The Malaysia-Singapore story


I believe Lee Kuan Yew is a brilliant politician and strategist. He first used the Communists and then he used Malaysia to gain independence from Britain. He then rounded up all the Communists and detained them without trial and then engineered a quarrel with the Tunku as the excuse to leave or get thrown out of Malaysia.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

I have noticed quite a number of comments — in particular by non-Malay or East Malaysian readers — that Singapore is great because it left Malaysia and that Brunei is clever because it did not join Malaysia. The next comment is regarding whether Singapore left Malaysia or whether it got thrown out of Malaysia. The fact that it was reported that Lee Kuan Yew was in tears at that time gives an impression that it was an extremely difficult divorce — never mind who divorced whom and whether it was mutual.

I was only 13 years old and in form one at that time so I cannot claim to have been a witness to these events. I did, however, know that Malaysia was formed (when I was in form one) and soon after that Indonesia went to war with Malaysia because it was in the news — and I read newspapers even when I was still just ten years old. And trust me on this one, there was a war, but it was an undeclared war. It was a war that the British did not want the world to know was going on.

Your see, before the time of Merdeka, Malaya contributed to about 30% of Britain’s economy. Hence when the Communist Insurgency erupted the British did not want to call it a war. They called it an Emergency. An ‘emergency’ would not frighten the investors of British companies on the London Stock Exchange like a war would. Furthermore, in the event of a war, and if the Communist Terrorists (CTs) bomb British interests, the insurance companies would not pay for the losses or damages. In an emergency, since it is not a war, the insurance companies would.

Hence they called the Communist Insurgency an Emergency and not a war and the war with Indonesia was called a Confrontation or Konfrontasi. It sounds less serious when it is called an Emergency or a Konfrontasi. People just went about their business in the usual manner and did not run for cover, migrate, or pull their investments out of the British companies listed on the stock exchange.

Now, as I said, I only knew what I read in the news at that time. Later on in life, however, I read books written by British and Malayan historians, biographies and autobiographies of the various personalities then (such as those of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Chin Peng, Lee Kuan Yew, etc.,), interviews, ‘white papers’, and many more. And one thing that was very glaring is, although everyone agrees that all these events did happen, different people seem to have a different account or interpretation of these events.

Let me give you one example. A book that I read written by the British said that Sir Henry Gurney’s assassination on 6th October 1951 was planned. The British said the Communists had a mole in the Special Branch who informed the CTs that Henry Gurney would be making a trip up to Frazer’s Hill that day. So they laid an ambush and shot him dead.

Chin Peng’s account of that same event, however, is that the CTs had set up an ambush so that they can shoot at any car that happened to pass by. And since any car that drives up to Fraser’s Hill would most likely be that of a British, they really did not care who they shot at as long as it was British.

They laid in wait for three days but nothing happened. Not a single car came along over those three days. They decided to give it another hour and if nothing happens in that hour they would all just pack up and go home.

Suddenly they heard a car engine and as the Rolls Royce turned the corner they started shooting at it. The driver was hit and the car came to a stop. After a few seconds of silence, the car door opened and this white man coolly walked over to the where the CTs were positioned. So they shot him dead and then quickly scooted.

It was not until the next day that they knew they had actually killed the big man himself. At the time they shot Henry Gurney they did not know who he was. If they did they would have probably kidnapped him and held him for ransom instead.

And why did Henry Gurney coolly step out of his Rolls Royce and walk towards the CTs? Well, because he wanted to draw the gunfire away from the car so that his wife would be safe. Hence Sir Henry Gurney sacrificed his life to save his wife. And the CTs did not know this at that time.

(By the way, Sir Henry Gurney’s Rolls Royce is rotting/rusting away in the Penang Museum and someone I personally know has written a few letters to Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng asking the state to save or restore that car but all these communications have thus far been ignored).

So you see, the same event but two different accounts of that event. And it was not until 40 years later that the true story came out when everyone started writing about his own version of that same event. Imagine something that happened just 60 years ago and there are so many versions of that event. What about something that happened 1,400, 2,000, 3,500 or 6,000 years ago when the world was supposed to have first started? Can there also be another version of all those events (whether in the first place all these events did happen)?

Now, the British were spending too much money fighting the war in Malaya and Borneo, the so-called Emergency. So they wanted out. However, if they just went home, then Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore, and Brunei would fall to the Communists. They needed, therefore, to unite all these countries so that they would all be safe from Communist occupation.

At least this is what the British military strategists thought at that time. Whether this is a sound strategy or not is another thing — just like the strategy of cementing all the guns in Singapore facing the sea without thinking that the Japanese would land in Kota Bharu and then cycle down to Singapore and attack from behind.

Anyway, what finally made the British decide to ‘abandon’ this region — but first after making sure that Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore, and Brunei were ‘united’ — was when the Communist Party won half the seats in the Singapore election. At that time, all the workers’ and students’ unions were Communist and it was only a matter of time before Singapore would fall, followed by the rest of the region (the Domino Theory). And Lee Kuan Yew told the British that they were losing control of Singapore and that Singapore was doomed.

What the British did not know at that time, and which was known only later, Lee Kuan Yew had made a deal with the Communists for them to contest half the seats in the election, which they won of course. Then Lee Kuan Yew turned on his ‘allies’ and detained them all under the Internal Security Act. He also detained all the workers and students union leaders. So that cleaned up the Communist problem and removed the threat.

Hence, according to those close to Lee Kuan Yew at that time (many who were eventually detained under the ISA as well), Lee Kuan Yew used the Communists to frighten the British and then played out these same people by detaining them. Of course, different people have a different story to tell (just like in the Henry Gurney story) so it all depends on whose story you are listening to.

Lee Kuan Yew did not really want to join Malaysia, those close to him say. He just agreed to join Malaysia to get rid of the British. Once the British had gone home he started making moves to leave Malaysia, or to get thrown out of Malaysia. And one move he made was to go into conflict with the Tunku.

Now, according to the Tunku’s version of this story, Lee Kuan Yew wanted to be the Prime Minister and not the Chief Minister of Singapore (like in the case of Sabah, Sarawak, Penang and Melaka). The Tunku, however, said that Malaysia cannot have two Prime Ministers and since the Tunku was the Prime Minister then Lee Kuan Yew would have to be the Chief Minister.

Lee Kuan Yew did not agree to this and the Tunku said if the former still insisted on being the Prime Minister then Singapore should leave Malaysia. Once Singapore becomes an independent nation then Lee Kuan Yew can become its Prime Minister. Hence, was Lee Kuan Yew told by the Tunku to take Singapore out of Malaysia, which he did, or was this Lee Kuan Yew’s own idea, which the Tunku did not agree with?

I suspect it was mutual. The Tunku realised there was no way he and Lee Kuan Yew could see eye-to-eye so better Singapore just leave Malaysia. It is said there were many other issues that Lee Kuan Yew did not agree with and to go along with what Lee Kuan Yew wanted would mean there would be many compromises the Malays would have to make. Hence the Malays would be at a disadvantage if Lee Kuan Yew had his way.

Anyway, the issue I want to raise here is whether Singapore was told to leave Malaysia (which means they did so reluctantly) or whether Singapore wanted to leave Malaysia (which means they were happy to do so). More importantly, however, is whether Singapore left (or got thrown out) of Malaysia because of the problems that cropped up later (meaning unplanned) or whether Lee Kuan Yew had planned this all along (meaning he intentionally raised all these issue knowing that the Tunku would never agree to them) so that Singapore can leave (or get thrown out of) Malaysia?

Some historians say that Lee Kuan Yew never intended for Singapore to be part of Malaysia. He only agreed to join Malaysia so that Singapore could get independence from Britain and then, once the British went home, he would make his move to leave Malaysia (or to get the Tunku to chase Singapore out of Malaysia by quarrelling with the Tunku).

Whatever it may be you need to read the many different books written about this event. Of course, different people have a different story to tell, as is always the case. But I believe Lee Kuan Yew is a brilliant politician and strategist. He first used the Communists and then he used Malaysia to gain independence from Britain. He then rounded up all the Communists and detained them without trial and then engineered a quarrel with the Tunku as the excuse to leave or get thrown out of Malaysia.

Brunei realised that if the British were to leave and they did not join Malaysia then they would be invaded. So they asked the British to stay. In other words, Brunei rejected independence and chose to remain a British colony or protectorate.

But why did Brunei not want to join Malaysia? Simple. Brunei was an absolute monarchy and if they joined Malaysia they would be reduced to a constitutional monarchy. And this would mean the Sultan would lose all his powers plus the oil would no longer be owned by the Palace but be owned by the nation, in this case the nation of Malaysia. Why would the Sultan want to let go of the oil wealth when all this money can go into his own pocket?

The British said they could no longer afford to protect Brunei because it cost too much and Britain did not have the money to place an army in Brunei. That was the whole reason why Britain wanted Brunei to join Malaysia in the first place — so that the British could go home. Brunei then offered to pay the entire cost for Britain to leave its army in the country. Britain would not need to pay a single penny. Brunei would pay the entire cost. So Britain left its army in Brunei and sent them the bill. And everyone in England and Brunei lived happily ever after.

What would have happened if the British left and Malaysia was not formed (and Brunei did not offer to pay the cost of the British army)? Well, we can only speculate here. However, looking at the events in history plus the current events, I would say Sabah and Sarawak (with Brunei as well) would be Indonesian and/or Filipino colonies and Singapore would be the Socialist Republic of Singapore.

But that is only my speculation, of course. And if we want to speculate then anything is possible. For example, what would have happened if Holland and England had not made a deal that Holland takes Indonesia and Britain takes the Malay states? I suppose then this article would be in Dutch and not in English.

Oh, and please do not take this as a racial or Malay-Chinese article. I am just trying to understand history and there is still so much we do not know. We can only form opinions based on what people alive at that time or those involved in those events tell us. And even then what they tell us may be biased or based on how they perceive things. And perception can differ from person to person. Hence which is the correct version of history and which is not? Will we ever know? And history books are not holy text that people are supposed to accept based on faith with no questions asked.