A nondescript exhibit at the National Museum has the potential to reshape Singapore's national history narrative. Singapore leaders were actively involved in negotiations leading to the exit from Malaysia, newly released documents highlight.
Museums play an important role in a nation's history. They serve as repositories of national history, preserving and showcasing artefacts and documents central to our shared understanding of the past, so that we can better understand our present.
Curators and public educators in charge of museums and their exhibitions also play a key role in shaping our sense of the past, and hence our sense of self, and our shared national identity.
In this respect, there is a small but vitally interesting exhibit titled We Built A Nation at the National Museum of Singapore's gallery on local history, the Stamford Gallery.
It may lack the glamour and scale of the international exhibition from the British Museum now displayed in our National Museum of Singapore. But our local exhibit has great historical significance for Singapore and adds to our understanding of the circumstances that led to our independence.
The Stamford Gallery and the other newly opened galleries in the National Museum feature the history of Singapore starting from pre-colonial days to the Japanese Occupation and the post-World War II era.
The first part of the Stamford Gallery features the birth of the nation of Singapore. The copy of the Proclamation of Independence is displayed behind a glass panel on a wall. This document is mounted in a simple, minimalistic manner.
These three documents from the Albatross file highlighted that the Separation was a negotiated process between the two parties from Malaysia and Singapore. In the past, popular descriptions of
Singapore's history tended to portray Singapore as being "booted out" or "expelled" by Malaysia.
The exhibition of the Albatross documents, and the narration of events accompanying the exhibits, provide a more nuanced view.
The printed Proclamation of Independence - an independence that arose as a result of the federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to form the independent state of Malaysia, was signed by Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
It states: "Now I, Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare, on behalf of the people of Singapore, that as from today, the 16th day of September, 1963, Singapore shall be forever a part of the sovereign democratic and independent State of Malaysia, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and more equal society."
That last sentence would prove portentous. The hope for a "more just and more equal society" was one of the key points that contributed subsequently to the separation of Singapore from Malaysia.
The pursuit of a "more just and more equal" society, a "Malaysian Malaysia", by the Singapore leaders and members of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention was not supported by Malay leaders of the central government in Malaysia. The progress towards a "more just and more equal society" would occur in the independent nation of Singapore, separated from Malaysia.
Inside the gallery are a few selected papers taken from the previously classified "Albatross" file. "Albatross" referred to Malaysia. How did the name come about? The merger with Malaysia did not yield the intended benefits, "and it became an Albatross round our necks", explained Dr Goh Keng Swee in a 1980 oral history interview.
This formerly top secret file contains highly confidential documents kept by Dr Goh, who was one of the founding fathers of modern Singapore. He was a trusted right-hand man of Mr Lee and served as Finance Minister, Minister for Defence, Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister. He played a leading role in the negotiation for the separation of Singapore from Malaysia.
He kept the Albatross file safely over the decades. This file provides details of the thinking and efforts linked to the separation and formation of Singapore, as an independent nation.
The glass case contains three important documents from the Albatross file that reveal vital aspects of our history.
The first is a letter handwritten by Mr Lee.
It 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 the Central Govt any proposal for rearrangements of Malaysia."
This letter granted Dr Goh the authority to negotiate on behalf of Mr Lee with Malaysian leaders such as then Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs, Dato (Dr) Ismail Abdul Rahman; and the then first Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
From July to early August 1965, Dr Goh had a series of negotiations and meetings with Tun Razak and Dr Ismail.
Dr Goh and Mr Lee played a major role in the separation of Singapore from Malaysia and the birth of Singapore as an independent nation. The timeline above the display lists the developments from July 1964 to August 1965.
MEMO FROM PM
The second key document is a typewritten "Memorandum from the Prime Minister" marked "Top Secret". It revealed Mr Lee's thinking and considerations in 1965. In the first paragraph, he noted the potential constitutional rearrangements.
He stated: "It will not be long before we will have to take a decision on the future of Singapore and of Malaysia. I believe that soon after the Puasa month we will have to respond to an open move by the Tunku. It will demand that we take a public position."
Tunku Abdul Rahman was then the Prime Minister of Malaysia. He also played a leading role in our separation and independence. Puasa month refers to the Muslim fasting month.
Mr Lee pointed out: "Before we make this decision we should be clear in our minds on the options open to us and on the consequences not only of the short term but also the long term of each and every one of the possible decisions we make."
Earlier, on Dec 19, 1964, Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed to Mr Lee possible constitutional rearrangements. On Jan 22, 1965, Tunku wrote to Dr Goh offering complete autonomy except in the areas of defence and foreign affairs, if Singapore gave up the Federal Parliament seats.
In this top secret memorandum, Mr Lee analysed the situation and effects. He noted: "When the Tunku first informed Keng Swee in December last year (1964) of his desire to have Singapore "hive off" from Malaya, it generated considerable excitement amongst us first because this showed their realisation that we cannot be fixed in Malaysia and the supremacy of Malay communalists assured forever. Next, it gave us an escape, if there is to be trouble in Malaya with communal clashes over language and other issues. We might in such a rearrangement insulate ourselves from communal conflict which is building up in Malaya."
Tunku's offer to "hive off" would provide Singapore "an escape, if there is to be trouble in Malaya with communal clashes over language and other issues". Mr Lee was concerned about racial tensions. He noted in this memorandum that Singapore "might in such a rearrangement insulate ourselves from communal conflict which is building up in Malaya".
He highlighted that the "greatest attraction of this rearrangement is our hope to get the benefits of all worlds - the common market, political stability with economic expansion, and autonomy in Singapore without interference from KL. The picture of a prosperous and flourishing Singapore doing better than the rest of Malaysia is most attractive". KL refers to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.
In some ways, his optimistic view of Singapore's development was prescient and visionary. Mr Lee also acknowledged one of the trade-offs which was to "give up our ability to influence events in Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak".
It could be interpreted from this memo that Mr Lee was receptive towards this "hiving off" of Singapore as it reduced the problems linked to communal conflicts, while providing room for autonomy, political stability and economic growth in a "prosperous and flourishing Singapore".
His analysis in the secret memo and his handwritten letter disclosed his thinking with regard to the "hive-off" proposal and possible "rearrangement", as well as the behind-the-scenes efforts to secure the well-being of Singapore. He was open to negotiations that could lead to Singapore benefiting from "political stability with economic expansion, and autonomy in Singapore without interference from KL".
HANDWRITTEN NOTES FROM DR GOH
The third notable document consists of detailed notes handwritten by Dr Goh of his meeting on July 20, 1965, in Tun Razak's office from 11.05am to 11.55am with the two Malaysian leaders, Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak and Home Affairs Minister Ismail.
Dr Goh noted that only Mr Lee, Mr Lim Kim San, Mr Edmund William Barker and himself were privy to this negotiation. He warned: "Any premature leak will jeopardise (the) scheme."
During this second meeting on the process of separation, Dr Goh persuaded his Malaysian counterparts that the only way out "was for Singapore to secede, completely", and "it must be done very quickly, and very quietly, and presented as a fait accompli".
These three documents from the Albatross file highlight that the Separation was a negotiated process between the two parties from Malaysia and Singapore.
In the past, popular descriptions of Singapore's history tended to portray Singapore as being "booted out" or "expelled" by Malaysia. The exhibition of the Albatross documents, and the narration of events accompanying the exhibits, provide a more nuanced view.
Together, the picture they paint is that of Singapore's leaders negotiating the terms of Singapore's exit with Malaysia's leaders. It might have been Tunku who first proposed that Singapore "hive off" in December 1964, but by the time negotiations were seriously under way in July 1965, it is clear that Dr Goh and Mr Lee were striving to make the best of the situation.
Dr Ismail, a key Malaysian leader, who was a first-hand witness and participant of these historic developments, stated that "in spite of what was believed, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia was by mutual agreement". Leaders of both countries thus played vital roles in the formation of our independent nations and the paths ahead.
A museum's presentation of the past requires interpretation and curation. The Albatross file exhibits deepen and broaden our understanding of our past and present as an independent nation, with a vision of a "prosperous and flourishing Singapore". This 1965 vision of Singapore as "prosperous and flourishing" remains highly relevant today.
As we journey towards the next 50 years with our leaders, let us stay united and dedicated to fulfilling and upholding this vision, as well as the ideals and values of our National Pledge.
•The writer is a Singaporean pursuing his PhD at Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'Secret documents reveal extent of negotiations for Separation'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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