Malaysia and Singapore: the merger years from racial riots to Singapore independence

Singapore flag after Independence from the Federation of Malaysia

The roar of People’s Action Party the Birth of Malaysian Solidarity Convention

Malaysia and Singapore: the roar of People's action Party

During the troubled two years (1963-65), which saw the partecipation of the former British colony of Singapore to the ambitious political project of Malaysian Federation, better known among historians and political leaders as Merger’s Years1, the long desired cooperation between the main political faction of the two countries gradually crumbled, leaving behind a fertile ground on which a murky atmosphere of general resentment proliferated and expanded, giving life in the following years to an unsustainable condition of ideological, religious and racial intolerance.

Since the early months of the official proclamation of Federation of Malaysia the most important leaders of People’s Action Party, the dominant political faction in Singapore, aimed to intensify and extend their political influence in the whole territory of the new born federation.

In may 1965, thanks to a new strategical alliance with other five opposition parties, People’s Action Party leaders gave life to a new political coalition called Malaysian Solidarity Convention2.

This coalition, in the name of the famous slogan “Malaysian Malaysia” (Malaysia understood as the indistinct homeland of all citizens belonging to the member states of the new born Federation of Malaysia) started a heated political campaign aimed to increase awareness for the ideals of social, religious and ethnic equality, by promoting the model of a multi-ethnic Malaysian society in perfect antithesis to the concept of a ”Malay Malaysia”, a “Chinese Malaysia” or an “Indian Malaysia” and heavily hurling against all special privileges that Article 153 of the Federal Constitution3 of Malaysia had granted to all citizens belonging to Malay ethnic group until that time.

Just these latter, benefiting from favors that in alll circumstances of social life that the above mentioned article granted them, overwhelmed all ethnic minorities within the territorial boundaries of the Federation of Malaysia.

Singapore and the racial riots in 1964

With the intention of providing an adequate response to this provocation all political leaders of UMNO, acronym of United Malays National Organization, who in those years dominated the political landscape of the whole Federation of Malaysia, began to stir up the resentment within the Malay community dwelling in the former British colony of Singapore4.

As a direct consequence of this situation, there was an irreversible process of violent reactions from both parties resulting in the so called Racial Riots of 1964.

On September the 2nd of the same year, one of the most important Muslim religious recurrence, just in the full swing of the celebrations related to the commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s birth, Singapore fell into the blood of one of the most heinous and violent racial-religious conflicts ever, which ended with a gruesome final budget of about of 22 dead and 78 wounded civilians among Chinese Buddhist and Malay Muslims5.


In the light of this unfortunate event, because of which any assumption of civil and political reconciliation between the two parties was irremediably compromised, the Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, decided to start the procedure for the expulsion of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia.


The leaders of People Action Party heard about the news on July the 25th, 19566.

Lee Kuan Yew’s tears and the expulsion of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia

Both political forces, being conscious of the impossible partecipation of Singapore to what had proved to be one of the most the ambitious and utopic federal projects in the whole Southeast Asia, in order to avoid further and unnecessary bloodsheds, on August the 7th, by common agreement sighed the famous Separation Agreement, which was the formal agreement containing all terms and conditions related to the separation of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia7.

Two days later Malaysian Parliament formalized its approval of the amendment with the unequivocal outcome of 126 votes in favor and none against8.

The news of the secession of  Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia was made public during that unforgettable and shocking press conference held on the same day in the broadcast studios of Caldecott Hill in Singapore. That day the whole world was able to witness the chilling cry of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who, while expressing his regret for the forced expulsion of Singapore, burst into tears in front of the astonished gazes of millions of listeners and viewers and pronounced the following words:

“For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories.” (9).


Towards the end of September the free State of Singapore became one of the member countries of United Nations. On December the 22nd of the same year, after a parliamentary election, Yusof bin Ishak was appointed First President of the newly proclaimed Republic of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew continued to be the Chairman of the Counsil of Ministers11.

The emblematic figure of Lee Kuan Yew fully deserves all the acknowledgments for the accomplishment of one of the most extraordinary and miracolous civil, political and economic transformation processes ever accom in a sovereign State in the whole course of XX century. 

By pursuing a neutral foreign policy very similar to the Swiss model, the charismatic statesman tried on one hand to reduce diplomatic tensions with neighboring countries and on the other hand he gained precious time for the reorganization and renovation of the entyre military apparatus along the lines of the Israelite model, thus ensuring the newborn sovereign state of Singapore a considerable stability.

Having vigorously encouraged modernization, industrialization processes as well as the implementation of strategic infrastructures, Lee Kuan Yew successfully managed to transform Singapore into one of the most dynamic and technologically advanced financial countries in the whole planet12.

Further readings and most recommended books

1Barr D. Michael, Skrbiš Zlatko, Constructing Singapore: elitism, ethnicity and the nation-building project, Democracy in Asia series, No. 11, first published by NIAS Press, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen, 2008, Denmark.

2Lim Regina, Federal-state relations in Sabah, Malaysia: the Berjaya administration, 1976-1985, first published by ISEAS Publishing, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2008, Republic of Singapore.

3Thio Li-ann, Tan Y. L. Kevin, Evolution of a revolution: forty years of the Singapore Constitution, Routledge-Cavendish, Abingdon, Oxon, 2009, United Kingdom.

4Chong-Yah Lim, Southeast Asia: The Long Road Ahead (second edition), World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., Singapore, 2004, Republic of Singapore.

5Khun Eng Kuah-Pearce, State, society and religious engineering: towards a reformist Buddhism in Singapore, second edition, ISEAS Publishing, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2009, Republic of Singapore.

6Shiraishi Takashi, Across the causeway: a multi-dimentional study of Malaysia-Singapore relations, ISEAS Publishing, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2009, Republic of Singapore.

7Jones Matthew, Conflict and confrontation in South East Asia, 1961-1965: Britain, the United States and the Creation of Malaysia, The Press Sindicate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, United Kingdom.

8Chin Kin Wah, The defence of Malaysia and Singapore: the transformation of a security system 1957-1971, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, United Kingdom.

9http://memoriesofcaldecotthill.blogspot.com/2009/04/day-mm-cried.html, trad: «Per me, è un momento di dolore. Per utta la mia vita, la mia intera vita adulta, ho creduto nella fusione e nell’unione dei due territori.».

10Shoon Yee Yu-Fu, SINGAPORE’S FOURTH PERIODIC REPORT TO THE UN COMMITTEE FOR THE CONVENTION ON THE ELIMINATION OF ALL FORMS OF DISCRIMINATIONS AGAINST WOMEN, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, November 2008, published in March 2009, Republic of Singapore.

11De Koninck Rodolphe, Drolet Julie, Girard Mark, Singapore: an atlas of perpetual territorial transformation, National University of Singapore Press, Singapore, 2008, Republic of Singapore.

12Lt. Col. Darphaus L. Mitchell,Lead Singapore, If I can’t serve in MalaysiaLee Kuan Yew and the Singapore Model, Core Course Essay, Course 5601, Fundamentals of Statecraft, Seminar G, Cdr. Paul Thompson Faculty Seminar Leader, Col. John Gibeau Faculty Adviser, National Defense University, Washinghton, DC, 1997, United States of America.


Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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