Excerpt of an interview with Dr Toh Chin Chye, published in ‘Leaders of Singapore’ by Melanie Chew, 1996
August 9, 1965
I remember that morning very clearly. In the morning, I wrote a letter to Tengku. He promptly replied in the afternoon.
I stayed behind (in Kuala Lumpur) and Lee came back to announce to the public in Singapore that Singapore had become independent. I stayed behind to clear up the mess. The Malaysian Parliament was meeting the next day. Lee Kuan Yew told me to go to the Parliament. Can you imagine the uproar? I had no chance to face the members of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention to break the news. Their support for Singapore came to nothing.
When Lee Kuan Yew got back to Singapore, he invited the members of the Convention to attend his press conference. He was crying. I don’t understand him at all. On one hand, he worked so hard for merger. Having gotten the cupful, he shattered it. And then cried over it.
He held two successive press conferences, and in which both he cried. On the third morning I went to work, and saw the press boys again. I asked Lee Wei Ching, his press secretary, “Why are they hanging around here?” Another press conference! I told Lee Wei Ching, “You ought to tell the Prime Minister to go to Changi and take a rest. Call the press conference off! Another crying bout, and the people of Singapore will think the government is on its knees. So he went to Changi, staying at the government bungalow for six weeks.
One smart reporter noted this by going through Hansard. There was a big time gap in Hansard between our last parliamentary meeting and the next meeting. More than five months. One would have thought with such a big event, Parliament should be immediately summoned and the announcement made to Parliament. The opposition came at me. Why is there no Parliament sitting? So I had to hold the fort.
I was not appointed to act for him while he was away. When he went off to Changi, Parliament did not meet. So Singapore had a Parliament in suspended animation. Keng Swee and Lim Kim San saw me and asked me what was the constitutional position. Has he recovered? What if he does not recover? So what happens? I said I thought he was getting better, although I could not see him and telephone calls were not put through.
Q: So after the separation, you did not have Parliamentary meetings until December?
Parliament last met on June 16th, 1965 when Singapore was still in Malaysia, and recommenced only on December 8th, 1965 after we had left Malaysia.
Q: But the appearance of government was normal. The government was still carrying on. It seemed like business as usual.
Your point is taken. In a crisis there will be public spirited figures who will rise to the occasion, for better or worse.
Only the constitutional position was unclear, because according to the constitution it was the Yang di Pertuan Negara who appoints the Prime Minister, who in turn appoints the Cabinet. The constitutional position was not clear about an absent or an incapacitated Prime Minister, and Goh Keng Swee and Lim Kim San were both anxious.
Q: Mr Lee at that time was in a very emotional state?
Yes, he was. I knew he was. And was very worried for him. That is why I told Lee Wei Ching to call the press conference off.
Q: Was he in a very emotional state because he felt he had made a blunder?
You have to interview him on that. I cannot answer for him.
Q: Could his provocative speeches have been part of a deliberate strategy?
I do not know why he did that. But he was influenced by Alex Josey, who came from the Middle East where he had been a reporter. Josey fed him ideas about the Muslims. The “Mad Mullahs.” The “Ultras.” Lee used the term, “Mad Mullahs.” This was Alex Josey’s phrase. Alex Josey was his close friend, golfing friend and biographer.
Alex used to play golf with me. He was an operator. He used to pick me up as early as five a.m., because I had no one to play golf with at that time. He was an operator, feeding me stories of his experiences with the Arabs. I had suspicions about him. Now he’s dead.
Q: Lee Kuan Yew asked the Tengku to write to you to explain that it was Tengku’s decision to separate.
Yes, I think that was the purpose. To tell me that it was a decision made by the Tengku.
Q: Was it because he was afraid?
So the blame would be on the Tengku’s shoulder. Not on our shoulders. The Tengku was far sighted. However desirable it was to continue as one country, we could not do so. He wrote, “We cannot avoid a bloodshed if we remain.”
Tengku had been in charge of multi racial Malaya since 1957. He knew, better than any of us, what was possible and impossible. The 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur proved him right.”