Communal riots of 1964
The communal riots of 1964 refer to two separate series of race riots involving clashes between Malays and Chinese that occurred in Singapore when it was part of the Federation of Malaysia. The first series of riots started on 21 July during a Muslim procession held to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The second series of riots broke out on 2 September after a Malay trishaw rider was killed in Geylang Serai. The communal riots occurred against the backdrop of the Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation and rising political tensions between the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in Singapore and the Alliance Party government in Malaysia led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).1 The riots have been described as "the worst and most prolonged in Singapore’s postwar history”.2
Prior to the outbreak of communal riots in 1964, political tensions had been building up between the PAP government in Singapore and the UMNO-led Alliance government in Malaysia as a result of electoral competition. Singapore UMNO (SUMNO), the local branch of UMNO, participated in the island’s 1963 general election, but was unable to win any seats despite competing in three Malay-dominated constituencies. In response, the PAP sent a team of candidates to contest the 1964 Malaysian general election, but only managed to win the Bangsar constituency seat.3
Following the end of the Malaysian general election in April 1964, relations between the PAP and the Alliance Party entered into “a period of cold peace”.4 Then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman made it clear to his Singapore counterpart, Lee Kuan Yew, that the PAP was to confine its political role to Singapore. In exchange, the Tunku assured Lee that the Alliance Party would not get involved in Singapore’s domestic politics.4
UMNO campaign against the PAP
Malay activists within UMNO led by then Secretary-General Syed Ja’afar Albar did not agree to the political compromise struck between the Tunku and Lee. In a bid to regain the support of the Malay electorate in Singapore, they launched a campaign using the Malay newspapers and provocative speeches to accuse Lee and the PAP government of oppressing local Malays and depriving them of the special rights that their counterparts in Malaysia enjoyed.6 The Jawi-script Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu was particularly active in the campaign against the PAP due to its links with UMNO. The newspaper published a series of articles accusing Lee and the PAP of mistreating the Malays in Singapore, while urging the Malay community to support UMNO against the PAP.7
On 12 July 1964, SUMNO organised a convention at the New Star cinema in Pasir Panjang to discuss the problems faced by the Malays in Singapore. The convention was attended by 450 representatives from 123 Malay and Muslim organisations. In his speech at the event, Syed Ja’afar accused Lee and the PAP government of oppressing the Malays in Singapore, and called for Malay unity in boycotting the upcoming meeting organised by the PAP government for the Malay community. The convention also saw the establishment of the 23-man Singapore Malays Action Committee (SMAC) to be the sole representative body for all Malays in their dealings with the PAP government.8
A meeting sponsored by the PAP was held on 19 July 1964 at the Victoria Theatre to discuss issues that the Malay community was facing in Singapore. Despite Syed Ja’far’s call for a boycott, the meeting was attended by around 900 Malays representing 103 of the 144 organisations that had been invited. In his speech at the meeting, Lee defended the government’s employment, housing and education policies for the Malays. He also gave assurances that the government would make every effort to train Malays to compete for jobs with non-Malays. However, he made it clear that the government would not grant Malays special privileges such as quotas for jobs.9 Head of SMAC Ahmad Haji Taff regarded the meeting as an “insult to the Malays”,10 and Othman Wok – PAP Assemblyman and Minister for Social Affairs at the time – was subsequently denounced by UMNO activists as a traitor to the Malay community for participating in it.11
The first series of communal riots started on 21 July 1964 during a procession to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, which was attended by an estimated 20,000 Muslims. The procession began at the Padang and was to end at Lorong 12 in Geylang. However, a series of clashes broke out between Malays in the procession and Chinese bystanders in the vicinity of Kallang Road and the then Kampong Soo Poo (located off Padang Jeringau towards the Geylang side). As more people heard about the news of the initial clashes, communal violence began to spread across the island. Four people were killed and 178 others injured by the end of the first day of rioting.12
Government efforts to quell the riots taxed heavily on police resources, and military reinforcements had to be called in. An islandwide curfew from 9.30 pm on 21 July to 6 am the following day was imposed, but 24 incidents were still reported during the period. A few hours after the curfew lifted, there were clashes again, which prompted the authorities to reimpose the curfew.13 Goodwill committees made up of racially diverse community leaders were established in every constituency in a bid to calm the situation. At the same time, 15 peace committees were established in areas that were worst affected by the riots.14
The curfew persisted until 2 August 1964, when reports of violence declined, and the police and military stood down the following day. However, renewed clashes between Chinese and Malays on the evening of 6 August saw the police force remobilised the next morning. By the evening of 7 August, the situation had stabilised and the police stood down once more.15
A second series of communal riots broke out on 2 September 1964. The mysterious killing of a 57-year-old Malay trishaw rider opposite the Changi market at Geylang Serai prompted Malays in the area to take retaliatory action against the Chinese. By 4 September, the rioting had become widespread and an islandwide curfew was imposed from 2 pm by the police with military assistance. The curfew was finally lifted on 11 September at 4 pm with the military standing down the following day and the police following suit on 14 September.16
Casualties and damage
By the end of the July riots, 23 persons had died and 454 others injured. Out of the 3,568 persons arrested during the riots, 715 were charged in court and 945 were placed under preventive detention.17 There was also extensive damage to public and private properties, especially in the areas around Kallang Road, Kampong Soo Poo, Geylang Road and Geylang Serai. Stalls and shops were damaged by rioters throwing stones, bottles and other projectiles, while some shophouses were burnt down. Rioters also overturned a number of scooters and cars and smashed the windows of cars parked along the roads.18
The September riots resulted in 13 deaths and left another 106 persons injured. Out of the 1,439 persons arrested, 154 were charged in court and another 268 were placed under preventive detention. Rioters again caused extensive damage to public and private properties, especially in the Geylang Serai area. Some rioters stoned police cars and threatened to attack a military radio transmitting station.19
Commission of inquiry
Following the July riots, the Singapore government requested that the Malaysian federal government appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate the causes of the riots.20 This request was initially declined by the Malaysian government on the grounds that such an inquiry would not serve any useful purpose.21 However, after the outbreak of the September riots, the Malaysian government agreed to the formation of such a commission.22 Closed-door hearings began in April 1965 but the findings of the report have remained confidential.23
Possible causes of the riots
Several explanations have been put forth to explain the causes of the July riots.24 Malaysia’s then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak believed that the riots started spontaneously after a Chinese individual threw a bottle at the procession – an act that angered some Malays who then assaulted the Chinese individual. A Chinese constable who tried to stop the assault was himself attacked. Some Malays then started overturning stalls as they ran towards Geylang Road. Tun Razak and other Alliance leaders also considered the possibility that Indonesian and communist agents could have been involved in encouraging the riots, though they believed that the PAP government’s poor treatment of Malays in Singapore played a large part in provoking the event.25
The explanation offered by Lee and the PAP government was that the riots were pre-planned and provoked for political reasons by Malay UMNO activists led by Ja’afar Albar. PAP leaders claimed that the attack on the constable had occurred near the PAP contingent in the procession so that blame could be laid on the PAP for starting the riots. They also pointed out that leaflets with racially charged content had been distributed and racially inflammatory speeches were made by Malay opposition figures at the Padang before the start of the procession.26
Both the Malaysian and Singapore governments officially blamed Indonesian provocateurs for causing the September riots. They believed that the riots were part of Indonesia’s Confrontation policy aimed at weakening Malaysia.27
Racial Harmony Day
Since 1997, the date 21 July – the day on which the riots started – has been marked as Racial Harmony Day. On this day, students are reminded that social division weakens society, and that race and religion will always be potential fault lines in Singapore’s society. It is a day for students to reflect on and celebrate the nation’s success as a harmonious society built on cultural diversity.28
1. Tommy Thong Bee Koh, et al eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 437. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. Richard L. Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia: 1945–1983 (Singapore: G. Brash, 1984), 321. (Call no. RSING 959.57 CLU C-[HIS])
3. Ganesan Narayanan, “The Political History of Ethnic Relations in Singapore,” in Lai Ah Eng, ed., Beyond Rituals and Riots: Ethnic Pluralism and Social Cohesion in Singapore (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2004), 47. (Call no. RSING 305.80095957 BEY)
4. Mohamed Noordin Sopiee, From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region, 1945–1965 (Kuala Lumpur: University Malaya Press, 2005), 195. (Call no. RSING 959.5 MOH)
5. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Federal Publications, 2000), 134–135. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
6. Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng and Tan Tai Yong, Singapore, a 700-Year History: From Early Emporium to World City (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009), 176–177. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 KWA)
7. Albert Lau, A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2003), 137–138. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 LAU-[HIS]); Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 552–553.
8. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 146–151; “Only 23 Men Can Speak for the Malays S’pore Meeting Decides,” Straits Times, 13 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 154–155; “Pledges To Help, but ‘No’ to Jobs Quota,” Straits Times, 20 July 1946, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 155.
11. Othman Wok, Never in My Wildest Dreams (Singapore: Raffles, 2000), 174. (Call no. RSING 324.259570092 OTH)
12. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 162–169; Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 204. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
13. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 169–170.
14. “Goodwill Committees Established in All 51 Constituencies,” Straits Times, 27 July 1964, 1; “The First 'Peace Committees',” Straits Times, 25 July 1964, (From NewspaperSG)
15. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 175.
16. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 195–197.
17. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 175.
18. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 167–169.
19. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 195–197.
20. “Motion for Inquiry Into Disturbances,” Straits Times, 23 August 1964, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 186.
22. “Cabinet Orders Riots Inquiry,” Straits Times, 3 September 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Koh, et al eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 437.
24. “What Caused the Rioting?”Straits Times, 28 June 1998, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 171–72, 186–87, 190–91; Koh, et al eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 437.
26. Lau, A Moment of Anguish,170, 173–74, 188, 191–92; Koh, et al eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 437.
27. Lau, A Moment of Anguish, 196; Koh, et al eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 437; “The Hidden Foe – By Dr. Toh,” Straits Times, 5 September 1964, 1; “Tengku To Reveal Soek Plot To House,” Straits Times, 10 September 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Core Events,” Ministry of Education, last updated 6 August 2021.
“Appeal for Calm,” Straits Times, 22 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Be Patient, Forbearing: Tun Yusof Appeals to Muslims,” Straits Times, 22 July 1964, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
“Curfew Cut...,” Straits Times, 24 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Curfew-Free Day,” Straits Times, 28 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Curfew Off,” Straits Times, 3 August 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Govt. Will Help Clash Victims to Rehabilitate Themselves: Lee,” Straits Times, 25 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“It's Smiles Again,” Straits Times, 27 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
Jackie Sam and Gabriel Lee, “Back to work,” Straits Times, 25 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
Joe F. Conceicao, Singapore and the Many-Headed Monster: A Look at Racial Riots against a Socio-Historical Ground (Singapore: Horizon Books, 2007). (Call no. RSING 303.623095957 CON)
“Lee: Plans for Normalisation of Situation Being Worked Out,” Straits Times, 23 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Markets and Provision Shops Besieged as Curfew Is Lifted: Soaring Prices Shock for Housewives,” Straits Times, 24 July 1964, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
Michael Leifer, “Communal Violence in Singapore,” Asian Survey, 4, no. 4 (October 1964), 1115–1121. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
“'Moratorium' Urged,” Straits Times, 31 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“'Most Shocked' Says the Tengku in Broadcast from U.S.,” Straits Times, 23 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
National Library Board, “Communal Riots Occur,” HistorySG, published 2012.
“Police Out in Force after Incidents in Geylang,” Straits Times, 3 September 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
“Premier Lee Warns: 'Keep Down Extremists',” Straits Times, 27 July 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
Ravi Veloo, “The Story of S’pore’s Race Relations as Seen Through the Eyes of Othman Wok,” Straits Times, 25 January 1997, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
“Razak: Situation Normal Soon Curfew Is Eased,” Straits Times, 26 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Seok’s Men Blamed for Trouble in Geylang Area,” Straits Times, 4 September 1964, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
“Singapore Curfew Is Further Relaxed,” Straits Times, 29 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Small Spark Can Create Big Mess,” Straits Times, 23 July 1997, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
“Tengku Is Reassured by Razak Report on S'pore,” Straits Times, 25 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Toh Calls for Law to Ban Papers from Publishing Inflammatory Articles,” Straits Times, 23 August 1964, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
“Under Control: Razak,” Straits Times, 23 July 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 18 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.