Behind the scenes: What led to separation in 1965

Was Singapore expelled from the Malaysia federation or was the split based on mutual consent? A PhD student pieces together a behind-the-scenes version of events to suggest it was the latter.

On Aug 9, 1965, towards the end of a press conference after Singapore became independent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said: "There is nothing to be worried about. Many things will go on just as usual. But be firm, be calm. We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion."

Mr Lee's call for unity amid diversity in our multiracial society remains relevant half a century later. Fifty years on, as we near the jubilee year of Independence, it's timely to look back at events leading to the Aug 9 separation.

What were the events and the plans that led to that pivotal break?

Mr Lee Kuan Yew at a press conference at TV Singapore on the separation of Singapore from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew at a press conference at TV Singapore on the separation of Singapore from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965. ST FILE PHOTO

What happened behind the scenes? Was Singapore "booted out" by Malaysia or was it a mutually agreed decision?

While researching for my doctorate in history, I set myself the task of piecing together, from available records, a picture of what happened in the weeks leading up to Aug 9, 1965.


In July and September 1964, there were racial riots which led to damage, serious injuries and loss of lives in Singapore. On the economic front, the common market of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore did not materialise.

In November 1964, the then Malaysian Finance Minister Tan Siew Sin proposed raising an extra RM147 million in taxes.

This could have led to Singapore taxpayers contributing more than 35 per cent towards the federal budget, although the Singapore population comprised only about 17 per cent of the whole population in Malaysia at that time.

Furthermore, the proposed turnover and payroll tax would seriously affect businessmen in Singapore. The Malaysian Finance Minister also wanted to increase the contribution of Singapore to the federal government from 40 to 60 per cent of its revenue.

In addition, there were increasing tension and differences between the People's Action Party leaders in Singapore and the leaders in the Malaysian central government.

According to Ms Tan Siok Sun's biography, Goh Keng Swee: A Portrait, on Jan 22, 1965, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman wrote to Dr Goh Keng Swee and offered Singapore full autonomy, except in foreign and defence matters, in exchange for Singapore giving up its seats in the Federal Parliament.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee was involved in a series of discussions with the Malaysian leaders but "all these (negotiations) came to nought", as noted by Dr Goh. Dr Goh recalled, during his interview with Dr Melanie Chew in the book Leaders Of Singapore: "In the early days there were a lot of discussions about changing the terms of Malaysia by the Prime Minister, Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye. It got nowhere."

On June 6, 1965, there was the Malaysian Solidarity Convention at the Singapore National Theatre, where Mr Lee advocated a "Malaysian Malaysia". This upset certain Malaysian Umno leaders.

Around July 13, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak asked Dr Goh, who was then Singapore's Minister for Finance, to visit him in his Kuala Lumpur home. The then Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs Ismail Abdul Rahman was also present at that meeting.

Ms Tan wrote that during this critical discussion, Tun Razak commented: "We can't go on like this."


Dr Goh said that when he and Mr Lee first proposed the merger, they did not expect the situation with Malaysia to deteriorate to this level, "so the best thing would be to call it quits; we should go our separate ways". Dr Goh recalled: "I just want to get out. I could see no future in it; the political cost was dreadful and the economic benefits, well, didn't exist."

Dr Goh proposed: "Well, we leave Malaysia, become an independent state, and you will be relieved of all these troubles, and we would also be relieved of troubles from you. All these tensions that have built up, communal tensions, will all be over. We are on our own, you are on your own."

Tun Razak requested Dr Goh to ask Mr Lee about his views on this matter. On July 20, 1965, there was a second meeting in Tun Razak's office. Dr Goh met Tun Razak and Dr Ismail. Dr Goh said Mr Lee was in favour of the secession of Singapore to become independent. This was to be done no later than Aug 9 as Parliament would reconvene that day and the Bill for the Independence of Singapore would be introduced.

According to Dr Chew, Dr Goh was recorded as saying: "Now on the 20th of July 1965, I met Tun Razak and Dr Ismail. Now this is the 20th July 1965. I persuaded him that the only way out was for Singapore to secede completely."

Dr Goh stated: "You want to get Singapore out and it must be done very quickly. And very quietly, and presented as fait accompli."

Dr Goh commented that Tun Razak and Dr Ismail agreed with the separation. "In fact, they themselves had come to the conclusion that Singapore must get out. The question was how to get Singapore out," said Dr Goh.

In that oral history interview, Dr Chew remarked: "So the secession of Singapore was well planned by you and Tun Razak! It was not foisted on Singapore."

Dr Goh responded: "No, it was not."

Mr Lee stated in his memoirs, The Singapore Story: "Keng Swee came back to report that Razak wanted a total hiving-off. Razak had made two points: first, he wanted Keng Swee to confirm I was in favour. Keng Swee said, 'Yes, provided it is done quickly before Lee's commitment and involvement in the Solidarity Convention makes it impossible for him to get out.' Ismail accepted this point. Razak appeared both relieved and incredulous because, according to Keng Swee, he half-expected me to reject the idea. Keng Swee said I was realistic enough to see that a collision was imminent and that the consequences were incalculable."

Specific plans were made from July onwards. For the third meeting on July 27, Dr Goh took along a letter of authorisation signed by Mr Lee dated July 26. The letter stated: "I authorise Goh Keng Swee to discuss with Tun Razak, Dato Ismail and such other federal ministers of comparable authority concerned in these matters in Central Government any proposal for any constitutional arrangements of Malaysia."


From July to August 1965, Mr Eddie Barker, the Singapore Minister for Law, prepared the constitutional documents and agreements for separation. In the oral history interview with the National Archives, Mr Barker said: "Sometime in the middle of July 1965, I was summoned by the Prime Minister to his office. He asked me whether I thought our Attorney-General could be asked to draft an agreement for the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, and if he did, whether we could keep it a secret. I replied that the Attorney-General was the best man for the job but I was afraid others would get to know about the proposal. The Prime Minister then asked whether I could draft the agreement. I replied that I would try."

Mr Lee recalled: "Eddie drafted the two documents, but I asked him to draw up a third, a proclamation of independence."

There was a fourth meeting on Aug 3, 1965, at Tun Razak's office, again involving Dr Goh. Tun Razak confirmed that Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was in favour of the separation plan.

Dr Goh also discussed with Tun Razak and Dr Ismail the defence proposals. Few people in Singapore were aware of these plans for separation. The British leaders were not aware of these separation plans until Aug 8.

On Aug 6, 1965, Dr Goh and Mr Barker had a final meeting with the Malaysian leaders such as Tun Razak, Dr Ismail and Malaysian Attorney-General Abdul Kadir Yusof to discuss the draft of the Separation Agreement.

Dr Goh said: "My role as a negotiator was to get the Malay leaders into a mood in which they will accept the Separation Agreement with the minimum fuss and bother… And so far as the drafting and discussions of the actual text of the Agreement, well, Mr Eddie Barker had to do that."

Mr Lee recounted in an interview with Fred Emery at the studios of Television Singapore: "On Friday (Aug 6), my Finance Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, rang me… He is now Minister for Defence and Security… He said I have to come down (from Cameron Highlands). It was very urgent. So that afternoon, I packed my bag and came down alone, leaving my family up there. I came down that afternoon and arrived at about dinner time… In Kuala Lumpur, he told me, 'This is it'."


The drafting of the agreement of separation of Singapore from Malaysia was started in July 1965, at the instruction of Mr Lee. The Independence of Singapore Agreement 1965 was signed and dated Aug 7.

When Mr Barker handed the signed documents to Mr Lee, Mr Lee recalled saying to him: "Thanks, Eddie, we have pulled off a bloodless coup."

In his memoirs, Mr Lee stated: "At very little notice, we had thought of a way to achieve what the Tunku could not accomplish with his own staff because it had to be carried out in great secrecy and the shortest possible time, including three readings of a Bill in one session of Parliament on a certificate of urgency, or it could never have succeeded."

Dr Ooi Kee Beng from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies stated a key point regarding the separation in his biography of Dr Ismail.

In the memoirs of Tun Dr Ismail, then Malaysian Home Affairs Minister who later became Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Ismail noted as a first-hand witness and participant of these historical developments that "in spite of what was believed, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia was by mutual agreement".

In Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's eulogy speech on March 29 this year, he recalled: "I remember the night the children slept on the floor in my parents' bedroom at Temasek House in Kuala Lumpur, because the house was full of ministers who had come up from Singapore. Every so often, my father would get up from the bed to make a note about something, before lying down to rest again. But obviously he wasn't asleep. The date was 7 August 1965, two days before Separation."

It was indeed a very challenging time.

On the eve of Aug 9, 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew prepared the coded messages that were to be sent to three Commonwealth prime ministers to inform them of the separation. The first sentence of the message to the Australian leader went thus: "By the time you have decoded this message you will know that the Tunku has proclaimed and I have agreed and simultaneously also proclaimed Singapore as a separate and sovereign nation."

On Aug 9, 1965, at 10am, the Malaysian Parliament reconvened and Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman explained the nature and details of the Separation. There was a vote on the Constitution of Malaysia (Singapore Amendment) Bill 1965 to allow Singapore to separate from the Malaysian federation. It was unanimous, 126-0.

Singapore became an independent and sovereign state.

That morning, Mr Lee explained the reasons for separation to the British, Australian, Indian and New Zealand High Commission representatives.

In the afternoon of Aug 9, 1965, he announced on Caldecott Hill, in the television studio, the independence of Singapore.

In a subsequent television broadcast, Mr Lee stated in his determined manner: "I have a few million people's lives to account for. Singapore will survive."

The separation might appear as a surprise to many. However, it was a mutual agreement between the top leaders of Malaysia and Singapore, with the understanding and support of Singapore Cabinet ministers such as Mr Lim Kim San and Mr Barker.

The other ministers, such as Dr Toh Chin Chye and Mr S. Rajaratnam, were also persuaded to accept this decision for separation. Amid the diversity in the Singapore Cabinet, there was unity.

With the dynamic leadership of Singapore's founding fathers and the strong support of its people, this multiracial nation has survived and thrived, against the odds.

Singaporeans can learn from our founding fathers such as Mr Lee and Dr Goh. With the right will, proactive attitude and purposeful plans, we can succeed, even in the midst of great difficulty and challenges.

The determination to succeed and the united perseverance to work for the benefit of our nation are among the key factors which contributed to the nation's development.

The pioneer team of leaders was made up of talented, capable and committed Singaporeans such as Mr Lee, Dr Goh, Dr Toh, Mr Rajaratnam, Mr Lim, Mr Othman Wok, Mr Barker and Mr Hon Sui Sen. They collaborated and complemented each other, as they contributed actively to the young nation.

During the years after our independence, the evident trust and teamwork among the leaders, together with the support of the people, enabled the country and government to strengthen and grow.

In the final recorded words of Mr Lee at the Aug 9, 1965, press conference at the Broadcasting House: "We unite regardless of race, language, religion, culture."

As we Singaporeans remember our history and celebrate our nation's 50th birthday, let us build on our legacy, plan for the future and work together as one united people, "so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation".

• The writer is a Singaporean pursuing his PhD at Nanyang Technological University.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline Behind the scenes: What led to separation in 1965. Subscribe