There is no more iconic moment of the birth of independent Singapore than when first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew cried on national television while announcing the separation of Singapore and Malaysia.
“Because of the telecast, viewers in Singapore were able to witness first-hand not only the birth of the country, but also PM Lee’s emotional outburst and the long pauses as he voiced his anguish over the separation from Malaysia.
This was a sight that contradicted PM Lee’s image as a strong and determined leader and made his outpouring of emotions on national television that much more startling for viewers then.” – Channel News Asia
An exhibition entitled We Built A Nation at the National Museum of Singapore features a few selected papers from the previously classified Albatross file, named after Dr Goh Keng Swee’s description of merger as becoming “an Albatross round our necks”. Dr Goh served as Finance Minister, Minister for Defence, Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister, and played a crucial role in the negotiations over separation.
The papers displayed at the exhibition show that separation was not, as the mainstream narrative has led many to believe, suddenly thrust on to Singapore when the city was “kicked out” of Malaysia. Instead, Singapore’s leaders had been very much involved in negotiating the terms of separation.
In the first paragraph of a memorandum from the prime minster, marked “Top Secret”, Lee stated: “It will not be long before we will have to take a decision on the future of Singapore and of Malaysia. I believe that soon after the Puasa month we will have to respond to an open move by the Tunku [Tunku Abdul Rahman, then-Prime Minister of Malaysia]. It will demand that we take a public position.”
Lee added: “Before we make this decision we should be clear in our minds on the options open to us and on the consequences not only of the short term but also the long term of each and every one of the possible decisions we make.”
After the merger, Singapore retained its control on education and labour under the Malaysia Federation but all matters on defence, external affairs and internal security came under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Singapore also had to contribute 40 per cent of its revenue to the federal government, with a common market to be set up over a period of 12 years.
In this top secret memorandum, Mr Lee analysed the situation and effects. He noted: “When the Tunku first informed Keng Swee in December last year (1964) of his desire to have Singapore ‘hive off’ from Malaya, it generated considerable excitement amongst us first because this showed their realisation that we cannot be fixed in Malaysia and the supremacy of Malay communalists assured forever.”
But he was also aware of the potential benefit of such a situation, and wrote: “Next, it gave us an escape, if there is to be trouble in Malaya with communal clashes over language and other issues. We might in such a rearrangement insulate ourselves from communal conflict which is building up in Malaya.”
Lee wrote that the “greatest attraction of this rearrangement is our hope to get the benefits of all worlds – the common market, political stability with economic expansion, and autonomy in Singapore without interference from KL (Kuala Lumpur). The picture of a prosperous and flourishing Singapore doing better than the rest of Malaysia is most attractive”.
Tears on the telecast?
Below is a copy of a memo which was sent by a British official in Singapore to London in 1965. In it, the official (who has not been identified) describes what transpired at that famous press conference.
According to the memo, Lee “threatened ‘punitive’ measures against any newspaper which printed pictures of him smiling.”
This memo, along with documents from the Albatross file, has led some to ask what Lee’s tears on television were all about.
As author T J S George recounted in his 1974 book Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, Tunku Abdul Rahman was more surprised than he was moved when he saw Mr Lee in tears over the break-up. The Tungku said: “I don’t know why Mr Lee acted like that…he was quite pleased about [the split].”