What really happened in KL 45 years ago?

August 16, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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T J S George recounted in his book Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore that the Tunku was more surprised than he was moved when he saw LKY in tears over the break-up.
Singapore Democrats

Now that the festivities for the National Day is over, it may be an appropriate time to re-visit, in a more sober manner, the matter of how Singapore gained its independence four-and-a-half decades ago.

Singaporeans, young and old, have been told that it was Malaysia who had kicked us out of the federation in 1965 after the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, then prime minister of Malaysia, felt it was no longer viable – even dangerous – for Singapore to remain as part of the country. 
A young and teary eyed Lee Kuan Yew who was then prime minister of Singapore (his title itself seemed out of place as it was difficult to see how one country could have two prime ministers) mourned the expulsion: “For me it is a moment of anguish. All my life… my whole adult life…I have believed in merger…”

There have been some revelations since that fateful day that raise questions about some long-held notions about the split.

Author T J S George, for example, recounted in his book Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore published in 1974 that the Tunku was more surprised than he was moved when he saw Mr Lee in tears over the break-up. The Tungku said: “I don’t know why Mr Lee acted like that…he was quite pleased about [the split].”

Mr George added that Mr Lee had gone to Kuala Lumpur himself to see the Malaysian prime minister about Singapore’s stormy relations with its neighbour. A day later, he called some of his cabinet colleagues (the late) S Rajaratnam, then Minister for Culture, and Dr Toh Chin Chye, former deputy prime minister and the founding chairman of the PAP.

Mr Lee had called for them to meet him in Kuala Lumpur. The author writes that Mr Lee arranged it so that his two ministers did not travel together. The question is why. Unless Mr Lee did not want them to anticipate the development and to discuss the matter?

Whatever it was, Dr Toh was, just like the Tungku, befuddled when he saw Mr Lee’s anguished TV reaction to the split: “I don’t know why he was crying.”

Dr Toh, other than Mr Lee, is the sole survivor of the meeting in Kuala Lumpur. He is privy to all the goings-on when the decision was made for Singapore and Malaysia to go separate ways. If anyone knows what’s going on, it is him.

But the former deputy prime minister isn’t talking and will probably carry the secret to his grave. Dr Toh had a falling out with Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the 1980s and was relegated to to the backbench. In fact Dr Toh had subsequently thrown his support behind Mr Francis Seow when the former solicitor-general contested as an opposition candidate in the 1988 elections.

More recently, The Online Citizen reported that Mr Lee had warned the press not to print pictures of him smiling when he made the announcement of the separation.

That’s an odd threat. Why would Mr Lee be afraid of being photographed smiling if he was sorrowful?

Most recently at Dr Goh Keng Swee’s funeral, the Minister Mentor revealed that it was Goh who had carried out negotiations with Malaysia and that it was Goh who had made the decision to take Singapore out of the federation.

But Goh was not the prime minister. How is it that he became the one to conduct the negotations leading to the separation? A journalist asked why Mr Lee revealed this piece of information only when Goh was dead (see here).

Clearly the story that Malaysia kicked Singapore out of the union and the role Mr Lee played in it is a lot more complex than what we have been told thus far. Questions abound but, unfortunately, answers are not forthcoming.