Thursday, 16 October 2014

PANORAMA: A History of Singapore's Battle for Merger

PANORAMA: A Big-Brush History of
Singapore’s 1962 Battle for Merger
Backdrop of our Finest Victory.

Personal Perspectives on:
“Flesh and Bone Reunite as One Body”: Singapore’s Chinese-speaking and their Perspectives on Merger
by Dr Thum Ping Tjin ©2012

The year 1962 was the worst of times, and the best had yet to herald. The Japanese were long gone, but the British had returned. China became Communist. The age of foolishness descended upon Singapore the Lion City. It was the epoch for belief and incredulity. We were in a season of Darkness, holding out desperately for the coming season of Light. Trapped in a never-ending Summer of despair, awaiting signs of the hopeful Spring.  A very wet and warm Winter of gloom followed instead. We only had our everything behind us, and nothing before us; some thought we were all going direct to our Heavens, but we were all going directly every each way but upwards.

I love History. The many versions placed together side-by-side provided added clarity and understanding, but not necessarily the Whole Truth.  Merger Victory gained for me, then a little boy, a chance for Tomorrow, and then another Tomorrow, and even more Tomorrows. But, Tomorrow NEVER came. For a Little Boy, there was only TODAY.  The Promises of Tomorrow were distant and beyond the Grasp of my little hands. TODAY must be sacrificed so that TOMORROW can come, I thought.

The Proposed Singapore-Malaya Marriage through Merger was doomed from the get-go. One party was eager, enthusiastic, and the other lukewarm and hesitant. One demanded dominance and total subservience, the other hoping for equality and justice. One racist and the other ethnocentric.  One for a “Malay Malaysia”, the other for a “Malaysian Malaysia”. Never in the History of Civilisation has a Political Marriage so destined for failure from the Courting stage as our victorious Battle for Merger.  What hastened the eventual Union was a Third Party so feared by both Malaya and Singapore.  Communism.     

The stark choice before both countries was simple; “Marry each other, or become married to Chinese Communism”.  It was Hobson’s Choice. In our local Context, it was embracing “Ali-Baba” or covert to Communism.

The 1949 Communist ascendency in China was closely watched in South-East Asia, especially by predominantly Chinese-majority Singapore and Chinese Malayans.  The Chinese newspapers reported daily first-hand the unpacking of brutal, cruel and intolerant Communist governance, which were only superseded by Japanese wartime atrocities against the Chinese just over a decade earlier.

The 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign in China, also termed the Hundred Flowers Movement (Bǎihuā yùndòng), which ostensibly encouraged its citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime, was a means of entrapping "enemies of the state". The merciless crackdown continued through 1957 against those who were critical of the Chinese Communist regime and its ideology. Those targeted were publicly criticized, condemned to prison labor camps and in many cases executed.

From 1958-1961 Communist China embarked on The Great Leap Forward (Dà yuè jìn) with an economic and social agenda. The Goal was to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a communist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. It turned out instead to become The Great Leap into the abyss of such abject misery never before encountered by the Chinese Civilisation since the days of Dynastic Emperors, and created the Great Chinese Famine.

Defying all natural and common economic principles and logic, Communist China introduced mandatory agricultural collectivization, albeit incrementally. Private farming was prohibited, and private farmers were labeled as counter-revolutionaries and persecuted. Restrictions on rural people were enforced through public struggle sessions, and social pressure, and many were also conscripted as forced labor.

The Great Leap Forward had stumbled and ended in catastrophe, resulting in 18-45 millions of premature deaths. Historian Frank Dikötter asserts that "coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the very foundation of the Great Leap Forward" and it "motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history".

The developments in Communist China from 1950-1961 left the Chinese in the “Nanyang” (South Seas) in no doubt that Communist China was no longer a viable place for business or to return to be buried next to their ancestors.  New “homelands” had to be found for the next generation of Chinese in South East Asia.  Against this background new understanding is added to illuminate the significance of Singapore’s 1962 Battle for Merger.

Dr Thum’s “blow-by-blow” account of the Merger Battle used various contemporary Chinese-language sources, as opposed to hitherto English-language sources, to argue that Singapore Chinese interests in the Battle for Merger were chiefly concerned with a rejection of the Communist ideology; and focused on livelihoods, education, and citizenship rights since they saw themselves as deserving of an equal place in Malaya; and conceived of a new, distinctive, multi-ethnic Malayan identity, a “Malaysian Malaysia”, or failing which, an Independent Singapore. On the Malayan side, the leaders of UMNO were intent on preserving their electoral dominance and the special position of Malays in the Federation. Never mind that the Malays were also late arrivals to Malaya in the 14th-15th century, about 100 years before the Chinese.

Finally, the “Coup de Grace” for our Merger Victory was orchestrated by leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP) as they out-maneuvered, tussled and wrestled for dominant political space with both Communist and non-Communist opponents to eventually retain absolute political power in Singapore.   

“The idea of Merger for a new Homeland, however, was never far from the minds of Singapore’s Chinese. A January 1955 editorial in the premier Chinese Nanyang Siang Pau (NYSP) newspapers outlined and defined the main important Chinese positions on Merger.

(1)    Malaya and Singapore are seen as “complete and indivisible as a family”.
(2) While Singapore could undoubtedly survive on its own, an independent Singapore made as much sense as an independent New York, London or Beijing: possible, but pointless.
(3)  Singapore was the commercial and intellectual capital of Malaya, boasting world-class infrastructure which included the great commercial port, airport, and Malaya’s two universities. Such assets were clearly more valuable to both Singapore and Malaya as part of Malaya than on its own.
(4)  A major stumbling block to Merger is Chinese fears about the dilution and destruction of their heritage.”

“By 1955, all major political parties in Singapore were committed to the reunification of Singapore and the Federation. Among Chinese Singaporeans, support for Merger was virtually unanimous. There was no dissenting voice to Merger in the Chinese press, whether in editorials or in letters. So deep was the belief that Merger was necessary that it was never questioned in the mainstream press. The idea that Singapore and the Federation was “one body” was deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche and referred to as a “moral truth” or “natural law”. Numerous emotive phrases were employed to describe the reunification, including that it would be like “the broken mirror becoming whole again” (which was itself a metaphor for a husband and wife reconciling) or “flesh and bone reuniting as one body”. Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) President Tan Cheng Lock, stated that “in terms of geography and administration, Singapore and the Federation of Malaya are a single unit. No power in the world can stop [their] Merger.”

However, inside Malaya, “the Tunku and the UMNO leadership were opposed to Merger. The single most important reason was “the fear that the incorporation of a million Chinese would immediately threaten and ultimately abolish Malay political dominance and power” in the Federation. Domestically, UMNO was resisting demands by the Federation’s minority races for a citizenship based on jus soli, equality in the fields of education and land ownership, and restrictions or even the abolition of Malay special privileges. UMNO instead equated Malayan culture and identity with the Malay one, and demanded that the minority races should assimilate to the Malay culture and accept the privileged position of Malays in the Federation. They brought this same argument to the debate on merger.

For the Tunku and his Malay Power Elites, the integration of Singapore’s Chinese would threaten the special position of Malays in the Federation:
“If we create a single nationality, Malays will lose their special position, which we are committed to uphold and maintain”.
They knew that the Chinese would never assimilate and so never accept Malay predominance.  

It is NOT and has NEVER been in the Chinese psychic to assimilate other ethnic groups to Chinese Culture, and they therefore did not expect to be assimilated to Malay society and culture. The Chinese had assimilated to Malaya on their own terms. They remained staunchly loyal to China as their ancestral birthplace, proud of Malaya as their new Homeland, and regarded themselves as equal to the other races. Harmonious and peaceful co-existence and mutual economic benefits should prevail in the new Malaysia. Implicitly, they did not think it necessary or relevant to accept the special status of Malays and their dominance in the New Malaysia. Chinese Singaporeans envisioned the growth of a new, distinctive Malayan or Malaysian culture that merged the best aspects of Chinese, Malay and other cultures, and with equality for all. Instead of Malay predominance, the Malay, Chinese, and other races would all be “supplanted” by a new Malayan race. And only an equal place under the Malayan sun would satisfy them.

“The Singapore Chinese had looked to Merger as confident, equal partners, not for economic salvation. They saw themselves as the most significant contributors to the Malayan economy and Malayan multiculturalism, and were full of conviction that they had a rightful place on Malayan soil.

“To the self-confident Chinese in Singapore (and Malaya), Malaya’s prosperity was due primarily to Chinese industriousness and investment. They had fought the British and Japanese for Malaya as their own country. By 1960, nearly 80% Singapore Chinese were born in Singapore. They possessed patriotism, cultural pride and a deep conviction that their contribution to Malayan cultural, economic and political life entitled them to an equal place in Malaya. Citizenship and Nationality were therefore important and crucial issues in any Merger agreement.”

The PAP meanwhile faced precarious and at times challenging circumstances to their governance style. In 1959, the PAP had won over 80% of the seats with just 54% of the vote.  In April 1961, they lost the Hong Lim by-election, followed by the Anson by-election in July 1961. The Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Jit Poh, echoing others, interpreted the Anson results as “a correction to the 1959 elections” and suggested that the Public desired a more effective and constructive opposition who can hold the government to account. Their concern “is not to stop the PAP, but to have more effective debate and opposition in the Legislative Assembly … ”.

Tunku and his Malayan power elites feared that a weakened PAP would encourage the possible ascendency of mostly Chinese-speaking Opposition leaders who may not be able to resist the increasing Communist influence before the latter eventually won real political power through the ballot box.  At this time, the PAP was already decimated by the expulsion of 13 PAP Assemblymen, with their supporters of nearly two-third of the PAP membership, including 19 of its key 23 Organising Secretaries.

“The basic Merger agreement was quickly negotiated by 24 August 1963 met all these conditions by giving Singapore autonomy on the critical areas of commerce, labour, and education. The exception was citizenship. Due to his continued reservations about Singapore Chinese, the Tunku had insisted that the exercise of their political rights be confined to Singapore. The compromise was that both territories would retain their separate citizenships while enjoying equal rights as Federation Nationals bearing the same passports. However, Singapore citizens could only vote in Singapore, and Federation citizens could only vote in the Federation. Basically, a “One Country, Two Systems” type of arrangement. Singapore’s desire to give the Chinese equal rights, as well as the Tunku’s need to keep out the Singapore electorate from participation in Federation politics were both satisfied. In exchange for these concessions, Singapore would only have 15 representatives in the Federal House of Representatives, instead of the 24 that its population size entitled it to”.

“The Chinese press spoke approvingly of Lee’s securing of autonomy for education and labour from the Tunku. Singapore Chinese were already wary of the Tunku Government who in 1961 had pressured Chinese secondary schools to join the national system. It spelt the end of publicly-funded Chinese language education. Singapore Chinese watched this threat to Chinese Culture unfold with horror and were determined not to meet the same fate. Singaporeans were however worried about Singaporeans becoming “second-class citizens” in the new Malaysia”.

The powerful and influential Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC) also came out strongly in favour of the PAP’s proposals for Merger and the concessions obtained in the fields of commerce, education, and labour. The Chamber took out full-page advertisements in the newspapers urging people to vote for Merger, emphasising that it would preserve Chinese business, culture, and jobs. SCCC Chairman Ko Teck Kin, who is also my late father-in-law, stressed that the Tunku had assured him that Singaporeans would enjoy Malaysian citizenship and equal status after merger. The Chinese newspapers were also jubilant. To most Singaporeans, it was the best Merger Singapore could possibly get. This was demonstrated on Referendum Day when 71.1% of voters chose Merger with Malaya to form Malaysia, while 25.8% cast blank ballots.

The Marriage with Malaysia was never consummated. The constant acrimonious foreplay over the conflicting visions of meritocratic, multicultural “Malaysian Malaysia” vs a Malay-dominant, racist, ethnic supremacist “Malay Malaysia” marred 2-years of love-hate, bittersweet honeymoon. With no ethnic group then exceeding 50% in the population, a Malaysian Malaysia would have made the most sensible choice, but not to the powerful Malay political elites and their interest groups. 

The Promised Land of Malaysia two years earlier had turned into a Desert of Acrimony. The Mirage of Mutual Prosperity clouded the Reality of sandy Political Interests.  We could not be forced into drinking the sand of political racism to quench our thirst for justice and equality.  And We refused to mistake it for the precious water needed to nurture our dream of Nationhood.

9 August 1965. It was worse than the worst of times. And the worst had yet to come.  Our age of foolishness had past. We woke up, and realized we were alone, once more. It was the epoch of belief and hope.  Summers were still hot, and the Winters warm and wet. The Darkness grew thick and thicker, seemingly impenetrable by any Light. Many thought we were all going direct to Hell, but we had already been there before being cast out like a pariah and violated Groom. We had nothing but each other. It was enough.   

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