The crucial speech...which split the nation

One speech more than any other was crucial in bringing Umno leaders round to the idea that Malaysia should get rid of Singapore and Mr Lee Kuan Yew with it. This was the speech that changed history, former Cabinet minister Lim Kim San said in his tribute to Mr Lee at his 75th birthday dinner celebrations on Wednesday.

 He was referring to Mr Lee's speech in May 1965, when he rose to take part in the debate on the King's address at the opening of the Malaysian Parliament. Here is an account of that fateful debate, as told by Mr Lee in The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew.

I MADE my most important speech in the federal Parliament to a hostile and tense audience, including a large number of Malay MPs who had been fed daily with anti-PAP, anti-Lee Kuan Yew and anti-Chinese propaganda by the Utusan Melayu over the past year.

I moved an amendment to express regret that the King's address did not reassure the nation that it would continue to progress in accordance with its democratic Constitution towards a Malaysian Malaysia.

I quoted from it: "We are also facing threats from within the country." I hoped that Tunku Abdul Rahman, then Malaysian Prime Minister, would explain the meaning of this passage. I gave him this firm assurance: "We have a vested interest in constitutionalism and in loyalty because we know -- and we knew before we joined Malaysia -- that if we are patient, if we are firm, this Constitution must mean a Malaysian nation emerges."

But Dr Mahathir Mohamad's (then an Umno backbencher) speech implied that this could never happen. I quoted what he had said the day before about the Chinese in Singapore: "They have never known Malay rule and couldn't bear the idea that the people they have so long kept under their heels should now be in a position to rule them."

To rule them? I drew a distinction between political equality and the special rights for the economic and social uplift of the Malays. I accepted the special rights, but if the other peoples of Malaysia were denied political equality with the Malays, we would not need Indonesian President Sukarno and Confrontation to crush us.

Waving a copy of the Malaysian Constitution in my right hand, I said: "Once you throw this into the fire and say, 'Be done with it', that means you do it for a long time; and history is a long, relentless process." I said Syed Ja'afar Albar (then Umno secretary general) wanted us to secede and leave our friends in Sarawak, Sabah, Penang, Malacca and other parts of Malaysia to Umno's tender mercies; we would not oblige.

I demolished the accusation that we were pro-Chinese. If we advocated a Chinese Malaysia; we could not attract majority support, as the Chinese were only 42 per cent of the population. If I had been going around saying about the Chinese what Albar had said about being a Malay -- "Wherever I am, I am a Chinese" -- where would that have led us?

On the contrary, I kept on reminding people: "I am a Malaysian, I am learning Bahasa Kebangsaan (the national language) and I accept Article 153 of the Constitution (on the special rights of the Malays)."

Having reached the most sensitive part of my speech, in which I would expose the inadequacy of Umno's policies, I decided to speak in Malay. Although my Malay was not as good as my English, I was fluent compared with other non-Malay MPs.

I said that while I accepted Malay as the sole official language, I did not see how it could raise the economic position of the people.

Would it mean that the produce of the Malay farmer would increase in price, that he would get better prices? Would he get improved facilities from the government? I added that if the Alliance did not have real answers to current economic problems, it should not stifle the opposition.

Because we had an alternative, and it would work: "In 10 years we will breed a generation of Malays, educated and with an understanding of the techniques of science and modern industrial management."

It was at this point that I quoted what Dr Mahathir said earlier in the debate: "It is, of course, necessary to emphasise that there are two types of Chinese ... the MCA supporters to be found mainly where Chinese have for generations lived and worked amidst the Malays and other indigenous people, and the insular, selfish and arrogant type of which Mr Lee is a good example. This latter type live in a purely Chinese environment where Malays only exist at syce level ... They have in most instances never crossed the Causeway. They are in fact overseas Chinese first, seeing China as the centre of the world and Malaysia as a very poor second."

I continued: "What does that mean, Mr Speaker, sir? They were not words uttered in haste, they were scripted, prepared and dutifully read out, and if we are to draw the implications from that, the answer is quite simple: that Malaysia will not be a Malaysian nation. I say, say so, let us know it now."

As for the Malays "only existing at syce level", I said that the Tunku had frequently said in public and in private that the Chinese were rich and the Malays poor, but I used some simple examples to highlight a few points, still speaking in Malay.

Special rights and Malay as the national language were not the answer to this economic problem. If out of 4-1/2 million Malays and another three-quarters of a million Ibans, Kadazans and others, we made 0.3 per cent of them company shareholders, would we solve the problem of Malay poverty?

"How does the Malay in the kampung find his way out into this modernised civil society? By becoming servants of the 0.3 per cent who would have the money to hire them to clean their shoes, open their motorcar doors?...Of course there are Chinese millionaires in big cars and big houses. Is it the answer to make a few Malay millionaires with big cars and big houses?

"How does telling a Malay bus driver that he should support the party of his Malay director (Umno) and the Chinese bus conductor to join another party of his Chinese director (MCA) -- how does that improve the standards of the Malay bus driver and the Chinese bus conductor who are both workers in the same company?

"If we delude people into believing that they are poor because there are no Malay rights or because opposition members oppose Malay rights, where are we going to end up? You let people in the kampungs believe that they are poor because we don't speak Malay, because the government does not write in Malay, so he expects a miracle to take place in 1967 (the year Malay would become the national and sole official language). The moment we all start speaking Malay, he is going to have an uplift in the standard of living, and if it doesn't happen, what happens then?..."

"Meanwhile, whenever there is a failure of economic, social and educational policies, you come back and say, oh, these wicked Chinese, Indians and others opposing Malay rights. They don't oppose Malay rights. They, the Malays, have the right as Malaysian citizens to go up to the level of training and education that the more competitive societies, the non-Malay society, has produced. That is what must be done, isn't it? Not to feed them with this obscurantist doctrine that all they have got to do is to get Malay rights for a few special Malays and their problem has been resolved..."

Such arguments put in down-to-earth social and economic terms, and in Malay, had never been heard before in the Malaysian political debate.

The PAP had brought crucial, sensitive issues into the open in a rational way to expose the shallowness of Umno's political argument, that because Malay leaders (mostly the aristocrats and educated elite) worked together with Chinese leaders (mostly the successful merchants) and Indian leaders (mostly the professionals), all would be well.

It was the most significant speech I had ever made in Malay, and I made it to an audience of Malay MPs, many of whom represented rural areas, and to a strangers' gallery, which was packed with more Malays. I had spoken without a script, and for that reason it had all the more impact. As I spoke, there was a stunned silence. The air was electric.

Twenty-five years later, on the anniversary of Singapore's independence, Eddie Barker (former Law Minister) said of me in an interview: "He spoke for about half an hour. There must have been about 500 or so in the House and in the gallery, but you could hear a pin drop. I think if they could have cheered, they would have. Looking back, I think that was the moment when the Tunku and his colleagues felt it was better to have Singapore and Mr Lee out."

My Malay Cabinet colleague, Othman Wok, was in the chamber. He recalled: "The chamber was very quiet and nobody stirred. The ministers of the central government sunk down so low in their seats that only their foreheads could be seen over the desk in front of them. The backbenchers were spellbound. They could understand every word. That was the turning point. They perceived Lee as a dangerous man who could one day be the prime minister of Malaysia."

I had no such illusions. Malaysia would not have a Chinese prime minister for a very, very long time.

The Malays present did not expect me, the supposed anti-Malay Chinese chauvinist out to destroy the Malay race, to speak in Malay with no trace of a Chinese dialect accent that most Chinese would have. I had been born and bred in Singapore, speaking the language from childhood. I could trace my ancestors for three generations in Singapore. They had made as big a contribution to the country as any Malay in the chamber. And I was on their side, not against them. I wanted to improve their lot.

The Tunku and his deputy PM, Abdul Razak Hussain, looked most unhappy. I was meeting them on their own Malay ground and competing for support peacefully with arguments in an open debate. I was not rattled by their strident, shrill and even hysterical cries of abuse and denigration. I could hold my own. If allowed to go on, I might begin to win over some Malays.

They could see that among the MPs wearing the Haji skullcaps of those who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, heads were nodding in agreement when I pointed out that simply having Malay as the national language would not improve their economic lot. They needed practical programmes directed in the fields of agriculture and education.

The speech aroused such unease among the Alliance leaders and MPs that, contrary to standing orders, the Speaker ruled I could not reply to arguments made against it. It was a backhanded tribute to my effectiveness in Malay. Instead, he called on Razak, in place of the Tunku, to wind up the debate.

Razak launched into a long spiel of accusations: I was out to create chaos and trouble and hoped to emerge as the leader who could save the country. I was an expert in creating situations that did not exist. I twisted facts and cast doubts in the minds of people. I planned to split the country into two -- "one Malay Malaysia, and one Lee Kuan Yew's Malaysia".

Razak was at his most bitter when he concluded: "The gulf that divides the PAP and the Alliance is now clear. PAP means Partition and Perish."

I had not expected my speech to play so crucial a part in the Tunku's decision to get Singapore out of Malaysia.

Twelve years later, 1977, in his book Looking Back, the Tunku wrote: "The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was a speech Mr Lee Kuan Yew made in Parliament, when he moved an amendment to 'the motion to thank the King for his speech in May, 1965'. He brought up many issues which disturbed the equilibrium of even the most tolerant Members of the House." He sent me a copy of the book, inscribed:

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew, The friend who had worked so hard to found Malaysia and even harder to break it up.

Kindest regards
Tunku Abdul Rahman

Five years later, in 1982, the Tunku told the author of a book on Singapore: "He (Lee Kuan Yew) would think himself as legitimate as I was to be the leader of Malaya because he speaks Malay better than I do."

I did not speak Malay better than the Tunku. Even if I did, I was still not a Malay and could not be the leader of Malaysia.

But when he heard me that day in Parliament, he realised that I was getting my message through to his own backbenchers. That was unacceptable.

The drafting of the document that separated Singapore from Malaysia had to be done secretly to prevent the British from using their influence to quash it. Once the draft had been done, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had the task of convincing his colleagues to sign it.

DR GOH KENG SWEE went to Kuala Lumpur for a meeting with Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussain on Aug 3, the day before Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysian PM, was due home. Razak came to the point quickly. He said he had received the Tunku's reply.

The Tunku was in favour (of the plan to hive Singapore off from Malaysia), subject to two conditions: (a) Singapore was to make an adequate military contribution to our joint defence and enter into a defence agreement with Malaysia, and (b) no treaty was to be entered into that would contravene the objectives of that agreement.

Keng Swee recorded that many detailed proposals were made in the course of the discussion: there should be a defence council; all Singapore forces should be under a joint military command for operational purposes and the central government would help to train them; Singapore should raise an infantry brigade and patrol Singapore waters with our own craft. Datuk Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman (who was minister for External Affairs), also wanted Malaysian embassies and high commissions around the world to conduct Singapore's external relations.

Keng Swee assessed their object was to limit the size of our armed forces and have a voice in controlling them. Ismail was open about this but Razak dissembled.

Keng Swee said we could not afford an extensive military establishment anyway -- four battalions and some patrol boats would be the most we could contribute.

Razak appeared very pleased and said Keng Swee should be Singapore's defence minister, but the question of overall command remained vague and the peacetime status of the Singapore forces after Confrontation was still not raised. This was to lead to trouble later.

They asked if Keng Swee had the drafts (of the Separation Agreement) prepared. He said he had and showed the papers to Razak. Razak read the agreement, skipped the proclamation, but carefully scrutinised the amendment Bill.

He appeared satisfied and returned the documents, asking that the points about our defence arrangements and external treaty be incorporated in the second draft.

They then discussed the timetable. Razak wanted his attorney-general to examine the texts. Keng Swee suggested that if we produced them on Aug 6, after the Tunku's return, and they put up any counterproposals or amendments the following day, agreement could be reached on Aug 7, the documents signed on Aug 8, and the whole exercise could be wound up on the 9th.

They pointed out that the menteri besars of the Malay states and the chief ministers of Sabah and Sarawak had to be informed. Ismail said that the latter must be detached from their British advisers, and it would be best to summon them to Kuala Lumpur -- the welcoming party for the Tunku could provide the pretext. Keng Swee asked if they could count on the Sabah and Sarawak votes. Razak had apparently done his arithmetic and said they didn't expect any trouble.

Ismail then raised the question of the need for time to print the agreement, the Bill and the proclamation. Keng Swee concluded that they wanted to go through with the exercise as quickly as possible, but a number of tricky problems stood in the way: for instance, would there also be time to get the Sabah and Sarawak chief ministers to Kuala Lumpur on Aug 8? Flight schedules might make it impossible.

Keng Swee felt he should insist on sealing the agreement before anybody was informed; it was evident that without the utmost good luck and efficiency it would be tough going to push everything through by Aug 9.

After an hour's meeting, Keng Swee phoned me in the Cameron Highlands from Singapore House (in Kuala Lumpur) to tell me the outcome, in Mandarin. It was not his strongest language, but there was no direct dialling to the Camerons in 1965, and trunk calls had to go through operators who spoke no Mandarin.

On the morning of Friday, Aug 6, I travelled by car to Kuala Lumpur. Choo and the children stayed behind in the Camerons until Saturday so people would see them and think I was still there.

Neither Keng Swee nor Eddie Barker (Singapore's Law Minister) was sure that the Tunku, who was now back, had not changed his mind, in which case everything was off. But when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur that afternoon, they were there with the documents.

After I had studied and approved them, they went to see Razak, Ismail and Kadir Yusof, the attorney-general. The meeting went on for hours and hours as I waited impatiently and alone at Singapore House.

Late in the evening, Eddie phoned to say that Tan Siew Sin (Malaysian Finance Minister) wanted amendments included whereby we would take over the guarantees that the central government had given the IMF and the World Bank for loans granted to Singapore, a niggling detail.

I agreed to that, and Eddie and Kadir Yusof (Malaysian Attorney-General) started work on the drafts. More hours passed before Eddie phoned again to say that Razak's stenographer was so unaccustomed to legal documents that the typing was getting nowhere.

As Wong Chooi Sen (Singapore's Cabinet secretary) and my personal assistant Teo Ban Hock were both at Singapore House, Eddie called them to Razak's home, where they did the typing and completed the job, amendments and all. But it took them until well after midnight.

When he returned to Singapore House with Keng Swee, Eddie said they had all got drunk while waiting, and when the documents were finally ready, he was the only one sober enough to want to read them before he signed. Razak, who liked Eddie from their hockey-playing days in Raffles College, said: "Eddie, it's your draft, it's your chap who typed the final document, so what are you reading it for?"

So Eddie, too, signed without further ado -- "sign buta" (blindly), as he told me in Malay. Keng Swee was so soused that he had gone straight to bed. But Eddie went through the documents, was greatly relieved to find no mistakes, then handed them to me.

After I had quickly scanned the amendments myself, I looked at Eddie and said: "Thanks, Eddie, we've pulled off a bloodless coup." It was a coup against the British government and their vigilant pro-consul Antony Head, a constitutional coup engineered right under the noses of the British, Australians and New Zealanders who were defending Malaysia with their armed forces.

At very little notice, we had thought of a way to achieve what the Tunku could not accomplish with his own staff because it had to be carded out in great secrecy and the shortest possible time, including three readings of the Bill in one session of Parliament on a certificate of urgency, or it could never have succeeded.

I had been apprehensive that Head would probably have advised his government to acquiesce at extra-constitutional measures to neutralise the PAP if he had found out in time to stop it.

But with the documents signed, even if the British persuaded the Tunku and his colleagues not to take it through Parliament, once I had published the agreements and the proclamation of independence in the Government Gazette, Singapore's relationship with Malaysia would change irrevocably.

Now I had to get my other colleagues to agree. I telephoned Toh Chin Chye, Deputy PM, to ask him to come up to Kuala Lumpur, although it was after midnight. Next I spoke to the Istana telephone operator. The Istana exchange was manned 24 hours a day, and the man on duty that night was a most reliable retainer from the days of the British governors. I told him to get a car to pick up Chin Chye immediately and bring him to Kuala Lumpur by early next morning. I then spoke to Raja and asked him to drive up.

I did not want them to come together because that would arouse speculation that something was up, and also because they would stiffen each other's resolve to oppose any rearrangements of Malaysia, let alone a clean break.

Chin Chye arrived early that morning. As he came in by the front door, Eddie left by the back to avoid meeting him. I brought Chin Chye up to date and showed him the documents. He was upset and disturbed.

Shortly afterwards, Raja arrived. Othman Wok, our Minister for Social Affairs, had driven him up in his car. Then Keng Swee joined us, and we sat down and talked. For a few hours, Chin Chye and Raja contemplated the painful decision confronting them. They did not want to sign.

At about noon on Aug 7, I went to the Residency to see the Tunku. I waited for some 30 to 40 minutes in the sitting room while he was conferring with some of his officials in the dining room -- I could see them in deep conversation through the glass door. Then he came out and sat with me alone for about 40 minutes.

I began: "We have spent years to bring about Malaysia. The best part of my adult life was to work towards Malaysia, from 1954 to 1963. We have had only less than two years of Malaysia. Do you really want to break it up? Don't you think it wiser to go back to our original plan, which the British stopped, a looser federation or a confederation?"

But from his body language, I knew the Tunku had made up his mind. He said: "No. I am past that. There is no other way now. I have made up my mind; you go your way, we go our own way. So long as you are in any way connected with us, we will find it difficult to be friends because we are involved in your affairs and you will be involved in ours.

"Tomorrow, when you are no longer in Malaysia and we are no longer quarrelling either in Parliament or in the constituencies, we'll be friends again, and we'll need each other, and we'll cooperate."

I dropped the subject. I had prepared myself for a long session, but once I saw he had closed his mind to any alternative, I told him that my difficulty was with Chin Chye, Raja, Pang Boon and all those Singapore ministers whose families were in peninsular Malaysia. He told me that I had to settle that problem myself. I sought his help; would he see them? "No. It is unnecessary," he replied.

I returned to Singapore House to report our discussion to the others. Chin Chye sat at the desk by the foot of the stairs near the dining room, writing something.

As I walked up the stairs, I saw that he had drawn a line down the middle of a piece of paper; on the left, he had put the arguments for, and on the right, the arguments against separation. It was Chin Chye, the careful academic.

Raja, a chain-smoker, was outside on the patio puffing away. I drew Othman aside to ask if he would sign. He was a Malay and would again become a member of a minority if he did. He had no difficulty in signing, he said, but he was worried about the communists in Singapore.

Twenty-five years later, in an interview on the anniversary of our independence, he recalled that I assured him: "Don't worry, that's my problem. I'll handle that."

After making no progress with both Chin Chye and Raja for some hours, I said to Chin Chye: "Why not see the Tunku? The old boy says he can't hold the situation. You'd better see him, because I have seen him and I have come to the conclusion that this has gone beyond argument."

He agreed, so I went to the Tunku again that afternoon and told him that I had two ministers, Chin Chye and Raja, who were not going to sign and were absolutely adamant about it. Their families were in Malaya and they wanted to see him.

The Tunku was firm. "No, I don't want to see them. Nothing more to discuss. You tell them."

I said: "I have told them. At least you must write to them. Then they will take your word as final."

The Tunku went off to his desk and wrote a letter to Chin Chye, which he handed to me, saying: "Here, give this to him. There is no need to discuss anything. It is finished."

The Tunku's unsealed letter read:


"Dear Chin Chye, I am writing to tell you that I have given the matter of our break with Singapore my utmost consideration and I find that in the interest of our friendship and the security and peace of Malaysia as a whole, there is absolutely no other way out. If I were strong enough and able to exercise complete control of the situation I might perhaps have delayed action, but I am not, and so while I am able to counsel tolerance and patience I think the amicable settlement of our differences in this way is the only possible way out. I request you most earnestly to agree.

Yours sincerely,
Tunku Abdul Rahman"

 SEP 18 1998


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