Cliffhanger endings, political exposes

A reprint of The Battle For Merger was launched on Thursday. The new book contains transcripts of the 12 radio talks given by Mr Lee Kuan Yew between September and October 1961. In those talks, he explained why Singapore's best course of action lay in merger with Malaya at that time. Reproduced here are the new message from Mr Lee, historian Albert Lau giving the historical context for these talks, and excerpts from two talks. Published by the National Archives of Singapore and Straits Times Press, the book is available for $32.50 (before GST) at major bookstores.

Foreword by Lee Kuan Yew

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The story of merger, our ejection from Malaysia in 1965 and our subsequent struggles to survive is well known. Less well known are the crucial years of 1961-1962, when the PAP Government was in a precarious position, and the future of Singapore hung in the balance.

The story is worth retelling.

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. 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.

We calculated that harrying the people into merger would not work.

What was needed was a compelling message; one delivered in a way that would linger and make an impression. There was no Internet and no social media then - not even television. I chose the most effective medium available at the time to speak directly to the people: Radio could reach virtually every corner of the island through multilingual broadcasts. This was how most people got their news then.

Each of my talks was broadcast in the main three languages on the same evening - Mandarin at 6.45pm, English at 7.30pm and Malay at 9pm. All were broadcast in the space of less than a month. This meant 36 broadcasts in all, broadcasting nine times a week.

It was a gruelling experience. Apart from struggling with my speeches in Malay and Mandarin, I had to write the last four speeches in between the recording sessions. In between broadcasts, I was spent. I recovered my energy by sleeping on the studio floor in between the recordings.

In opening each talk, I chose to dispense with preliminaries or pleasantries. There was no rhetorical fanfare and I kept political jargon to the absolute minimum. I wanted to break down the arguments in terms that the layman of the 1960s could understand. It was imperative to emphasise in plain language the urgency of the political situation.

But I also took care to speak calmly. Causing alarm would only have played into the hands of the communists and their proxies agitating against merger. 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.

The talks were covered extensively in the English-language and vernacular press. The revelations made - particularly about the communists - caused a stir. Some political figures I had named were incensed and demanded redress. But there were no libel suits. Those I had singled out knew I had the facts on my side.

After the last broadcast, Radio Singapore invited political figures mentioned in the talks to take part in a series of radio forums. It was important to have reasoned discussion, and not allow the pro-communists to dictate the mode and manner of discussion.

If given the chance to have their own airtime, they would have tried to use the opportunity to rabble-rouse. They were masters at manipulating such settings and turning them to their advantage.

The radio talks were only the opening salvo in the battle for merger. But their effectiveness was a key reason why the referendum for merger in 1962 went decisively in the PAP's favour. Our vision for merger found support with more than 70 per cent of those who voted. The Barisan Sosialis' "blank vote" campaign could muster only 25 per cent support. When people digested the referendum result, they took heart, and were more prepared to give open support to the PAP.

People may ask what would have happened to Singapore if the Barisan Sosialis had won, and if there had been no merger. This is a parlour game for those who have the luxury of engaging in armchair debates. The founding generation of leaders did not have this luxury. We knew we were in a fight to the death against a formidable adversary. We had been allied with them in an open front to fight the British and knew how strong they were. We knew what would happen if the communists had prevailed. The PAP and its sympathisers would have been the first to be liquidated.

Having fought so hard for merger, what we did not expect was that in Malaysia, the non-Malays would be treated differently from the Malays. So from a battle of merger, it became a fight for equality between all races in Malaysia.

This again was a fight that we believed in; but this time, we could not win it. As a result, we were forced to leave Malaysia and had independence thrust on us.

The world and Singapore have changed a great deal since the events recounted in this book.

The new media is displacing the old. Politicians no longer choose the radio to get their message across, and the young do not use the medium. But if the young read this book and understand what was at stake, why and how we stayed the course, then the reprint would have achieved something.

Before it is too late, younger Singaporeans should also speak to the remaining members of the pioneer generation who lived through those times, in order to get an appreciation of our past. This is a generation that believed in me and my "Old Guard" colleagues because they saw us stand up and fight back against the communists and later the communalists. We refused to be cowed and thus won the confidence of this generation, which went on to help us build modern Singapore. Without their support in those crucial years, I do not think Singapore would have made it.