Monday, 13 October 2014

SINGAPORE's 1962 Battle for Merger ReVisited

Singapore’s 1962 Battle for Merger ReVisited:
“A Longer Victory would have been Very Bad for my Future”.

The 1962 Battle for Merger was also The Battle for my Future.

A young boy heard on the radio a man’s voice urging Singaporeans to join Malaya “or else, we will not survive” or words to that effect. I didn’t know who he was; that he was our then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. There were many reasons, he argued, from history to economic markets, to resource abundance, to independence from Britain and social stability.  I knew little then of what most of these meant. But, his “language of survival” in a calm, authoritative voice exuding the confidence of leadership was sufficient to elicit trust and faith, and I also somehow felt the need of that defining moment. I was then too young to vote, but in 1962, more than 70% Singaporeans voted for Merger. And I became a “Malaysian” in the newly formed country, Malaysia, on 30 August 1963.

I can recall no particular affective feelings toward Malaysia, really.

A new flag was unveiled and we had to sing the Malaysian National Anthem “Negara Ku” or “My Country”.  I neither understood the flag nor the Malay words of Negara Ku. Suddenly, a mandatory new language subject became part of my school lessons.  It was basically Malay, but was called the “Bahasa Kebangsaan” or “National Language”.  It was difficult at first, struggling as I was with another “foreign” language, Mandarin. And as I was beginning to love Bahasa Kebangsaan, the teaching of the language stopped, much to my greatest relief.  It was 9 August 1965, and Singapore was booted out of Malaysia at the stroke of midnight like a pariah and bastard child. 

The failure of Merger was a heavy blow to Prime Minister Lee, who believed that it was crucial for Singapore’s survival. In the live TV press conference that same day, he fought back tears and briefly stopped to regain his composure as he formally announced the separation and the full independence of Singapore to an anxious population:

"Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life ... you see, the whole of my adult life ... I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know that we, as a people are connected by geography, economics, by ties of kinship...".

I saw on black&white TV how then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew cried as he announced Singapore’s eviction by Malaysia. He was in deep anguish, clearly disappointed and with extreme emotional pain permeating every part of his body. It was a language of despair, of utter disappointment, of hopelessness, of helplessness that seemed to signal the beginning of our inevitable journey into oblivion.  

It was better this way, Really. The early joy of Merger Victory had been followed by two years of love-hate, bittersweet honeymoon disputing the conflicting visions of a meritocratic, multicultural “Malaysian Malaysia” vs a Malay-dominant, racist, ethnic supremacist “Malay Malaysia”. 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.  A saline mixture of fresh and sea water would still taste salty, even if we had remained in Malaysia.

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.

A longer Merger victory would see Singapore today becoming like resource-rich but poor Sabah and Sarawak. Both had entered Merger with Malaysia in 1963 on more or less similar terms as Singapore. Both had to surrender tremendous earnings to the Central Government in Kuala Lumpur without receiving any reciprocating and proportionate benefits of supposedly mutual prosperity. For both Sabah and Sarawak, their Merger victories were pyrrhic.

My School routine changed. Every morning, the new Singapore Flag was hoisted in a solemn flag-raising ceremony accompanied by the singing of a new National Anthem. I fell in love immediately with the simple Red and White Flag with a Yellow Crescent encircling 5 cute Yellow Stars encapsulating our nascent values of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality.

From 1966, the National Pledge was repeated every School day; as the new National Vision reminding us to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our Nation by building a democratic society based on justice and equality, REGARDLESS OF RACE, LANGUAGE OR RELIGION. We have proclaimed Political Racism as the Enemy to our Survival and Existence.

Little did I or my classmates or their parents and mine know how precarious and perilous the Nights after August 1965 were.  The “Long Parangs (or Knives”) were coming, and they were already at Our Gates, or Causeway!

The Malaysian Army had formed up along the Kota Tinggi Highway, ready to enter Defenseless Singapore. Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman advised caution and moderation since there were many friends and relatives on both sides of the Causeway.  In Singapore, then People’s Action Party Chairman, a medical doctor, was quoted to have packed and ready to fight the Invaders in the jungles. Others, mostly Chinese, were also similarly prepared. They knew the inevitable Chinese genocides that would ensue in a Malaysian invasion, believing it could have continued and completed the WW2 Japanese “Sook Ching” (exterminate Chinese) Campaign.

The invasion fears continued through 1965 into 1966. I remember my parents making various flight preparations even though I did not understand why. Many like them had also chosen NOT to go quietly into the Night. That the World Bank then had also predicted that this new Singapore Nation Would NOT survive beyond 6 months was not reassuring at all. The Bank later revised our Survival to ONE Year. It gave up reading our crystal ball after that.

For the Tunku, Singapore with only a small port without any natural resources or markets would CRAWL back to Malaysia eventually and begged to become a part again.  We DID NOT. 

Of utmost priority was National Security. Singapore had none in 1965. The British 1968 announcements of their withdrawal “East of Suez” by 1971 did not help us. It also created nearly 30% unemployment in Singapore who had a big British Naval Base. 

The Late Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore Economic Maestro who studied at The London School of Economics, which is my Alma Mater too, then devised the unique Economic Strategy of Industrialisation for Exports, at a time when “import substitution” was the preferred World Bank mode for economic development.  We persisted, and our Economic Development Board attracted the first of top manufacturing companies to Singapore.  Hewlett Packard, Texas Instruments, Rollei Singapore, Phillips, followed by the Japanese Matsushita Heavy Industries, Hitachi ... and the rest is now History. 

The greatest transformation was Jurong, almost a third of Singapore and nearly three quarter covered by mangrove swamp. An entire industrial infrastructure was created out of the swampy waters … to accommodate even more factories and eventually full employment was achieved by the time the British withdrew.  

National Service, a mandatory military service for male Singaporeans, was instituted in 1967 to create the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). I remembered pledging to “support and defend the Constitution” and to “preserve and protect the honour and independence of our country with our lives”.  It was for me a proud defining moment of Citizenship, this privilege to fight and defend my own Country.  Our Army instructors never allowed us to forget the “Enemies at the Gate” which we must always be ready for. Know that the First Lesson of Ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu is: “Do Not Assume that the Enemy will not Come; But Be Prepared for His Coming”.   

In the years after National Service and University graduation, I had my military gear and boots stowed in my car, expecting to be mobilized anytime to fight and defend this Island Nation. Some of my friends had theirs stowed in their Offices. Such was our sense of the presence of constant real Threats to our Survival and the Well-being of our Loved Ones. The SAF has come a long way since maintaining its vigilance against Singapore’s Enemies. Singaporeans and Residents alike can sleep peacefully because We know the SAF are on the Watch-Towers in the Air, on Land and Sea.  We know, because Most of us have already taken our turns to be on the Watch.

Malaysia today can only be understood in term of a class structure of social inequality created by her mostly Malay power elites. Political Racism in Malaysia nurtures a large number of politically connected Bumiputra (Native and Muslim) rent seekers promoting a business system riddled with kickbacks and corruption. Economic and commercial policies favour largely the already rich with lucrative government contracts awarded according to cronyism and nepotism facilitated by widespread systematic corrupt practices. Government and local authority contracts, permits and licenses are given to people who are linked to the major ruling political parties and other powerful Bumiputra politicians who in turn rent out their licenses and permits for a fee or a percentage of profit, thus depriving others of these lucrative contracts.  They take a huge cut of any privileged contracts before re-awarding the crumbs to the mostly Malay contractors since 80% of registered contractors are Bumiputra. The mostly Malay sub-contractors therefore earned little compared with the power elites. Malaysia as a Promised Land Exists only as an Illusion. Our Victorious Merger with Malaysia would have been as pyrrhic as Sabah’s and Sarawak’s.

SINGAPORE IS NOT EASY. It took Hard Work, Long Patience, Deep Endurance, Plenty of Diligence, Many Lessons from Mistakes and Lots of Good Fortune to get to where we are Today.  FIFTY YEARS ON, I am glad that we Won briefly But LOST the Merger Battle. A Longer Victory would have been Very Bad for mine and Our Future.

From the Ashes of a Failed Vision, We had emerged More Prosperous, Stronger, More Rugged, More Resilient, More Robust and More Independent.  Our RIGHT to Survive with Independent Sovereignty CANNOT and MUST NEVER be compromised or sacrificed. Our Authenticity as a Nation providing Exceptional Value to the World MUST Always be visibly Demonstrated without Any Equivocation.

Our Greatest Moment as “One People, One Nation” was in picking up the Pieces of our young Nation when so Many had written us Off.  We had Believed in One Another when we Failed in our Merger Victory, and we Prevailed.  It is always easier to keep our faith and believing when we are succeeding. 

And TODAY as we reach our Jubilee 50 years old, and grappled with New Issues of Survival, Let it not be forgotten that We Once Had a Difficult Birth, a Risky Delivery, a Vulnerable Existence And a Daunting Struggle to Continually Assert Our Right to Live among the Nations as a Sovereign Nation Deserving of Their Respect, Friendship and Admiration.  Let’s continue to Believe in Each Other and Ourselves as We March into the next 50 Years and beyond.


1 comment:

  1. LKY strategy going into Msia whether for Spe to become independent or/and beat the Commies or/and Spe econ dev was a brilliant chess move. Commies were checkmated, having to deal with whole Msia; Brits were out; and well, the econ terms for entering Msia were NOT quite favorable to us. 2 out of 3 not bad, lah. Sure, riding both the Commie and Msian tigers at the same time were dangerous. Tunku (really nice guy!) did us a favour kicking us out; with Msian tiger gone, we went on to smash the Commies (mostly Chinese) decisively in Spe using our own methods. Some can take issue with the way we did it, but I sure glad wasn't made a Commie slave and went to school instead of farm. Of course, LKY may have his plan how to ride and dismount the Msian tiger ... well, he did not get the chance to deploy plan. Tunku (who actually repeatedly failed his Law exams) thot he outsmarted clever LKY kicking us out; BUT actually he Kickstarted LKY and Spe into a new resolve to Live. Also must thank Tunku for NOT sending in the Msian Army, or else many of you may never be born, and I wld have become a guerilla fighter still fighting in the Msian jungle today. To me, History will confirm the Battle for Merger to be one of the Finest we ever fought and won; and Losing the Merger Victory to win the Future later was just pure Lucky for Spe to finally find our Rightful Place under the Sun. Singaporeans should have NO quarrel with this FACT.