Battle For Merger broadcasts by Lee Kuan Yew were exhausting but had desired effect

Mr Lee Kuan Yew addresses the inaugural meeting of the PAP held at the Victoria Memorial Hall on Nov 21, 1954. He said that the party would strive to end colonialism by establishing an independent national state of Malaya, consisting of the Federatio
Mr Lee Kuan Yew addresses the inaugural meeting of the PAP held at the Victoria Memorial Hall on Nov 21, 1954. He said that the party would strive to end colonialism by establishing an independent national state of Malaya, consisting of the Federation of Malaya and Singapore.  -- PHOTO: ST PRESS

SINGAPORE - In a new message that tells of the genesis of the series of 12 radio talks in 1961 designed to convince Singaporeans to back the idea of a merger with Malaya, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew shares the back story to the reprint of the book, Battle For Merger, which is a collection of the speeches he made.

In 1961, the possibility that merger with Malaya would take place was remote. The majority of the Chinese-educated population in Singapore were unsure that the PAP government would prevail over the communists.

It was a time when the Cold War between communism and the free world was at its height, proxy wars and ideological battles were being fought - and communism was in the ascendency here.

As Mr Lee put in the message, events in the crucial years of 1961 and 1962, when the PAP government was in a precarious position, and the future of Singapore hung in the balance, are less well known to Singaporeans today.

"Fighting for independence through merger with Malaya had always been part of the PAP platform. It was on this basis that we were elected in 1959. We needed merger in order to remain viable. We needed a common market, access to the Malaysian hinterland, and also basic supplies like water," he writes.

"The idea of a sovereign, independent Singapore that could survive on its own was not yet something that had widespread currency.

"Until 1961, the goal of merger seemed remote. It is difficult to convey now how much the political winds at the time seemed to be blowing to the left. Sitting on the fence, large swathes of the Chinese-educated ground had little confidence in the long-term prospects of the moderate socialist PAP, thinking that the communists and radical left would be the ultimate winners.

"For their part, the communists knew full well that merger with Malaya would deal a fatal blow to their chances of capturing Singapore politically. PAP leaders saw first-hand the anti-merger agitation stirred up by the communists and their trade union proxies, following the pro-communists' break with the PAP in July 1961.

"Something had to be done to persuade the people there was a viable alternative: a non-communist, democratic socialist PAP in charge of a Singapore that was part of Malaysia. We had to expose the communist manoeuvrings and show what they were up to in reality. Some effort was needed to convince the people where the long-term political tide was heading. We had to show confidence and persuade the people that ultimately, and despite appearances, it was the PAP which would hold the winning cards."

With no television, much less the Internet, the most effective medium to reach out to the public was by radio, and that was why he chose it as his platform to win over hearts and minds.

To concentrate on crafting his first eight speeches away from the heightened political scene  in Singapore, Mr Lee holed up at Cluny Lodge, a Singapore government bungalow in the Cameron Highlands with his family. As he spoke, his personal assistant recorded his notes.

Back in Singapore, Mr Lee received help with the translation and diction of his broadcasts from Jek Yeun Thong, who held various portfolios during his years in Cabinet.

Mr Lee's series talks were then given on a gruelling schedule - three times a week and over the space of less than a month.

He would deliver each talk in three main languages on the same evening, within the space of three hours. The Mandarin speech first, followed by English and Malay.

The talks were also re-broadcast in Tamil, Hokkien and Cantonese.

Mr Lee wrote his last four speeches between recording sessions, an exhausting schedule: "In between broadcasts, I was spent. I recovered my energy by sleeping on the studio floor in between the recordings."

But the broadcasts, delivered calmly, with minimum jargon and in plain language to reach "the layman of the 1960s", struck a chord.

"In exposing the communists, I chose to reveal facts that were not previously known and show their behind-the-scenes machinations. This held the interest of the audience, as did my practice of ending each broadcast with a cliffhanger, giving a hint of what I would disclose in the next episode," he adds.

These and other revelations had the desired impact. At the 1962 referendum on merger, 71 per cent of Singaporeans voted in favour of union with Malaya.

yanliang@sph.com.sg