Interview with Thum Ping Tjin about Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore – Part 1


Malaysia’s independent radio station, BFM 89.9 interviewed Thum Ping Tjin, Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia, on Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.

Lee Chwi Lynn: So just for the uninitiated, because I think colonisation is a phrase that most of us will be more than familiar with, but decolonisation – I suppose that is the process of removing said colonisers?

Thum Ping Tjin: Yes, it kind of spans several levels, because on one level you have the very obvious transfer of power which is the term that the British like to use, because it’s very clear-cut. You lower one flag, then you raised the other flag and that’s it.

But at a deeper level you have to ask yourself, when you have a whole generation of political leaders in a colony who have been raised in the schools of the coloniser to think like the colonial power, and then you hand power to them, how much do they then defer from the interests of the colonial power?

So decolonisation is not just transfer (of) political power but it’s a process of social cultural change where we learn to adapt, in that we find our own identity, find our own past through the world.

And when we look at decolonisation in the context of Malaysia and Singapore, I think one figure that we had to talk about is of course Lee Kuan Yew, who was an important figure in shaping of Singapore and post separation from Malaysia. And its relatively safe to say that his legacy is Singapore.

Lee Chwi Lynn: So going back in time in 1965 when he was faced with the challenge of forming this nation state where one hadn’t existed before – how would you described his reaction to Malaysia’s expulsion of Singapore?

Thum Ping Tjin: Well, it is very interesting how you phrase that question because there are so many assumptions within that question that directly come from the way the Malaysia and Singapore governments have shaped (and) kind of portrayed the narratives of our history.

So the fact that they use 1965 as a significant date, the fact where you say that he was faced with a challenge of forming a nation-state, the one that never existed, and the fact that you say Malaysia’s expulsion of Singapore – of course, we see it differently in Singapore. The PAP says they voluntarily chose to leave but I think you really need to understand separation in the context of Malaysia in order to understand Lee Kuan Yew and how he saw things.

Because Lee Kuan Yew’s goal was to reunify Singapore with the rest of Malaya before the partition of Malaya in 1946, the people of Singapore and the people of the rest of Malaya – Malaya in the geographical sense being the whole peninsular – did not perceive Singapore as a separate entity, and the partition of Malaya into Singapore and the Federation was a very traumatic and destructive act and it was the avowed goal of politicians on both sides of the Causeway to reunify Malaya.

I mean, why should some white people from the other side of the world come and tell us on what should be one country, what shouldn’t be another country? And the fact is most Singaporeans had family or were even born north of the Causeway. So when the PAP was elected in 1959 the central plank of his campaign was reunification. In fact, every single political party that ran in 1959 campaign explicitly on a platform of merger with the Federation to the reunification of Malaya.

So in order for any political party to be successful – in 1957, a survey found 90% of Singaporeans in favour of merger – this was not just an ideal; it was, for a politician, something that you have to campaign openly for.

The problem is after Merdeka in 1957, Tunku Abdul Raman and the leaders of UMNO were less and less keen on merger and the fundamental fact was that if you have political parties based on race and you had reunification, there would be more Chinese than Malays in Malaya, I think 43.3 versus 43.1%. And that would then undermine UMNO’s political dominance.

So leaving aside any question about race and who is the rightful owners of the country – this is not a racial issue. Let us think of it as an electoral issue – you don’t want to dilute your own electoral base, so Tunku Abdul Raman and the other leaders said, why should we bring Singapore back in if it means that our hold on power will be loosened? They are politicians, they are pragmatic people, they know that they need to win elections so that’s why they became very unenthusiastic – increasingly unenthusiastic – about reunification.

Lee Kuan Yew, in order to reunify Malaysia had to play the race card very very strongly. He had to play the Communist card very strongly and he had to say Singapore was an existential threat to the Federation if it was outside of the Federation.

So that is the background, so after playing this card very strongly, you have merger but on terms in which Singapore is basically excluded from the rest of Malaysia. Sabah, Sarawak in the Federation – their citizens have certain rights. They can move around and vote wherever and they are equal. But Singapore, Singaporeans can only vote in Singapore. Singapore politicians can only run in Singapore.

Now put yourself in Lee Kuan Yew’s shoes. He has achieved merger and on the back of merger, let us  not forget he won the 1963 elections in Singapore as a consequence of all the events of merger, the deals and compromises. He was able to win an election which people had thought the PAP would lose. It was his big triumph, he has nothing else to turn to the electorate with, nothing else to campaign on in 1963 except merger, but there was such a massive success that they squeaked home.

Now, what is his next ambition? If you know Lee Kuan Yew, he is not going be satisfied with being in Singapore, he is a man of great ambition, he is a man with great towering intellect, he thinks he can do better than anyone else in Malaysia for Malaysia.

So he wants to go north, he wants to become Prime minister of Malaysia and therein you have the fundamental problem, because in order to now overturn the limitation of Singapore’s politicians being limited to Singapore, he now has to turn around and ignore everything he said between 1960 and 1963 or so, about Singapore being Chinese and dangerous and communist and now turn around and say, “No, we are all Malaysian and we should have a Malaysian Malaysia, we should all be equal.” And this of course, you know, (means) he has reneged on all his promises to Tunku Abdul Raman and after provoking in the worsening of the racial situation, now he’s trying to make an about face.

Lee Chwi Lynn: This is a massive reversal.

Thum Ping Tjin: Yes, massive reversal, and of course this then eventually leads to the conclusion on both sides – basically by 1965, you have one of two options. Either Singapore leaves Malaysia or Lee Kuan Yew leaves Malaysia, you know, leaves power.

And Lee Kuan Yew had a choice – do I keep myself in power by taking Singapore out, or do I ensure the future of Malaysia by taking myself out? And he made his choice: He chose to take Singapore out of Malaysia against the majority of his Cabinet, half of whom were Malaysia born, against the advice of his closest advisers. You know, Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee were both born in Malaysia and very passionately committed to the Malaysian ideal. [Note by PJ: I made a mistake here. Goh was willing to separate. It was Toh and Rajaratnam who led opposition to seperation]. Malaysia still could have worked but Lee Kuan Yew would never have been Prime Minister and that was the choice he made.

So faced with this choice in the challenge of forming a nation-state, to go back to your question: I think that he would have been incredibly, sorely disappointed; but he would have been very very relieved because now he was unchallenged once again as the leader of Singapore and he could do things his way as he saw best.

Lee Chwi Lynn: So with all that you know with that background, with all the challenges that came with trying to put things together and having to take them apart again – how did that informed the first few years of Singapore’s growth, in the first years of Singapore’s creation as a nation-state?

Thum Ping Tjin: Well, he has to very much distinguish Singapore from the rest of Malaysia, and here again you see something very interesting, because from the moment he was elected in 1959 he had been seeking to create a Malayan identity.

They set up a national language Institute which sought to develop and teach Malay. Until 1957 or so, Singapore was the artistic intellectual capital of Malaya and it produced a lot of innovative Malay language literature and they wanted to develop that. But the moment we separated, suddenly you have to assert a separate identity for Singapore and because of all the racial issues and because of the majority, it became very natural to emphasise the Chinese identity, the English language identity to distinguish yourself from Malaysia and to now assert a whole new trajectory and identity for Singapore that is not Malayan but Singaporean.

So that really inform the first few years; and of course, you know you have to seek a new economic path, but again this was a huge tension with the central government. Because even though the merger agreement gave Singapore a lot of autonomy in terms of its economic policies, industrialisation, labour policies, they still face huge problems struggling with Kuala Lumpur, which had a far more protectionist attitude (compared) to Singapore, which is fundamentally a free-trade port. Cannot escape from that. So they were free of that for the first time in two years, so that also enabled them to quickly move in that direction.

Interview Part 2
Interview Part 3

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