Merger with Malaysia



On 16 September 1963, Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo (present-day Sabah) to form the Federation of Malaysia.1 Since its exclusion from the Malayan Union in 1946, seeking a union with Malaya had been Singapore’s projected path to secure economic viability and achieve independence. However, the path towards merger was not easy because the former British colony had to overcome reservations held by the Malayan government in Kuala Lumpur and manage the political fallout caused by the far-left in Singapore.

Background
Singapore’s merger with Malaysia was the outcome of numerous political developments, starting with the formation of the Malayan Union.2 The Malayan Union was created on 1 April 1946 from the merger of the nine Malay states with Penang and Malacca of the Straits Settlements.3 The British government had created this scheme as part of their plan for the postwar reorganisation of Malaya to improve its administrative efficiency and security, and to prepare Malaya for self-government.4


The British did not include Singapore in the Malayan Union; instead, it became a separate crown colony.5 This was partly due to Singapore’s economic and strategic importance to the British as a free port and naval base.6 Moreover, given that all persons born or domiciled in Malaya were automatically eligible for Malayan Union citizenship, the British felt that the inclusion of Singapore, with its large Chinese majority, would further complicate the task of securing Malay acceptance of the scheme.7 Indeed, shortly after the Malayan Union had been inaugurated, the constitutional and political equality that the scheme offered to the immigrant communities in Malaya received widespread opposition from the Malays.8 This prompted the British to replace the Malayan Union with the Federation of Malaya scheme on 1 February 1948.9 The new scheme increased safeguards for indigenous Malays by recognising their special position in Malaya and the sovereignty of the Malay rulers, while imposing more restrictive citizenship requirements on immigrant communities.10

As the Federation of Malaya was made up by the states that formed the Malayan Union, Singapore was again excluded.11 The British, however, felt that this was a temporary arrangement as they foresaw the entry of Singapore into the federation “in a wider union at a later date”.12 In 1952, Singapore’s former governor, Franklin Gimson, stated that the merger was imperative and that it was a matter of time before it took place.13 This position was also echoed by many Singapore legislators, including President of the City Council T. P. F. McNeice, who remarked that the division of Singapore and the Federation was “artificial” and that the destinies of the two territories were inter-twined due to their “interdependent” economies.14

Case for merger
The question over Singapore’s merger with the federation was discussed throughout the early 1950s, and made it to the forefront of political discourse during the 1955 and 1959 Legislative Assembly general elections.15 In their bid to win control of the Legislative Assembly, contesting parties from all political spectrums – including David Marshall’s Labour Front (LF) and Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party (PAP) – campaigned, among other things, for Singapore’s independence through unity with the federation. Under the framework of the Rendel Constitution, the Legislative Assembly had been formed in 1955 as the new legislature of the government of Singapore to replace the Legislative Council and to provide for an elected majority of legislators.16

To Lee, who became the first prime minister of Singapore after the PAP was voted into power in 1959, Singapore’s exclusion from the federation was the result of a “freak man-made frontier” caused by the poor judgement of the British who had ignored “the history of the peoples of Malaya”.17 Additionally, he saw the merger as integral to Singapore’s economic survival. As an island deprived of natural resources and confronted by a declining entrepot trade, Singapore needed the Malayan hinterland to provide for a bigger common market for its industries so as to create jobs and generate growth. Achieving this economic viability was also crucial for its path to independence, as it was unlikely that the British would agree to grant Singapore statehood if its economy was unsound.18

A merger with the federation would also cement PAP’s political legitimacy because the party had campaigned for merger. Furthermore, the merger would help weaken Lee’s political opponents, particularly the left-wing PAP members who were accused of having communist links. This was because the proposed united Malaya, inclusive of Singapore, would be headed by an anti-communist government.19

Reservations
To bring about the merger, the PAP government had to convince their Malayan counterparts on the benefits of the union. Led by then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman – head of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and later of the Alliance Party comprising UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress – Malaya had shown little interest in addressing the prospect of Singapore joining the federation. This was largely due to the sizeable Chinese population in Singapore. If Singapore were to join the federation, it would make Chinese the largest ethnic group: the combined Chinese population of 3.6 million would outnumber the 3.4 million Malays. The Tunku viewed a Chinese-majority electorate as a threat to UMNO’s political dominance in Malayan politics and its position in the Alliance Party.20


However, the Tunku was also aware of the potentially larger political risk of allowing Singapore to achieve independence outside the federation. First, this would mean losing Malaya’s casting vote in the Internal Security Council (ISC), and thus jeopardising its security. Consisting of British, Malaya and Singapore government representatives, the ISC was a safeguard against communist subversion in Singapore.21 Since it was formed in 1955 with the enactment of the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, the ISC had been an effective restraint on pro-communist activities in Singapore.22

Second, an independent Singapore outside the federation might spell the end of the PAP, as the party would be deemed to have failed in delivering its electoral promise.23 There was then a chance that the PAP would be replaced by a radical far-left ruling party that was less willing to work with the Malayan government, including allowing the federation to maintain its influence in the ISC.24 This scenario gained plausibility following the PAP’s defeat in the Hong Lim by-election in April 1961 to Ong Eng Guan, a former PAP cabinet member who subsequently founded the left-wing United People’s Party.25

Announcement of merger: Tunku’s proposal
On 27 May 1961, at a meeting of foreign correspondents held in Singapore, the Tunku made the landmark announcement that he wanted to create a “Mighty Malaysia” that would include Singapore.26 The reason behind Tunku’s turnabout decision was in the details of the merger proposal. Instead of accepting a simple merger of Singapore and Malaya, the proposed Federation of Malaysia would also include the Borneo territories of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (present-day Sabah). This was meant to dilute the predominance of the Chinese among the electorate. By adding the 700,000 indigenous people and 176,000 Malays from the Borneo territories into the population mix, the total 3.7 million Chinese would be outnumbered by the 4 million Malays and indigenous people.27


The Tunku also added that Singapore would not be completely merged with the enlarged federation. Instead, it would join as an autonomous state with absolute rights to determine its internal affairs, except in the matters of defence, external affairs and internal security. It could also retain a “very large” portion of its state revenue. In return, Singapore would have to accept a disproportionately smaller representation of 15 instead of 24 seats – based on its population size – in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives).28 In addition, Singapore citizens would only be able to vote in Singapore29 and given the title of “nationals”, instead of “citizens”, of the new Federation of Malaysia.30

The Tunku’s merger announcement came as a surprise for many in Singapore, including the British.31 Nonetheless, it delighted Lee, who issued a response in June 1961 to affirm his support for the Tunku’s proposal.32 On 24 August 1961, Lee and the Tunku issued a joint statement announcing that they had agreed in principle the merger terms between Singapore and Malaya. These were then published on 16 November 1961 in a white paper.33

The white paper on the proposed merger, however, did not provide details on financial and economic matters including taxation and the implementation of a common market. These details were only finalised close to the signing of the Malaysia Agreement on 9 July 1963.34 According to the terms of the agreement, Singapore would contribute 40 percent of its revenue to the federal government, and a common market would be set up. In addition, Singapore would provide a $150-million development loan to North Borneo and Sarawak, $100 million of which would be interest-free for five years.35


Political fallout
Left-wing members of the PAP were not enthusiastic about the Tunku’s announcement and the terms of merger.36 As it was viewed that internal security would be placed firmly in the hands of a fervently anti-communist Malayan government, left-wing PAP members issued a statement in defiance of the party line in June 1961, calling for the abolishment of the ISC.37 This was to achieve a “genuinely full internal self-government” that had rights to “exercise all the rights over matters of internal security”.38 These left-wing PAP members subsequently withheld support for the party during the Anson by-election in July 1961, resulting in the party’s defeat.39


During a Legislative Assembly sitting soon after the PAP’s defeat in the Anson by-election, Lee called for a motion of confidence in the government under his leadership.40 When 13 assemblymen from the PAP’s left-wing broke rank by not supporting the motion, they were expelled from the party. The expelled members went on to form the Barisan Sosialis in August 1961, which campaigned vigorously against the PAP’s merger terms.41 While it supported merger, the Barisan argued that it should occur without compromising Singapore’s proportional representation in the federal parliament in Kuala Lumpur, or the rights of Singapore citizens to become full citizens of the proposed Federation of Malaysia.42 In fact, the Barisan had chosen to focus on the citizenship issue by arguing that Singapore citizens would be seen as “second-class” citizens if they were to hold the status of nationals in the federation.43

Managing the political fallout
In response to the Barisan’s criticisms, Lee went on air to deliver a series of radio talks between 13 September and 9 October 1961 to “clarify and explain the political situation in Singapore and the Federation [at the time]” and to “prevent the people from being confused by the Communists, their front organisations and front men”.44 Dubbed the Battle for Merger, the talks sought to expose the ideology and workings of the communists, and reveal the Barisan’s true intentions for opposing merger with the Federation of Malaya.45


In addition, Lee took to the floor of the Legislative Assembly in November 1961 during the debate on the white paper on merger to explain Singapore’s position on the matter. Regarding the disproportionate representation of Singapore in the federal parliament, Lee explained that the 15 seats allocated was the maximum that the Tunku allowed. Further, this number was the same as the seats given to the urban centres of Kuala Lumpur and Melaka.46

As for the status of “nationals” of the new federation which Singapore citizens would be granted, Lee noted that, other than voting rights, Singapore citizens would still enjoy the same rights and privileges as all citizens of Malaysia.47 To deprive the Barisan of its main argument pertaining to citizenship in Singapore’s merger terms, Lee decided to renegotiate the status of Singapore citizens in the federation with the Tunku. In August 1962, he announced that the Tunku had been persuaded to accept all Singapore citizens as “Malaysian citizens” after the merger – but only in name as Singapore citizens were still only allowed to vote in Singapore.48

Referendum
To gather popular support over the merger terms, Lee decided to submit the question of merger to a referendum.49 Known as the National Referendum of 1962, the constitutional process provided the electorate with three options to decide on the “mode and manner” of Singapore’s unification with Malaya.50 The options were: a) on terms laid out in the white paper; b) a complete and unconditional merger as a state on an equal basis with the other 11 states; and c) on terms no less favourable than the terms for the Borneo territories.51 The referendum options were decided by the Legislative Assembly following eight midnight debate sessions between 27 June and 11 July 1963.52


The National Referendum was held on 1 September 1962 after two weeks of active campaigning.53 The results were announced the following day: Seventy percent of the population chose the merger route that was in accordance with the terms set out in the 1961 white paper.54 After the polls, the Barisan declared that the referendum was a “sham” and that the results “[did] not reflect the will of the people”.55 The party continued to rally their supporters to oppose the merger, but it was clear that they had lost the battle. The PAP government began to finalise Singapore’s merger with Malaya.56

Merger
Singapore’s merger with Malaya was finalised on 9 July 1963 when Britain, the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak ratified the Malaysia Agreement, a legal document that spells out the terms for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia.57 The agreement came after the Malayan and British governments accepted the findings of the Malaysian commission of inquiry, known as the Cobbold Commission, in August 1962.58 The commission had been set up in January 1962 to ascertain the views of the people of Sabah and Sarawak towards the formation of Malaysia.59 It reported that out of some 4,000 persons interviewed, one-third favoured merger, another third merger with safeguards, and the remaining independence before merger.60 Brunei was not included in this inquiry because it had formed its own inquiry.61 It later pulled out from the planned union.62

With the signing of the Malaysia Agreement, the date for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia was set for 31 August 1963.63 However, the Tunku had to delay the event to 16 September 1963 in order to give the United Nations more time to complete its study on the sentiments of the people in the Borneo territories over the merger.64 This fact-finding study was commissioned following a last-ditch attempt by Indonesia and the Philippines to prevent the formation of Malaysia, which both countries had opposed from the outset. While Indonesia branded the scheme as a neo-colonial plot and had announced a policy of Konfrontasi (Confrontation) against Malaysia in January 1963, the Philippines laid territorial claims on Sabah.65

The delay, however, did not stop Lee, then prime minister of Singapore, from declaring on 31 August Singapore’s independence from British colonial rule, much to the chagrin of the Malayan and British governments.66 Both sides did not send representatives to attend the ceremony as they questioned the legality and validity of Singapore’s claim to power over its defence and external affairs.67 The federal government also felt that Lee had encouraged Sabah and Sarawak to follow in Singapore’s footstep, as they had also declared their de-facto independence on the same day as Singapore.68 Nonetheless, after the United Nations had completed its mission in Borneo and discovered that the majority of the people in Sabah and Sarawak supported the merger, the formation of the Federation of Malaysia was officially declared on 16 September 1963.69


Aftermath
Singapore’s merger with Malaysia was fraught with difficulties. This was due to a series of fundamental clashes between the PAP government in Singapore and the Alliance leaders in Kuala Lumpur over issues ranging from extremist politicking to contentious economic and financial arrangements. For instance, when the federal government announced the Malaysian budget on 25 November 1964, it aimed to raise M$147 million through a series of new taxes to redress the federal deficit of M$543 million.70 Singapore was required to contribute 39.8 percent towards the yield of the new taxes even though its population was just 17 percent of the total population of Malaysia.71

Although leaders from both sides tried to resolve these differences on numerous occasions, the issues persisted. Eventually, it was decided that the most ideal course of action was for Singapore to leave the federation.72 On 9 August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia to become a sovereign nation.73



Author
Lim Tin Seng



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66. Ministry of Culture. (1963, August 31). Text of speech by the prime minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, at Malaysia Solidarity Day Mass Rally and March-past on the Padang on Saturday, August 31, 1963. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/; Singapore’s claim ‘not valid’. (1963, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
67. Singapore’s claim ‘not valid’. (1963, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
68. Lee, K. Y. (2000). The Singapore story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 499. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS]); A great day for Malaya’s partners. (1963, August 31). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
69. Sabah, Sarawak get home rule. (1963, September 1). The Straits Times, p. 1; Up goes the flag. (1963, September 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
70. Lau, A. (2003). A moment of anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the politics of disengagement. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, pp. 10, 280–293. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 LAU)
71. Abisheganaden, F. (1964, November 26). Shock taxesThe Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lau, A. (2003). A moment of anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the politics of disengagement. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, p. 214. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 LAU)
72. Lee, K. Y. (1998). The Singapore story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 615. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
73. Abisheganadan, F. (1965, August 10). Singapore is outThe Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources

Bradley, C. P. (1965, June). Leftist fissures in Singapore politics. The Western Political Quarterly, 18(2), 292–308. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg

Fletcher, N. (1969). The separation of Singapore from Malaysia. Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5707 FLE)

Josey, A. (2012). Lee Kuan Yew: The crucial years. Singapore: Times Book International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57092 JOS-[HIS])

Leifer, M. (1965, September). Singapore in Malaysia: The politics of federation. Journal of Southeast Asian History, 6(2), 54–70. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg

Lian, P. C. (1969, March). The People’s Action Party, 1954–1963. Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10(1), 142–154. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg

Milne, R. S. (1963, February). Malaysia: A new federation in the making. Asian Survey, 3(2), 76–82. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg

Singapore: Problem child. (1962, April). Foreign Affairs, 40(3), 479-488. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg

Stockwell, A. J. (1979). British policy and Malay politics during the Malayan Union experiment, 1945–1948. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
(Call no.: RSING 959.51035 STO)

Tan, K. (1999). The Singapore legal system. Singapore: Singapore University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 349.5957 SIN)

Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])



The information in this article is valid as at 3 November 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Politics and Government
Economy