In 1959, Singapore was granted internal self-government by Britain as part of the Malaysian Federation. The Lim Yew Hock government in the late 1950s continued to make further progress on issues related to Singapore's self-government. A Citizenship Ordinance passed in 1957 provided Singapore citizenship for all born in Singapore or the Federation of Malaya and for British citizens of two years' residence; naturalization was offered to those who had resided in Singapore for ten years and would swear loyalty to the government. The Legislative Assembly voted to complete Malayanization of the civil service within four years beginning in 1957. The Education Ordinance passed in 1957 gave parity to the four main languages, English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. By 1958 the Ministry of Education had opened nearly 100 new elementary schools, 11 new secondary schools, and a polytechnic school and set up training courses for Malay and Tamil teachers. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Lim Yew Hock led the Singapore delegation to the third round of constitutional talks in April 1958. The talks resulted in an agreement on a constitution for a State of Singapore with full powers of internal government. Britain retained control over foreign affairs and external defense, with internal security left in the hands of the Internal Security Council. Only in the case of dire emergency could Britain suspend the constitution and assume power. In August 1958, the British Parliament changed the status of Singapore from a colony to a state, and elections for the fifty- one-member Legislative Assembly were scheduled for May 1959. *

Despite the signs of economic progress, the PAP leaders believed that Singapore's survival depended on merger with Malaysia. "Major changes in our economy are only possible if Singapore and the Federation are integrated as one economy," remarked Goh Keng Swee in 1960. "Nobody in his senses believes that Singapore alone, in isolation, can be independent," stated an official government publication that same year. The procommunists within the party, however, opposed merger because they saw little chance of establishing a procommunist government in Singapore as long as Kuala Lumpur controlled internal security in the new state. Meanwhile, the leaders of the conservative UMNO government in Kuala Lumpur, led by Tengku Abdul Rahman, were becoming increasingly resistant to any merger with Singapore under the PAP, which they considered to be extremely left wing. *

Moreover, Malayan leaders feared merger with Singapore because it would result in a Chinese majority in the new state. When a fiercely contested Singapore by-election in April 1961 threatened to bring down the Lee Kuan Yew government, however, Tengku Abdul Rahman was forced to consider the possibility that the PAP might be replaced with a procommunist government, a "Cuba across the causeway."

Singapore and the Creation of the Federation of Malaya

Accordingly, on May 27, 1961, in a speech in Kuala Lumpur to the Foreign Correspondents' Association, Tengku Abdul Rahman made a surprise proposal of an association of states that would include the Federation of Malaya, the British Borneo territories, and Singapore. In this proposed Malaysia, the Malay population of Sarawak and North Borneo (now Sabah) would offset numerically the Singapore Chinese, and the problem of a possible "Cuba across the causeway" would be solved. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The proposal, however, led almost immediately to a split between the moderate and procommunist forces within the PAP. In July Lee demanded and received a vote of confidence on the issue of merger from the Legislative Assembly. Following the vote, Lee expelled sixteen rebel PAP assemblymen from the party along with more than twenty local officials of PAP. In August the rebel PAP assemblymen formed a new opposition party, the Barisan Sosialis (The Socialist Front) with Lim Chin Siong as secretary general. The new party had considerable support among PAP local officials as well as at the grass-roots level. Of the fifty- one branch committees, thirty-five defected to Barisan, which also controlled two-thirds of organized labor. *

The battle lines were clearly drawn when Lee Kuan Yew announced a referendum on the question of merger to be held in September 1962. Lee launched a campaign of thirty-six radio broadcasts in three languages to gain support for the merger, which was opposed by the Barisan Sosialis as a "sell-out." Of the three merger plans offered on the referendum, the PAP plan received 70 percent of the votes, the two other plans less than 2 percent each, and 26 percent of the ballots were left blank. *

Having failed to stop the merger at home, the Barisan Sosialis turned its efforts abroad, joining with left-wing opposition parties in Malaya, Sarawak, Brunei, and Indonesia. These parties were opposed to the concept of Malaysia as a "neocolonialist plot," whereby the British would retain power in the region. President Sukarno of Indonesia, who had entertained dreams of the eventual establishment of an Indonesia Raya (Greater Indonesia) comprising Indonesia, Borneo, and Malaya, also opposed the merger; and in January 1963 he announced a policy of Confrontation (Konfrontasi) against the proposed new state. The Philippines, having revived an old claim to Sabah, also opposed the formation of Malaysia. The foreign ministers of Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines met in June 1963 in an attempt to work out some solution. Malaya agreed to allow the United Nations (UN) to survey the people of Sabah and Sarawak on the issue, although it refused to be bound by the outcome. Brunei opted not to join Malaysia because it was unable to reach agreement with Kuala Lumpur on the questions of federal taxation of Brunei's oil revenue and of the sultan of Brunei's relation to the other Malay sultans. *

Singapore as Part of Malaysia

Between 1963 and 1965, Singapore was an integral part of the Federation of Malaysia. Union with Malaya had always been a goal of Lee Kuan Yew and the moderate wing of the PAP. Once the PAP ranks were firmly under Lee’s control, he met with the leaders of Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak to sign the Malaysia Agreement on July 9, 1963, under which the independent nation of Malaysia was formed.

On September 16, 1963, Singapore, the Malaysian peninsula and states of Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo were united into one nation called the Federation of Malaysia. The sultanate of Brunei later broke away from the federation. Singapore remained part of Malaysia for two years. When it became clear that the interests of mainly-Chinese Singapore and mainly-Muslim Malaysia were different, the two countries parted ways. The split was for the most part amicable. The Republic of Singapore was officially created on August 9, 1965.

The leaders of Singapore, Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak signed the Malaysia Agreement on July 9, 1963, under which the Federation of Malaysia was scheduled to come into being on August 31. Tengku Abdul Rahman changed the date to September 16, however, to allow the UN time to complete its survey. On August 31, Lee declared Singapore to be independent with the PAP government to act as trustees for fifteen days until the formation of Malaysia on September 16. On September 3, Lee dissolved the Legislative Assembly and called for a new election on September 21, to obtain a new mandate for the PAP government. In a bitterly contested campaign, the Barisan Sosialis denounced the merger as a "sell-out" and pledged increased support for Chinese education and culture. About half of Barisan's Central Executive Committee, including Lim Chin Siong, were in jail, however, following mass arrests the previous February by the Internal Security Council of political, labor, and student leaders who had supported a rebellion in Brunei. The mass arrests, although undertaken by the British and Malayans, benefited the PAP because there was less opposition. The party campaigned on its economic and social achievements and the achievement of merger. Lee visited every corner of the island in search of votes, and the PAP won thirty-seven of the fifty-one seats while the Barisan Sosialis won only thirteen. [Source: Library of Congress *]

On September 14, the UN mission had reported that the majority of the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak were in favor of joining Malaysia. Sukarno immediately broke off diplomatic and trade relations between Indonesia and Malaysia, and Indonesia intensified its Confrontation operations. Singapore was particularly hard hit by the loss of its Indonesian barter trade. Indonesian commandos conducted armed raids into Sabah and Sarawak, and Singaporean fishing boats were seized by Indonesian gunboats. Indonesian terrorists bombed the Ambassador Hotel on September 24, beginning a year of terrorism and propaganda aimed at creating communal unrest in Singapore. The propaganda campaign was effective among Singapore Malays who had hoped that merger with Malaysia would bring them the same preferences in employment and obtaining business licenses that were given Malays in the Federation. When the PAP government refused to grant any economic advantages other than financial aid for education, extremist UMNO leaders from Kuala Lumpur and the Malay press whipped up antigovernment sentiment and racial and religious tension. *

The first year of merger was also disappointing for Singapore in the financial arena. No progress was made toward establishing a common market, which the four parties had agreed would take place over a twelve-year period in return for Singapore's making a substantial development loan to Sabah and Sarawak. Each side accused the other of delaying on carrying out the terms of the agreement. In December 1964, Kuala Lumpur demanded a higher percentage of Singapore's revenue in order to meet defense expenditures incurred fighting Confrontation and also threatened to close the Singapore branch of the Bank of China, which handled the financial arrangements for trade between Singapore and China as well as remittances. *

Race Riots in Singapore in 1964

The 1950s and 60s in Malaysia and Singapore were characterized by political battles between Chinese and Malays, violent race riots and street battles and a Communist insurgency that had racial and religious overtones. Singapore was embroiled in a fierce struggle between communists and Lee Kuan Yew's anticommunist People's Action Party.

There were two race riots in 1964. On July 21, 1964, fighting between Malay and Chinese youths during a Muslim procession celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday erupted into racial riots, in which twenty-three people were killed and hundreds injured. In September Indonesian agents provoked communal violence in which 12 people were killed and 100 were injured. Frustrated Malay immigrants sparked the riots. In Singapore, which normally prided itself on the peace and harmony among its various ethnic groups, shock and disbelief followed in the wake of the violence. Both Lee Kuan Yew and Tengku Abdul Rahman toured the island in an effort to restore calm, and they agreed to avoid wrangling over sensitive issues for two years.

Singapore is Kicked Out of Malaysia

In 1961, Singapore joined Malaya and merged with the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo to form Malaysia in 1963. However, the merger proved unsuccessful, and less than two years later on August 9, 1965, Singapore left Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign democratic nation. On December 22, 1965, Singapore finally became an independent republic.

Political tensions between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur also escalated as each began getting involved in the politics of the other. UMNO ran candidates in Singapore's September 1963 elections, and PAP challenged MCA Alliance candidates in the Malaysian general election in April 1964. UMNO was unable to win any seats in the Singapore election, and PAP won only one seat on the peninsula. The main result was increased suspicion and animosity between UMNO and PAP and their respective leaders. In April 1965, the four Alliance parties of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak merged to form a Malaysian National Alliance Party. The following month, the PAP and four opposition parties from Malaya and Sarawak formed the Malaysian Solidarity Convention, most of whose members were ethnic Chinese. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although the Malaysian Solidarity Convention claimed to be noncommunal, right-wing UMNO leaders saw it as a Chinese plot to take over control of Malaysia. In the following months, the situation worsened increasingly, with abusive speeches and writings on both sides. Faced with demands for the arrest of Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP leaders by UMNO extremists, and fearing further outbreaks of communal violence, Tengku Abdul Rahman decided to separate Singapore from Malaysia. Informed of his decision on August 6, Lee tried to work out some sort of compromise, without success. On August 9, with the Singapore delegates not attending, the Malaysian parliament passed a bill favoring separation 126 to 0. That afternoon, in a televised press conference, Lee declared Singapore a sovereign, democratic, and independent state. In tears he told his audience, "For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories." *

Singapore Becomes an Independent Nation

Lee declared Singapore’s independence from Britain on August 31, 1963; dissolved the Legislative Assembly; and called for an election to obtain a new mandate for the PAP pro-merger government. Many political opponents of the merger were jailed, and the PAP won a majority of seats in the assembly. Despite threats of military confrontation (Konfrontasi) from Indonesia and actual raids on Sabah and Sarawak by Indonesian commandos, the merger took place on September 16, 1963. In 1964, the British military withdrew from Singapore, leaving behind ports, roads, airports and other infrastructure projects that provided a firm foundation for their economy to take off.

Reaction to the sudden turn of events was mixed. Singapore's political leaders, most of whom were Malayan-born and still had ties there, had devoted their careers to winning independence for a united Singapore and Malaya. Although apprehensive about the future, most Singaporeans, however, were relieved that independence would probably bring an end to the communal strife and riots of the previous two years. Moreover, many Singaporean businessmen looked forward to being free of Kuala Lumpur's economic restrictions. Nonetheless, most continued to worry about the viability as a nation of a tiny island with no natural resources or adequate water supply, a population of nearly 2 million, and no defense capability of its own in the face of a military confrontation with a powerful neighboring country. Singaporeans and their leaders, however, rose to the occasion.

The new federation was based on an uneasy alliance between Malays and ethnic Chinese. Communal rioting ensued in various parts of the new nation, including usually well controlled Singapore. In the end, the merger failed. As a state, Singapore did not achieve the economic progress it had hoped for, and political tensions escalated between Chinese-dominated Singapore and Malay-dominated Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Fearing greater Singaporean dominance of the federation and further violence between the Muslim and Chinese communities, the government of Malaysia decided to separate Singapore from the fledgling federation.

After separation from Malaysia on August 9, 1965, Singapore was forced to accept the challenge of forging a viable nation—the Republic of Singapore—on a small island with few resources beyond the determination and talent of its people. When Singapore became independent few thought it would survive for long Under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP, the new nation met the challenge.

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Singapore, in fact, had so many problems on the eve of independence in 1965 that pundits predicted its early demise as a nation. A two-year federation with Malaysia had collapsed. The Chinese and Malay communities were at each others' throats. College campuses were roiled by leftist students. Communists had infiltrated the unions. A bomb claimed three lives in the inner city. On top of all that, Singapore had no army and was without resources or even room to grow. It had to import much of its water and food, producing little else beyond pigs and poultry and fruits and vegetables. Sewers overflowed in slums that reached across the island. Unemployment was 14 percent and rising; per capita income was less than $1,000 a year. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, September 2007]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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