lone wolf, who was openly supported by 13 P.A.P. Assemblymen, abetted by Lim Chin Siong, who together with a number of P.A.P. district workers proceeded to form a new party, called Barisan Socialis (Socialist Front), with Lim in a key position of Secretary-General. Within the space of a few months, the P.A.P. had lost two seats in by-elections and 15 through defections (two Assemblymen had left the Party with Ong); its supporters in the Assembly had dwindled from 43 to 26, or a majority of one in a body of 51. Seven moderates in the Opposition were deemed likely either to abstain or to support the Government in any crucial contest. Whatever comfort Lee Kuan Yew might obtain from such parliamentary computations, it seemed possible that in any general election at this moment Lim Chin Siong and his Barisan Socialis might emerge with the largest number of votes.

The cardinal issue which had provoked the P.A.P. schism was precipitated by the Prime Minister of the Malayan Federation, Tunku Abdul Rahmin, when in a speech on May 27, 1961, he expressed the hope that Singapore, Malaya and the British territories in Borneo would find a basis for "closer understanding" and "political and economic coöperation." Despite the nebulous phraseology, it was recognized that for the first time the Tunku had publicly endorsed the idea of a Singapore-Malayan "merger" which for years had been accepted by all parties in Singapore as a long-range goal. No one had any doubts as to what Prime Minister Lee's reaction would be: on June 3, in a speech celebrating National Day, he gave his enthusiastic approval. On the other hand, Lim Chin Siong and his associates began a political intrigue which a month later led to the P.A.P. open rebellion. For although they also had been advocates of merger, they had not looked for it to occur while the. Tunku was Prime Minister, but only after extreme left-wing régimes had emerged both in Singapore and Malaya. Given the tough, energetic policies which the Tunku had pursued against Communists and subversives, Lim and his friends suspected that the transfer of security powers to the Malayan Federation might amount to their political death-warrant. They decided to resist with all the resources at their command.


The issue thus raised has produced Singapore's stormiest political controversy in years; in addition it could, under certain conditions, lead to outbreaks of violence. Before following it further, however, we must inquire into the background of the Tunku's unexpected action.

The Tunku had always adamantly opposed the absorption of Singapore into the Malayan Federation for realistic ethnographic, cultural, political and economic reasons. Himself a Malay and Moslem, and head of a Malay-dominated political party, his attitude was understandable. The combined Chinese population of the two states would total nearly 4,000,000 as against a slightly smaller number of Malay; thus the whole structure of Malay-Moslem culture and control in the peninsula could be jeopardized. Moreover, having only recently ended a long struggle against Communist guerrilla activity, the Tunku was in no mood to assume responsibility for the Singapore "hotbed" of left-wing agitators, subversives and militant trade unionists- or for its endemic and increasingly severe unemployment problem. As he tersely put it to press correspondents on November 16, Singapore is a "problem child;" clearly, he had no wish to become its foster parent.

At the same time, the Tunku had to recognize that it was impossible to ignore the "problem child" or to stand by while the conditions which helped create its problems progressively deteriorated. However inviting a policy of mutual "insulation" might seem, it was unthinkable for two societies so closely bound together. As a separate, autonomous state, Singapore cannot, except under substantially changed conditions, maintain its economic viability indefinitely. Depending as it does on its position as an entrepot for Southeast Asia, notably Malaya and Indonesia, Singapore is adversely affected by the surging economic nationalism of new states eager to establish their own direct trading facilities. So far the port has held its own, but the future is gloomy. Also, with a high birth rate and the lowest death rate in Asia, the population is increasing at a rate of 3 ½ percent annually. Unemployment is something over 50,000, while if the underemployed were considered, the figure would come close to 100,000, one-fifth of the island's potential work force. Obviously, Singapore must develop an expanding economy to provide employment not only for the current jobless but for the thousands entering the labor market each year. And the peak of this annual increase will not be reached for another year or so, when children born during the population explosion just following the war attain maturity. In these circumstances, no wonder leftist politicians vie with one another in "promising the moon."

The gravity of the situation has led the Government to undertake an industrialization program in the hope of enlarging employment opportunities. Legislative and other inducements have been offered prospective foreign investors, and some new enterprises have been established. But the relatively (for Asia) high wage levels, the militant trade union movement, the uncertain political climate and the lack of a hinterland market have not offered much encouragement. Clearly, there is no easy solution. But if-as the Tunku doubtless came to feel-Singapore were absorbed into the Federation, some of the difficulties retarding industrialization might be relieved. At the very least, joint economic planning, with sacrifices on both sides, might help to stimulate a more wholesome development in Singapore, benefiting the Federation as well.

It was not easy for the Tunku to reach his decision in respect to a merger. His distrust of the radical P.A.P. and of Lee Kuan Yew was only slowly dissipated (partly, it may be noted, through the medium of the golf course!). And then in April 1961, after the by-election rout at the hands of Ong Eng Guan, the P.A.P. appeared to be crumbling under extreme left- wing pressures. In face of the Communist threat, Prime Minister Lee became more resolutely convinced that merger with the Federation was the only solution for Singapore; while on his part, the Tunku, doubtless concluding that only his intervention could save Singapore from the extremists, moved closer to a decision.

Still of paramount importance, however, was the Tunku's fear that an enlarged Federation would fall under Chinese control. He found a solution in the scheme of federation with the British dependencies in Borneo- Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo. In those areas, out of a total population of a million and a quarter, the Chinese outnumber the Malay and other Moslems some 350,000 to 275,000; but the balance would be redressed, the Tunku figured, by the remaining indigenous peoples. True, the level of political sophistication was low, and burdens of existing socio-economic developmental programs would have to be assumed. But, on the positive side, the region's natural resources included oil in Brunei (second to Canada in Commonwealth production) and vast tracts of virgin timber in North Borneo; while an expanding market in Borneo would await Malaya's rapidly growing industrial production.

If Britain agreed to the transfer of the dependencies to the Federation as member states, the Singapore merger idea would be enlarged into the more glamorous concept of "Greater Malaysia." In such a configuration, the Malay and indigenous peoples combined would outnumber the Chinese. Moreover, a Greater Malaysia would increase the stature and strength of a free Malayan society in Southeast Asia. The Tunku made his fateful decision, and Singapore was soon thereafter embroiled in political battle.


Since the Legislative Assembly was not due to meet until the autumn, Prime Minister Lee could ignore the Barisan Socialis rebels for the time being and concentrate his attention on discussing the merger. On August 23 the two Prime Ministers agreed on general principles and named working parties to develop them more explicitly. The next step was for the Tunku to consult with the British Government. In November, he met with Prime Minister Macmillan and reached agreement to set up a commission of inquiry on the proposals affecting Sarawak and North Borneo and to apply their existing defense arrangement to Britain's naval base at Singapore, so that Britain could make such use of the base as it considered "necessary . . . for the preservation of peace in Southeast Asia."

Meanwhile, the Singapore Assembly had convened and been presented with the Government's "Memorandum Setting Out Heads of Agreement for a Merger between the Federation of Malaya and Singapore."2 Although some of the provisions had been known before, this was the first time they had been published in full. Briefly, they called for the admission of Singapore into the Federation as a State "but on special conditions and with a larger measure of autonomy than the other States." Defense, external affairs and security would be the responsibility of the Federation, education and labor that of Singapore. The island-State would be represented in the Federation Parliament by two senators and "on a fair balance of interest," by 15 members in the lower House. This figure was a compromise between the 19 initially demanded by Premier Lee and the 12 proposed by the Tunku.

During the debate, which lasted several weeks, the Barisan Socialis vigorously assailed the Memorandum, chiefly on the issue of unequal representation (making the Chinese what they called second-class citizens) and the transfer of the internal security power to the Federation. For tactical reasons it did not oppose merger in principle, but called for "complete" merger and the full equality of Singapore with the other member states. The P.A.P. replied that complete merger would not accord with political realities and would deny Singapore the contemplated special privileges, including those in regard to the control of education and labor, and citizenship. As to the latter, it pointed out that under complete merger hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans would be deprived by Federation law of Malayan citizenship on grounds either of alien birth or of inability to speak Malay; whereas, under the "special status," all Singapore citizens would automatically become nationals of the Federation.

The Assembly debate ended on December 8 with a vote of 33 to o approving the Government's motion in support of the Memorandum. Not unexpectedly, Lim Yew Hock and six other opposition moderates voted affirmatively. All the members of the Barisan Socialis and the remaining opposition walked out before the vote was taken.

This did not signify that the merger issue had been settled. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that, as a final step, he would submit it for approval in a popular referendum. Should he proceed with his plan, the outcome would be uncertain and the results either way might be serious. A P.A.P. victory might well be greeted with a wave of strikes and other forms of direct action; a defeat might precipitate a general election and relegate the merger issue to the dustbin indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Solidarity Consultative Committee, composed of legislative delegates from all five constituent units of the proposed "Greater Malaysia," has met and reached agreement on constitutional arrangements. In addition, the joint British-Malayan commission of inquiry, established in November "to ascertain the views of the peoples of North Borneo and Sarawak" towards merger, has entered upon its task. Consultations will also be held with the Sultan of the Brunei Protectorate. Regardless of the referendum verdict in Singapore, the Tunku is hopeful that his proposal to incorporate the three Borneo territories into the Federation will be accepted. Whatever advantages might accrue from this merger, however, the "Grand Design" would fail of its principal purpose if Singapore remained aloof.


If Singapore had not had such an overwhelming characteristic of "Chinese- ness" the natural course of events since the war would doubtless have led to its being identified with the Malayan peninsula. The question of its economic viability as a separate entity would not have arisen; the militancy and radicalism of its population would have been subjected to the stricter discipline of Federation authorities. As it is, the growing strength and belligerence of the Peking régime have made Singapore's "Chinese-ness" into a problem of international dimensions. Lim Chin Siong, the glamor boy of China-oriented left-wingers, is not simply a contender in domestic politics; he is also a potential instrument of Peking's foreign policy. He may or may not be a card-carrying Communist, but it is generally agreed that his utterances and record stamp him as one who follows the Communist line. Many believe that his accession to the Prime Ministership would cast one more chip into the scales against the West in the cold war.

True, the United Kingdom controls foreign relations and defense, participates in the Internal Security Council, and retains the right to suspend the Constitution. But it has played a cautious role and would be reluctant to exercise authority in opposition to the Singapore Government's wishes, knowing that any action susceptible of being construed as interference would stir up inflammable "anti-colonialist" protests. It might feel compelled to invoke its ultimate power, but in light of the experience in British Guiana and of the certain Afro-Asiatic clamor that would arise in the United Nations, nothing short of the gravest extremity would impel such British action.

Should the merger be accomplished, the residual British authority in regard to defense and security would be transferred to the Federation of Malaya, which would be less vulnerable to attacks by the anti-colonialists. However, with Singapore retaining jurisdiction over education and labor, the prospect would be dim for breaking down Chinese chauvinism or for controlling the militant trade unions. Clearly, in inheriting Singapore's political volatility and economic difficulties the Federation would not be taking on an enviable task.

The basic purpose facing a "Greater Malaysia" must be to achieve a reasonable degree of harmony between Malayans and Chinese, which would include acceptance by the latter of their destiny within a traditional Malay-Moslem culture. Singapore itself would benefit substantially from the realization of this purpose. Moreover, the enlarged Malaysian Federation thus created would constitute a valuable counterpoise against an advance of Communism in Southeast Asia. 1 The independent State of Singapore came into being on June 3, 1959. The United Kingdom retains responsibility for foreign affairs and defense, and the right to suspend the constitution. Internal security is controlled by a joint Council composed of three British representatives, three from Singapore, and one from Malaya. 2 Cmd. 33 of 1961, Government Printer, Singapore.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now