Gruelling series of broadcasts

In a new message on the genesis of the series of 12 radio talks to convince Singaporeans to back the idea of a merger with Malaya, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew shared the backdrop against which the broadcasts were made.

In 1961, the possibility that merger with Malaya would happen was remote. The majority of the Chinese-educated population in Singapore were unsure that the People's Action Party (PAP) government would prevail over the communists.

"The idea of a sovereign, independent Singapore that could survive on its own was not yet something that had widespread currency," he said in a message in the reprinted edition of The Battle For Merger.

"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," he said.

"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."

Mr Lee and colleagues in the PAP felt something had to be done to persuade the people that 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."

With no TV, much less the Internet, the most effective medium to reach the public was radio.

To concentrate on crafting his first eight speeches away from the heightened political scene in Singapore, Mr Lee holed up at Cluny Lodge, a government bungalow in 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 Mandarin broadcasts from Mr Jek Yeun Thong, who held various posts during his years in Cabinet.

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

He delivered each talk in three languages on the same evening, within three hours: in Mandarin first, then English and Malay. The talks were also re-broadcast in Tamil, Hokkien and Cantonese.

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

The broadcasts, delivered calmly with minimum jargon and in plain language for "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."

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

yanliang@sph.com.sg