The government wants to remind us of our roots and fight for independence from 59, to 63 to 65. A story which is challenged now by revisionists, which is part and parcel of how history is told and re-told, unpackaged and packaged. History is the story of the winners, but revisionism importantly allows the story of the losers to be heard, at least in the case of Singapore’s path to independence where communists are described as anti-colonialists. A true description. However, revisionism comes close to fiction when there is denial of the communist unrest in Singapore’s pre and post independence years. The Barisan Sosialis, a key protagonist, is arguably communist or at least communist-leaning and the scapegoat of communist unrest. There was the Vietnam War in the neighbourhood and the Emergency still echoed in the political consciousnesses. The Cold War raged on and from many accounts, it was a close call for the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 62.
It is important for Singaporeans to remember and understand the battle between the communists and non-communists in Singapore in the early 1960s, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. At the heart of the battle were two contrasting views on how society should be ordered and governed, he said yesterday at the launch of the reprint of The Battle for Merger — a series of radio broadcasts by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1961. Mr Teo said the events vividly described in the book showed the will and spirit of pioneer leaders such as Mr Lee in confronting difficult challenges and making critical choices for Singapore’s future. This, and the fact that some revisionist writers have tried to recast the role played by the communists and their supporters on the merger issue, is why this crucial turning point in Singapore’s history continues to be relevant today, he added. The following is the speech by Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security.
I am pleased to be here today to launch the reprint of The Battle for Merger, which comprises a series of radio broadcasts by Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1961. I am lucky to own a copy of the original publication printed in 1962. It belonged to my father. I remember hearing these radio broadcasts as a child.
Though I was too young then to understand them, I could sense the magnitude and gravity of the events that were swirling around us. But Singaporeans of my father’s generation and those just a little older than me will certainly remember those tumultuous days and Mr Lee’s radio broadcasts.
It was a time when momentous decisions had to be made for Singapore. A wrong decision would have been calamitous and Singapore today might still be trying to shake off the dire effects. Mr Lee’s broadcasts electrified the population and were crucial in making Singaporeans understand what the battle was about and persuading them to support the merger with Malaysia.
The Battle for Merger
Some may wonder: Why should The Battle for Merger be reprinted now? In 2015, we will celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary. This is a significant milestone, especially when we consider our precarious and tumultuous beginnings. While we became an independent nation only in 1965, our road to independence had begun earlier, with our attempt to forge a shared destiny with the then Federation of Malaya. Our hard-fought attempt to gain independence by merging with Malaya was, in fact, a battle for the future of Singapore. On the surface, it was a battle for merger.
But this was only on the surface. Below the surface was another deeper, more momentous, more dangerous battle — that between the communists and non-communists in Singapore.
At the heart of this battle were two contrasting visions on how society should be ordered and how we should govern ourselves. It was not simply a fight to get rid of British colonial rule; rather, the communists and their allies had a larger agenda. Their objective was to impose a communist regime in Malaya and Singapore through all means, including subversion, and ultimately, armed revolution. They never gave up on this larger agenda. This was why the communists continued to pose a security threat to us long after both Malaya and Singapore had gained independence in 1957 and 1965, respectively, and even after all British forces had left in 1971. In one incident in June 1974, the inspector-general of police in Malaysia was gunned down in broad daylight by a communist hit squad.
The events vividly described in The Battle for Merger bear testament to the resourcefulness, will and spirit of pioneer Singaporeans led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues in the government and the People’s Action Party (PAP). Our pioneers were confronted with difficult challenges and dilemmas and had to make critical choices for not only themselves, but future generations of Singaporeans. This is why, despite the vast changes that have taken place in the world and in Singapore over the past 50 years, this crucial turning point in our history continues to be relevant to us today.
SINGAPORE IN 1961
What was Singapore like in 1961, when Mr Lee made these radio broadcasts? What was the broader strategic environment? The Cold War between communism and the free world was at its height. The Berlin Wall, which for decades signified the divide between the two contending sides, had just been built. In fact, construction had started on Aug 13 that year, exactly a month before the first of Mr Lee’s broadcasts on Sept 13. Proxy wars and ideological battles were being fought in many countries. South-east Asia was a hot spot. Malaya and Singapore were not spared. There were grave security concerns over the growing communist influence in Malaya and Singapore.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, communism was in the ascendant in Singapore. The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) had waged a violent armed insurgency since 1948 and fomented urban strife in its attempt to establish a communist Malaya (which included Singapore). The CPM targeted those who opposed them, including civilians, and security and police personnel. In Singapore, between 1950 and 1955, the CPM hit squads carried out at least 19 known murders, as well as numerous acid attacks, arson and other acts of violence. When the CPM’s violent, armed guerrilla war and their intimidation of the civilian population failed to turn Singapore and Malaya “red”, the communists switched strategy to place more emphasis on subversive Communist United Front (CUF) tactics instead. Through the CUF, the CPM intended to first drive out the British from Singapore and then topple the Malayan government. From 1954 to 1963, the CPM penetrated student bodies, labour unions, political parties and cultural and rural organisations in Singapore to spread its ideology and influence, attract supporters and mobilise activists to mount a campaign to destabilise and take over Singapore.
The CUF organisations instigated unrest and dissatisfaction among the population by exploiting unhappiness over socio-economic issues and particular government policies. Singapore went through a period of great upheaval and civil unrest. Protests, sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations were frequent. The trade unions and student bodies were the front organisations for these confrontations. But they were controlled and manipulated from behind the scenes by communist hands.
Some of these events resulted in the deaths of innocent Singaporeans and security personnel. The result — which was intended — was tension, anxiety and instability in Singapore.
Why did the CPM and its pro-communist allies operating in the CUF organisations decide to oppose merger?
When Mr Lee and his colleagues in the PAP were elected to form the government in June 1959, it was on a pro-merger platform. Merger was also supported by the communists and pro-communists who, at the time, were in the PAP. Other political parties also had similar pro-merger agendas. Merger was deemed essential for Singapore’s economic survival. People travelled across the Causeway frequently and co-mingled freely. Even the CPM considered Singapore a part of Malaya — there was no “Communist Party of Singapore” because, in its eyes, Singapore was an integral part of Malaya. There was only the Singapore Town Committee of the CPM.
Yet, when the PAP announced its support for merger and the concept of Malaysia to attain full independence from the British, the communists and pro-communists opposed it and tried to capture the PAP and the Singapore government in July 1961 . Merger was against the communists’ interests for two reasons. First, it would result in the quick end of British rule in Singapore and make it harder for the CUF to disguise its agenda to establish a communist regime as an anti-colonial struggle. Second, the CPM expected the anti-communist Federation Government to clamp down on them as internal security would come under the Central Government in Kuala Lumpur once merger was achieved.
The CPM never believed Singapore should be independent of Malaya. Indeed, much later, when Singapore separated from Malaysia in August 1965, the CPM denounced Singapore’s independence as “phoney”. The Barisan Sosialis took the same line when it decided to boycott and later withdraw from Parliament and take to the streets instead. But in 1961, the communists wanted to capture power in a self-governing Singapore and use that as a base to subvert the Federation and, in due course, establish communist rule over the entire Malayan peninsula.
As Mr Lee said in his preface, The Battle for Merger broadcasts were pivotal in lifting the curtain on the communists and exposing their hidden manoeuvrings. It was necessary for Mr Lee to make public the communist threat and reveal key CPM personalities, as well as how the communists operated, including their objectives and methods. Singaporeans, whether they were for or against merger, needed to know the real communist agenda in order to make their choice.
This was why Mr Lee decided to speak to Singaporeans directly on the matter. He gave three talks a week, each delivered in English, Mandarin and Malay, totalling 36 broadcasts in less than a month. This gruelling effort left him thoroughly exhausted. But he got his message across. The talks played a vital part in defeating the anti-merger campaign of the communists and pro-communists. In the referendum on merger held in September 1962, 71 per cent supported the PAP’s position while 25 per cent cast blank votes as advocated by the anti-merger group.
Though public support for merger was unequivocal in 1962 and Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963, the differences in views between the Singaporean and Malaysian governments on how a multiracial, multi-religious nation should govern itself caused the merger to fail.
In 1965, when independence was thrust upon Singapore, we were struggling with poor economic prospects, fraught communal relations and a continuing communist threat. The Cold War raged on and the Vietnam War was intensifying. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led the United States to engage in Vietnam, had occurred in 1964. The Cultural Revolution, which brought turmoil to China for a decade, started the next year, in 1966.
Even after independence, the communists persisted in their violent attempts to destabilise Singapore. The CPM revived its armed struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, a seven-year-old girl was killed by a booby-trapped bomb planted by a CPM unit in Changi. In 1974, three communists were on their way to plant home-made bombs in Telok Kurau when one bomb exploded prematurely in Katong, killing two of the bombers. The third bomber was injured, but escaped and eventually fled to Johor with the help of CPM supporters. The following year, in 1975, the security authorities recovered in Loyang and Tampines two caches of 298 hand grenades accumulated by another CPM unit that had carried out vicious attacks in Singapore in the 1950s. Indeed, the voice of Malayan revolution, the CPM radio station, was broadcasting up until 1981, preaching the revolution of communism. Several Singaporeans worked at this radio station.
The spectre of communism receded only after the People’s Republic of China abandoned its support for the CPM in the 1980s. The CPM finally ceased hostilities and signed peace agreements in Hat Yai with the Malaysian government and the Thai authorities. The date, Dec 2, 1989, when the CPM finally laid down its arms, was barely a month after the Berlin Wall was breached on Nov 9, 1989 — the same Berlin Wall that was the symbol of the Cold War and whose construction began in 1961, only a month before the first Battle for Merger broadcast.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BATTLE FOR MERGER TODAY
Today, the events surrounding the merger are no longer at the forefront of the minds of Singaporeans. For the older ones, the tumultuous years described in The Battle for Merger are a receding, distant memory. The younger ones, especially those born after 1965, would have no personal memory of these events. They would know of these years through only history books or from their parents or grandparents.
The Battle for Merger provides a powerful contemporaneous account of the events at that time. It captures the flavour and intensity of the exchanges, the battle for the hearts and minds of Singaporeans over the merger and, more fundamentally, the fierce struggle between the communists and the non-communists over the future of Singapore.
As we approach our 50th year of independence, some revisionist writers have attempted to recast the role played by the communists and their supporters on the merger issue. They portray the fight as merely a peaceful and democratic disagreement over the type of merger. They ignore the more fundamental agenda of the communists to seize power by subversion and armed revolution. The CPM’s armed struggle and the CUF’s efforts to destabilise Singapore before, during and after the battle for merger have been well documented by various academics and writers, including top leaders of the CPM such as Chin Peng and Fong Chong Pik.
These multiple sources support the argument that Mr Lee made in The Battle for Merger more than five decades ago: Namely, that there was a communist conspiracy to take power being played out over the merger issue, which he felt compelled to expose in his broadcasts. The re-publication of the book will provide a reality check to the revisionist views. I hope it will awaken interest among younger Singaporeans in the events of this crucial period in our history, educate them on what actually happened, what the battle was about and why it was so crucial that the right side won.
Indeed, one might ask: What if the communists and their pro-communist CUF allies had won and Singapore had fallen under communist rule in the 1960s? We would have gone on a completely different path. Where would we be today?
Singapore would probably not have survived, as a small communist outcast in South-east Asia, as the Cold War raged in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Even if Singapore had survived, life would have been harsh and miserable. We need only look at the communist world since the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the countries that continue to subscribe to communism today. The more successful ones have made major adaptations in recent decades and adopted drastic reforms and policies to make themselves more competitive and enable the standard of living of their citizens to catch up with free market economies.
The 1960s were tumultuous times. We should respect the personal conviction and determination of those who held different views then and fought on the side of the communists. As Mr Lee said in his broadcast: “They are not crooks or opportunists. These are men with great resolve, dedicated to the communist revolution and the establishment of the communist state, believing that it is the best thing in the world for mankind.”
But we should, even more, acknowledge and give our respect and appreciation to the Singaporeans who had the courage and wisdom to reject the CPM’s ideology and tactics, including its violent methods, and those of its pro-communist supporters — Singaporeans who rallied to support the non-communist cause under the leadership of Mr Lee, who fortunately, mustered a majority to defeat the communist side in a democratic contest.
Among those who have contributed to building our nation are some who initially joined or supported the communists. It took special courage for them to turn away from the communist cause after recognising its serious flaws and inadequacies. They made a brave choice in the face of intimidation and threats to their lives and families. They had the courage to acknowledge that the path advocated by the CPM was the wrong one and to join the majority of Singaporeans who had made that critical choice for a non-communist, democratic, peaceful and constructive path forward.
There were others, including several senior CPM figures, who had fled Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s but returned home with their families after the CPM laid down its arms in 1989. They made no pretence about their past activities and beliefs and were reconciled to the fact that theirs was not a cause shared by the majority of Singaporeans. They had seen the road that communism had travelled and admitted that it had failed. After providing an account of their communist activities to the security authorities, they and their families settled back in Singapore as loyal citizens and contributed to our country’s progress.
But it was a close call. Then, as now, Singapore had little room to manoeuvre. The wrong decision, and it would have gone the other way and Singapore would have turned out very differently.
Our pioneers’ spirit and their determination to rise above the hardships of the moment, including the dire threat of communism, and focus on making Singapore a better country for the next generation is an inspiration for all Singaporeans. This spirit, epitomised in The Battle for Merger, is a precious heritage that we all, as Singaporeans, should honour, recognise and emulate.