Understanding the conflicts that shaped Singapore’s decolonisation

Academic Views / Thursday, May 9th, 2024

Moreover, the dominance of elite, English-language sources has limited the historiography to a narrow and privileged point of view. The 1957 census records that a mere 0.2% of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese spoke English as a first language, with more speaking Malay as a first language (1.04%). The most spoken languages were Hokkien, Teochew, and Malay. Only 21.0% of people 10 years and older could read and write any English.[2]

Likewise, the capitalist and colonial elite were a tiny minority. In 1957, 19% of Singapore households and 25% of individuals (over 360,000 people) were officially in poverty. Unemployment was rampant — only 54.3% of the population 15 years and above in 1957 were gainfully employed. Even then, they lacked fair wages and basic labour rights.[3] Naturally, workers flocked to the labour movement, which was underpinned by socialist ideas for ending colonial exploitation and creating a fairer society.

Thus, to understand this time, we must take into account Chinese language sources, the writings of trade unions, and the writings of left-wing socialist intellectuals. These sources represent the vast majority of the popular articulation of nationalism in Singapore.

The “Malayan Left”

My book, Nationalism and Decolonisation in Singapore: The Malayan Generation, 1953-63, draws on these sources to focus on a loose coalition that I term the “Malayan Left”. This was fundamentally an alliance between the Chinese-speaking, the working class, and left-wing professionals and intellectuals. These overlapping groups were united by shared experiences – of socio-cultural and linguistic discrimination, and of class and economic exploitation. They also shared ideological approaches on anti-colonialism, socialism, and Malayan nationalism.

The relationship to the Federation of Malaya was also important. Before World War II, people in Singapore only knew a borderless Malaya that stretched from Perlis in the north to Singapore in the south. The partition of Malaya in 1946, separating Singapore from the rest of the peninsula, traumatically divided families. Many wished for reunification. Singapore’s decolonisation struggle thus focused on seeking independence as part of a reunified Malaya.

The nationalist movement was overwhelmingly progressive, socialist, and Malayan in its orientation — hence, Malayan and Left. But they were by no means a homogenous group. Everyone had different answers to the dominant questions of period. The main determining factor of how an individual behaved in Singapore’s decolonisation struggle is how they perceived and experienced colonialism and how they defined Malayan nationalism, and everyone perceived these issues differently. Many people changed their views as circumstances changed or as they changed. To understand them, we need to investigate their values and interests. When we do so, a very different story emerges to the official historiography.

Singapore’s nationalists agreed that Singapore would be a Malayan socialist country, but no one could agree on what those terms meant. We had no sense of ourselves as an independent country, only as a British colony. So as independence approached, fundamental questions that shaped the political discourse were about what post-independence Singapore was going to be like.

What is our national identity? Does Malayan mean a Malay country, or a multiracial country? What language do we use to teach children in schools? Do we preserve the same fundamental structure of colonialism, with a small European and Asian elite? Or do we aim to end all discrimination and exploitation and strive for equity and justice among its people?

And how do we achieve this? Do we gradually introduce new laws and let people slowly evolve and change, or do we do some sort of drastic change, forcing people to throw out old culture and adopt new ways of thinking? Do we do so democratically or do we impose this on people?

These conflicts overwhelmingly stemmed from four major schisms in Singapore’s society: race, class, language/culture, and the meaning of self-determination. I present three case studies here to help us understand their complexity.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bandung Declaration enshrine the right of every community, or person, to practice their own culture and speak their own language. How can this be reconciled with the idea that a country must be a nation-state and have a single national identity? If Singaporeans decide we must have one common identity in order to be a viable country, then what should that identity be?

Singapore was a plural society constructed by colonialism. Different linguistic and cultural groups met only in the marketplace. There was no established single identity. The British argued that Singapore’s post-independence national language should be English, as a “neutral” language. But that would favour English-speakers, including the British. Malayan nationalists rejected this. They argued that Singapore was historically a Malay island and if we wanted to reunify with the rest of Malaya, we needed to be Malay speaking. But beyond this one aspect, no one could not agree on what Malayan identity should be, or how to achieve it.

The Malayan Left generally believed in working towards a fusion of all identities based upon the shared experience of nationhood. Differences should be slowly ironed out through negotiation and discussion. They believed that all differences were surmountable through negotiation.

Alternative positions were politically unpalatable. A majority driven identity would lead to tyranny of the majority, which the Malayan Left morally opposed. Furthermore, this would likely lead to a Chinese-based identity, which would undermine reunification as the conservative UMNO leadership in Kuala Lumpur would find that politically unpalatable. If Malayan identity was based on a particular ethnic group, every other ethnic group would be discriminated against. The only politically feasible position for the Malayan Left was to argue for a negotiated fusion creating a new culture.

This helps explain the split between three leading Indians of the nationalist anticolonial movement. S Woodhull agreed with the Malayan Left: as a people we had to fight for the ideal, and establish the principle of equality, even if we inevitably fall short. Devan Nair agreed with Lee’s faction: fusion would lead to Chinese dominance, and a strong state was the solution. James Puthucheary understood both points of view: he agreed that fusion was next to impossible, but he also he saw imposition of identity as colonialist, so he tried very hard to bridge the differences. Three men with similar backgrounds, all intellectuals, involved in the labour movement, and socialist; and yet, they arrived at very different points of view.

This difficulty remains today. While speaking on this issue in Singapore, I asked audiences to vote on a number of statements.[4] They overwhelmingly voted in favour of both these statements:

“Every linguistic and ethnic group has the right to speak their own language and practice their own culture” (98% agreed)

“A country must have a single national identity” (73% agreed)

Yet these statements are mutually exclusive, if a single national identity means that everyone speaks the same language and practices the same culture. Likewise, audiences voted in favour of both the following statements, despite the apparent disagreement between them:

“A country’s national identity should be based on a fusion of the identity of all the people in the country” (64% agreed)

“Creating a neutral national identity based on a fusion of all the cultures of all the people in the country is impossible as certain groups will automatically dominate because they are more numerous/richer/etc.” (73% agreed)

With all these difficulties, should the government then decide, as Lee’s faction argued? No, said my audiences. They overwhelmingly voted against the statement “As a true fusion of cultures is impossible, the fairest way forward is for the government to decide the national identity and force all citizens to assimilate into the national identity” (86% disagreed, 14% agreed).

If we reject the heavy hand of the state, do we have the courage and capability to resolve this ourselves?

B.   How do we end discrimination?

Another major conflict concerned systemic discrimination against different racial and linguistic communities. Everyone who was not part of the British colonial elite was discriminated against to a greater or lesser extent. How does a state address historical systemic discrimination when almost everyone believes they are victims of it? To complicate matters further, the group with the strongest case for being the most victimised were the Chinese, the majority of the population.

The Chinese-speaking in Singapore had been actively and systematically discriminated against since the 1930s. The British believed them to be fundamentally disloyal to Malaya. In the 1950s, the British had a deliberate policy of discrimination against Chinese schools to try to shut them down. The British publicly attacked Chinese culture as prone to conspiracy and violence.

Equality for Chinese language and culture was thus a major driver of anti-colonialism in the Chinese community. Their own private university, Nanyang University (Nantah), was founded in large part because the University of Malaya heavily discriminated against Chinese-language middle school graduates.  

On the face of it, this seems straightforward. The Chinese-speaking were not asking for special treatment, just equality and an end to discrimination against them. However, for other ethnic/linguistic communities, the numerical and economic strength of the Chinese community led to fears that equality for the Chinese languages would lead automatically to dominance by the Chinese languages. For other linguistic groups, ending discrimination meant that their languages and cultures had to be given an advantage in order to achieve an equal footing, in order to have equity.

Again, any other position was untenable. Chinese community leaders believed in the Malayan identity. Nantah taught Malay as the national language. The leaders also understood arguments that Chinese equality would likely lead to Malay and Indian subordination. However, if they accepted that Malay, Tamil, and other languages had to be given advantages for the sake of equity, this set Singapore off on a slippery slope. Breaking from the principle of striving for complete equality meant accepting that discrimination could be tolerated in some circumstances. From there it was a short step to actively introducing discrimination for the sake of the common good and to accepting that discrimination is necessary, or even a positive thing. This was the same situation Chinese-speakers had endured under colonialism.

Short-term affirmative action could address immediate problems, but it also emphasised differences and introduced new grievances, and could make bridging divides far more difficult in the future. Malaysia, for example, introduced policies to address historic discrimination, but as a result race is deeply entrenched in ordinary political discourse. In Singapore, affirmative action also exists via the “CMIO” model[5] and differential treatment of races. As long as we officially endorse discrimination based on race, we accept that discrimination can and should happen. On the other hand, if we aim for a post-racial society, we risk violating the right of people to have their own identity. Race is deeply interwoven with culture and language, which are deeply central to a person’s identity and notion of self.

This conundrum also stumped my audiences.[6] They overwhelmingly agreed that “There are racial/ethnic/linguistic groups that have been systemically discriminated against in the past, and we should address these injustices” (95% agreed).

How to address these injustices proved more controversial. I asked them to consider the idea of giving these groups “special advantages, such as affirmative action”[7], for a limited time. 61% agreed with this idea, and only 41% believed that it would itself be a new form of systemic discrimination. Yet 67% also believed this proposal would “make racial tensions worse because other groups who feel deserving but are not given the advantages will become angry and resentful”. At the same time, only 33% believed that the risk of increasing divisions meant that “we should not address previous systemic discrimination but just wipe the slate clean and strive for equal and fair treatment for all individuals going forward”.

The overall picture that emerges from these votes shows conflicting tensions and uncertainties in people’s beliefs about what should be done and how to understand the potential effects of any measures. 

C.   How do we build a democratic society based on justice and equality?

What is democracy?  Is it enough that we are ruled by our fellow citizens? Or is a democratic society one where we are free of oppression, exploitation, and one where all citizens have a voice? This issue was perhaps the most divisive of the schisms revealed during the decolonisation struggle. It became intimately tied up with the attitudes of specific leaders.

Lee Kuan Yew subscribed more to the first view: rule by fellow citizens suffices. As a Cambridge-educated lawyer, he was already elite in Singapore society, just below the British colonial establishment. His colleagues were mostly English-educated Oxford-, Cambridge-, and London-educated lawyers, doctors, and economists. Virtually none had experienced detention without trial or been tortured by the British colonial government. Lee had, even before leaving the UK as a student in 1950, expressed elitist views that he took to their logical extreme with his eugenicist policies in the 1980s. Never a man for self-doubt, he believed that Singapore’s problems could be solved if people simply trusted him and got out of his way.

Naturally, the Malayan Left disagreed. They were composed of men and women who had been locked up, tortured, abused, discriminated against, humiliated, and treated as sub-human, by the British. To them, a chief manifestation of colonialism was the inability of Malayans to determine their own future. Thus, ending colonialism had to include the achievement of self-determination: the right of Malayans to control their own lives and participate in their own governance.

Self-determination was the Malayan Left’s answer to the challenges of decolonisation. The principle of self-determination is the right to choose your own identity, your own government, and your own way of life. To ensure that people could participate in their own governance and make their voices heard, the Malayan Left sought to organise people into associations of mutual interests that could elect their own representatives. A collective of these representatives could in turn elect representatives, who might be sent to a state-wide collective to represent all the associations below it. This was akin to the trade union model, where individual unions affiliated (and elected representatives) to an industry-wide union, which in turn affiliated and elected representatives to a national congress of trades union.

In these associations, the Malayan Left attempted to bridge the diverse interests of Singapore’s people via open meetings and town hall-style meetings. They placed an emphasis on consensus and cohesion and sought to create a process of debate and discussion, a model which I term “associational democracy”, to permit all voices to be heard.

The process of associational democracy was undoubtedly slow. It required patient and painstaking bridge building and consensus building. The Malayan Left has disagreements about the world they aspired to, but they believed that this process, and the shared experience of anti-colonial struggle, would eventually forge a shared national identity and shared national agenda that transcended race, language, and class. To achieve a genuinely representative identity and agenda, all citizens had to be given a stake in the country. A process had to be built through which all voices could be adequately heard, and all people had to have the opportunity to participate in collective decision-making. Through this process, the Malayan Left hoped to build a new Malaya.

The official historiography of Singapore often portrays the main activity of the left-wing anti-colonial movement as protests and riots. In reality, the movement was characterised by endless meetings, often painfully slow. Sometimes agreement could not be found. Lim Chin Siong’s ability to patiently sit and listen for hours led to his nickname, the “nodding buddha”.[8] But through this process, the Malayan Left, led by Lim, built the biggest nationalist movement Singapore has ever seen. This got their party, the PAP, elected in a landslide in 1959.

Within a year of winning power in 1959, Lee began to behave in ways heavily reminiscent of British colonialism. He adopted paternalistic arguments about elite governance, dismissed demands for transparency and accountability and ignored the popular will. He perpetuated the most egregious manifestations of colonialism, including keeping many comrades detained without trial. Lee had valid concerns that what the Malayan Left proposed simply would not work; but Lee was also impatient, arrogant, and unwilling to share power, explain himself, or seek consensus.

For the Malayan Left, seeing Lee behave as the British had, including using many of the same principles and values to justify his colonial behaviour, was simply unacceptable. If colonialism means perpetuating discrimination or oppression against a people, then it makes no difference whether a foreign government or a local government carries out the oppression or discrimination, or if the oppressor has a white, brown, or yellow face. This became the most fundamental debate between nationalist leaders in Singapore in the 1950s. Is discrimination acceptable from someone who is local? Is it okay to oppress your own people by arguing that it is for the “greater good”?

When I posed this same question to my audiences, there was consensus and clarity.[9] They overwhelmingly agreed that “All people have the right to govern themselves, i.e. to have self-determination” (95%). Only 26% agreed that “Colonialism is only a political arrangement: if Singapore becomes politically independent, and our leaders are Singaporeans, colonialism ends, even if economic and social discrimination continue”. Correspondingly, 81% agreed that “Colonialism is all forms of exploitation: Singapore can only end colonialism if we root out all forms of discrimination between all people. Singaporean leaders can be colonialists too, if they perpetuate discrimination and exploitation in Singapore”. 95% agreed that “If a foreign government deprives you of self-determination, then you have the right to fight that government to achieve self-determination” and 93% agreed that the same was true when considering “your own government”.[10]

This echoed the position of the Malayan Left, and demonstrates why the nationalist movement turned against Lee Kuan Yew. More importantly, so did the voting public. In 1961, the PAP lost two by-elections, leading to its split and the creation of the Barisan Sosialis. With the 1963 General Elections looming, a desperate Lee gambled on the Federation of Malaya as a way of outflanking the Barisan Socialis and winning the next elections.[11]

Contested Nationalisms

Many former colonies, like Malaysia, Myanmar, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, are arbitrary plots of land where very diverse peoples with different races, languages, and cultures ended up due to colonialism. So too with Singapore. Consequently, when we approached independence, all of us faced a common central challenge: how do you create a cohesive country when everyone is so different? We, and most other former colonies, face the same challenge today.

There is no easy or obvious solution. In Singapore, the conflicts over what happens after independence stemmed from four major schisms in society: race, class, language/culture, and the meaning of self-determination.

The Malayan Left offered what they believed to be the only moral, reasonable, solution, that also protected the rights and dignity of the people of Singapore and upheld the principles of equality and self-determination. This solution was associational democracy, underpinned by a process that sought to negotiate differences and build consensus. It did not guarantee success, but it was the only way they could think of to resolve differences that respected people’s rights. However, their destruction by a combination of the British, Federation, and PAP governments meant the end of this vision and strategy. Instead, the Lee Kuan Yew-led vision of society prevailed in Singapore: elite-imposed solutions, combined with the silencing of those who imagine differently.

The schisms thus remain. The PAP’s solutions are not guaranteed to be optimal, or even desirable, as they are limited by the same narrow perspectives and incentive structures that limit our historiography. Their silencing of dissent prevents better solutions from arising. But the urgency of reconciling our differences only grows. Once the PAP loses the capacity or willingness to continue its oppression, the disagreements that underpin the schisms may burst into conflict. It is far better for us to begin a process to resolve these today, while Singapore is still stable and prosperous. The first step is to recognise that it is these schisms that underpinned our conflicts in the past, rather than simplistic narratives about communism. Only by recognising the problem can we heal the wounds of our past and start creating a better future.

Thum Ping Tjin is a Singaporean historian, and founder and Managing Director of New Naratif, a movement for democracy in Southeast Asia. 


[1] Siew Min Sai and Jianli Huang, ‘The “Chinese-educated” political vanguards: Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy & Jek Yueng Thong’, in Peng Er Lam and Kevin Y.L. Tan (eds.), Lee’s Lieutenants (Singapore: Allen & Unwin, 1999), p. 132.

[2] SC Chua, Report on the Census of Population 1957 (Singapore: Government Printer, 1964) p. 163. At that time, 73.2% of the Chinese population were born in Malaya (68% in Singapore), so they were legally British subjects. 

[3] Chua, 1957 Census, p. 163.

[4] For the collected responses to the first set of statements, please see https://eu.jotform.com/report/24010302702102911. About 200 people out of a total of 350 total attendees across 5 events completed the entire survey.

[5] The requirement that all citizens must have a racial identity that conforms to the categories of “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, or one of the “Other” races.

[6] https://eu.jotform.com/report/24011866653305212

[7] “Racial/ethnic/linguistic groups that have been systemically discriminated against in the past should be given special advantages (eg “affirmative action”) for a limited time to make up for it”.

[8] James Joseph Puthucheary, Oral History Interview, National Archives of Singapore, Accession No 000570, Reel 4.

[9] https://eu.jotform.com/report/24011821536504512

[10] “If your own government deprives you of self-determination, then you have the right to fight your own government to achieve self-determination”.

[11] For the rest of the story, please read my book!