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One wept at the birth of our nation while firecrackers thundered

By Yeo Toon Joo, Peter

Singapore’s mercantile High Street-Hill Street district thundered with the blast of exploding fire crackers, more deafening than any Chinese New Year eve fire cracker duels.

The most exuberant was at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce which led in the celebration.

It was August 9, 1965.

What was going on? What was the occasion? No new major business was being ceremonially launched.

There was no way to call someone to find out. Instant digital communication was unknown.

I was a rookie newspaper reporter heading back to office after covering that day’s hearing of an official government commission of inquiry into the affairs of the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers’ Union (SMMWU).

SMMWU’s all powerful secretary-general, Mr T V Gomez, father of James Gomez, an opposition Workers’ Party candidate at the last general election, was facing a public inquiry over his “one-man control” of the vast industrial union. There had been allegations of abuse.

Back in the office I learnt the ‘bad’ news: Singapore had been kicked out of the federation of Malaysia by its prime minister, Tungku Abdul Rahman (left). We were on our own.

The news room buzzed with excitement and speculation over the eviction, and Singapore’s future.

“____ the bloody Malaysian Government!” bellowed one journalist over the furious clickety-clack of the manual Underwood typewriters. “The Tungku and *Tuns can go to hell!”

A vision vanished

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore, would soon speak that day to the people in a live TV broadcast, rare in those days.

TV, monochrome, was itself only a few years old in Singapore; Minister of Culture S Rajaratnam had gone live just 2-1/2 years earlier, in February 1963, over our black and white TV sets to inaugurate the new epoch in mass communication in Singapore.

Eagerly we awaited Mr Lee’s address.

A grim Mr Lee addressed the people on national television. Midway, he broke down. He wept. His dream of a Singapore in political union with Malaya shattered.

The heart of the people of Singapore went out to him as he grieved publicly.

"For me, it is a moment of anguish,” he told our newly sovereign nation. “All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories."

Singapore had lost its (what we had been led to believe) anchor – a Malayan hinterland, an enlarged economic base and hopes of an elusive Malaysian common market. Our historical umbilical cord to the mainland had been callously cut.

Mr Lee’s broadcast blanketed Singapore in gloom. We had been cast adrift by our brothers across the causeway – to sink, so they had hoped, in our solitary small-ness.

Points of contention

The turn of events was not totally unexpected. Many in Singapore had been on edge for some time past in our short-lived marriage of incompatibility with Kuala Lumpur. No two groups were more ideologically and culturally apart. They were “feudalistic”, and we “democratic socialists”.

There had been almost throughout the short union furious fusillades from across either end of the causeway.

Mr Lee lambasted the federal government’s political-economic direction and its policy, enshrined in the constitution, of racial discrimination in favour of Bumiputras, sons of the soil, who were almost exclusively Malay. Kuala Lumpur feared our radical politics and accused the state government of Singapore of mistreating Malays.

The PAP had in 1964 also sallied into federal politics, and won one seat in the general election. Its representative, our late President C V Devan Nair, was elected in Bangsar, Malacca.

A year earlier the Tungku’s UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) had reneged on its undertaking not to contest in state elections in Singapore; its proxies received a thrashing, losing all three predominantly Malay seats to the PAP.

The PAP shortly after separation fostered the birth of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The DAP’s blue and red, circle and rocket symbol and the PAP’s blue and red circle and lightning were alarmingly alike.

Mr Lee’s battle cry of “Malaysian Malaysia”, everyone equal, rankled the Tungku’s dominant, racially-based UMNO.

Tungku and his UMNO colleagues feared Mr Lee had his sights on the political premiership of Malaysia even.

There had been rumours, which proved correct, that the Tungku, an otherwise amiable and easy going politician, might detain Mr Lee – for trying to subvert the federation and preaching against special rights for Malays.

Birth of a Singaporean Singapore

Mr Lee’s vision of a Malaysian Malaysia, with Singapore as part of it (a dominant part, some across the causeway had feared) was not to be.

As Mr Lee wept over the ashes of his dream our Chinese business community rejoiced over the roar of fire crackers.

Our businessmen had chafed over the racial discrimination against the Chinese. There had been allegations, too, that the federal government was diverting business and new investment opportunities from Singapore to Malaya.

Somehow they sensed separation meant Singapore would no longer be hobbled by Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia.

None of them shed a tear over separation or the uncertainty of going it alone in our reluctant road to independence. They held the pulse of Singapore’s economy, even if they did not hold the reins.

They knew. And they were right!

Now we exult in a Singaporean Singapore.

* Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, Tun (Dr) Ismail Abdul Rahman, the home minister.