When Singapore was First Independent - 2 Years Before 9 August 1965

Singapore independence
 
Perhaps unbeknownst to most of its citizens, Singapore first embraced the throbbing excitement of independence some 2 years before 9 August 1965.
 
In fact, some regard that day, 31 August 1963, as Singapore’s first Independence Day. 
 
That was when, after 137 years of being a British colony, Singapore cast aside the yoke of servitude to the “white men”. 
 
The tiny island had been granted self-governance 4 years earlier, on 5 June 1959, after the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by the charismatic Lee Kuan Yew, swept to victory in the Legislative Assembly elections, winning 43 of the 51 seats up for grabs.
 
Singapore wasn’t a sovereign state at the time, so it did not have a Parliament. 
 
Mr Lee, however, had always seen Singapore as part of Malaysia, and had believed “all my adult life”, as he once described it, this to be so. Without natural resources, he felt being part of a larger peninsula would ensure Singapore’s survival.
 
And this belief strode a little closer to reality on 31 August 1963 with independence from the British. It was also the same day which Singapore, along with Sabah and Sarawak, were to become part of Malaysia. 
 
However, the United Nations needed more time to ascertain if this was what the people of Sabah and Sarawak wanted. So the date for joining Malaysia was delayed by 2 weeks, to 16 September.
 
Thus, for those 15 days, Singapore was in fact an independent entity - released from the British tether, and awaiting official welcome into the new nation of Malaysia. 
 
On 31 August, Mr Lee took to the Padang to declare Singapore’s freedom from British rule, and to pledge allegiance to the government of Malaysia.
 
“We look upon ourselves as trustees for the Central Government of Malaysia in these 15 days,” he told the crowd. “We will exercise these powers in the interests of Malaysia.”
 
And he added:
 
“When on September 16 we take the formal step towards Malaysia, we hope others will respect this collective decision freely made.”
 
And he declared again: “The 16th of September is final and irrevocable…”
 
Singapore would be part of Malaysia forever.
 
“In 15 days we will raise officially the new flag of the nation,” he said. “Three points have been added to the star of Malaysia. Let us resolve that the one point representing Singapore will always add lustre and strength to Malaysia.”
 
Lee’s speech, however, was seen as a “political stunt”, especially when the British basically sneered at his speech and ignored it, in fact.
 
In his book, The Singapore Story, Lee admitted that “he was trying to pressure the Malayan government into coming to terms with Singapore, and not cause any more delays to Singapore’s accession to the Federation of Malaysia, or else face the prospect of Lee calling for elections and conducting a campaign ‘on a platform of independence’ and demanding that the world recognise Singapore as a sovereign state.” (Source: Internal Reference)
 
The next 2 years as a Malaysian state, however, proved to be tumultuous ones; and that “political stunt” on the steps of City Hall (which faced the Padang) by Lee may have come back to haunt him in later negotiations with the Tunku.
 
The PAP leadership’s vision of a Malaysia for Malaysians collided with the more exclusive vision of the Tunku of a Malaysia where indigenous Malays held special privileges over others, the so-called “Bumiputera policy”. It is also believed that the Tunku was suspicious of the leaders of Singapore, being a majority-Chinese territory at that time, having too much influence in the larger Malaysia.
 
Talks and negotiations over these issues were protracted and intractable.
 
In the end, the 2 sides agreed to separate, permanently.
 
The differences were unassailable but the divorce need not be acrimonious.
 
The PAP sent Goh Keng Swee and EW Barker to secretly negotiate the terms of divorce with the Tunku and a few others. These meetings were so secret that even others in the inner circle of the PAP were not aware of them.
 
It was EW Barker, Singapore’s Law Minister, who drew up the separation documents, which were later signed by the parties to the agreement.
 
Singapore thus once again became independent, this time as a sovereign state, on 9 August 1965.
 
So, in summary: Singapore gained self-governance in 1959; detached itself from British rule, was a somewhat independent entity for 2 weeks, and became part of Malaysia, all in 1963; and 2 years later, Singapore separated from Malaysia to become a sovereign nation till this day.
 
Should Singapore celebrate 31 August as our first or de facto Independence Day? It might be a good occasion to commemorate how so many fought so hard for so long for Singapore to dissociate from the colonial rulers, and to march toward self-determination.
 
For before Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP came along, many before them had already laid the path toward freedom. 
 
“This proclamation today is an assertion of our right to freedom,” Mr Lee said at the Padang. “Today, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore take one step forward towards freedom.”
 
While Lee’s speech may have had ulterior motives, and not to declare Singapore an independent state, it showed how determined he was to lead Singapore into merger with Malaysia. This perhaps was borne out of his steadfast belief that Singapore, with its 2 million citizens at the time and no natural resources, would not survive if left on its own to drift in a sea of uncertainty.
 
Incidentally, 16 September 1963, the day Singapore joined Malaysia, was also Lee Kuan Yew’s 40th birthday. 
 
Below is the full speech by Lee Kuan Yew at the Padang on that momentous day in our history. 
 
It is worth revisiting it for all its (hidden and subtle) intent, its political implications, and its masterly deliverance to full effect, straddling between extending a hand of friendship to the British, and issuing a subtle demand/threat to the Tunku. 
 
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Speech by Lee Kuan Yew, 31 August 1963, Padang.
 
In the history of a nation, there are moments when great decisions have to be made. Today is such a moment in our history. Had we wavered in a moment of stress, then we would have lost our place in history, and Malaysia would be just another name for a collection of 10-million Malays, Dyaks, Dusuns, Muruts, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Ceylonese and others, brought together by an accident of British colonial domination of this part of the world.
 
We have shown in our struggle against colonial domination that we are not merely a conglomeration, and inarticulate and incohate conglomeration, of just so many races. We have the will and the wherewithal to be a nation in our own right. That is the right that we the people of Singapore today proclaim. But for a twist of history, we would be proclaiming Malaysia today together with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. Now Malaysia is to be proclaimed formally on September 16. Nevertheless August 31 has been made a significant date in the history of Malaysia.
 
All Federal powers in Sabah and Sarawak will be reposed in the Governors. In Singapore on the same principle, all Federal powers over defence and external affairs will, as from today till September 16, be reposed in our Yang di-Pertuan Negara.
 
We look upon ourselves as trustees for the Central Government of Malaysia in these 15 days. We will exercise these powers in the interests of Malaysia.
 
And in accordance with the Malaysian Agreement signed in London July 8, the Defence arrangements have for all practical purposes come into operation. If the decision was for us alone, our choice may well have been different. But Malaysia is the collective decision of the four partners. And the paramount condition is for the solidarity and unity of the various partners. If we are not to falter and fail, then we must press ahead in unity.
 
There will be no change in the overall power situation, or in the policy of the Government during this fortnight of prelude to Malaysia.
 
This proclamation today is an assertion of our right to freedom. Our act follows the traditions of the great anti-colonial revolutions in Asia. The only difference is, I hope, that unlike the French or worse, the Dutch, the British are a more pragmatic people. So they concede the inexorable, and hope that by withdrawing from an already untenable position, they can become friends with those over whom they once were masters. But let us not deceive ourselves, and believe that they do this for reasons of altruistic charity. But their enlightened self-interest makes our transition to freedom that much easier. On our part we welcome friends from this, and indeed, from any other part of the world.
 
We have proclaimed our inalienable right to be free – free from colonial domination, in a manner of our choice. We have a right to say to the world that we do not wish to change masters. When on September 16 we take the formal step towards Malaysia, we hope others will respect this collective decision freely made. The 16th of September is final and irrevocable, and we have agreed with the Federation Government that our delegates will be present at the United Nations General Assembly on September 17 as part of the Malaysia delegation.
 
A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people and the quality of their leaders which ensures it an honourable place in history. By Asian standards, Malaysia is a small nation. But let no one doubt the will, cohesion, endurance and the discipline of her people, and let no one misjudge the resolve of her leaders.
 
The Tunku is a man of peace. We support him to stand up and fight unreservedly for Malaysia. The biggest compliment history can pay him is to record that by his agreement to postpone the official date for Malaysia for 15 days, the rest of the Afro-Asian world will be on our side when the United Nations Secretary-General affirms that Malaysia is the free will of our four territories.
 
We have witnessed the end of an era, an era where we had lived sheltered from the change, chaos and revolutions of South East Asia. A period of great trial lies ahead. But the future also holds great promise, promise of peace, stability and prosperity if we have the resolve, the stamina and the wisdom to meet the challenge that lies ahead.
 
How we the people of Singapore and the rest of Malaysia conduct ourselves, and what the leaders of the four territories decide in the crucial months ahead will determine the shape of things to come. Never let our future generations look back at this moment of history and say that their forbears and their leaders when tried were found wanting. The course of history is never easy and straight for emerging nations.
 
Who could have foreseen two years ago when the Tunku announced the concept of Malaysia, that events would move so swiftly. Who indeed could have foreseen that Singapore condemned by all the prophets of doom as the centre of trouble and tribulation of the three new partners in Malaysia has turned out to be the one in which there is finality, stability and prosperity. We the people of Singapore have made our contribution in the fight for Malaysia. We fought every inch of the way over the last two years against those who are out to wreck our new nation. We fought our enemies in Singapore, in South-East Asia, and in Moshi before the Afro-Asian nations, and at the United Nations before the world forum. We will go on fighting for what we know to be right and just. And right will triumph.
 
In 15 days we will raise officially the new flag of the nation.
 
Three points have been added to the star of Malaysia. Let us resolve that the one point representing Singapore will always add lustre and strength to Malaysia. If we live up to our convictions, we will stand the test and judgement of history.
 
There are moments in the life of a people when what is required is firmness and certainty. To dither is to invite disaster. Now firmness and certainty have been restored.
 
Today, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore take one step forward towards freedom. On the 16 th we go on with Malaysia and we will survive, and prosper and flourish. If we are friendly to our neighbours, fair in our dealings with them and firm on our right to live in peace, unmolested in our own country.
 
31st August, 1963. (Time issued : 1930 hours)

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