The Racial Tension in 1964
Who’s to Blame?
Selected History Topics for Primary School
Name: Mardiana Binte Mohamed Amin
Matriculation number: 047079L08
Programme: Bachelor Of Arts (Education)
Tutor: Dr Kevin Blackburn
Day/Time of tutorial: Tuesday, 2.30 pm- 4.30 pm
The Racial Tension in 1964 - Who’s to Blame?
Singapore began its road to independence after the Japanese surrender to the British in 1945. However, this journey was plagued with numerous challenges. One such challenge faced by the government was the development of racial cohesiveness among its people. This was vital, as the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy that the Japanese adopted during its rule in Singapore had caused some people to be suspicious and wary of the different races. Due to the fragile bond between races in that period, it was of a no surprise that there would be racial riots in the history of Singapore. The year before independence was fraught with tension between the Malays and Chinese.
As the 1964 racial riots was one of the major events that had shaped Singapore’s history, I was very interested to know more about it. However, after doing my initial research, I discovered that there were a lot of factors that caused this riot. With the aim of wanting to know more about these factors, I asked my grandfather, Mr H. Ismail, to do me the honour of being the interviewee for my oral history. Thus, the questions that I asked my grandfather were mainly to elicit the information about the reasons that sparked the 1964 riot. Fortunately, I was close to my grandfather and this resulted in him being very open and comfortable in answering all my questions.
(A) Profile of interviewee
Mr H. Ismail is born in 1924. Both his parents were migrants from Java. Mr H. Ismail has 2 elder brothers and 2 elder sisters. He became an orphan at the age of 15 years old. He married my grandmother in 1955 and lived in Mount Faber. During that time, my grandfather worked as a signalman in the Singapore Harbour Board.
When the racial riot occurred, Mr H. Ismail was forty years old and had three daughters. My mother was eight years old, my first aunt was six years old and my second aunt was four years old. At that time, Mount Faber was a Malay dominated area, thus, they were not really affected by the racial riot.
(B) Summary of the 1964 July Racial Riots
On July 21, 2004, during a procession as a celebration of the birthday of Prophet Mohammad, a riot between the Chinese and Malays broke out. The riot started at Kallang Road. Within two hours, the riots spread from Geylang area to the city. The widespread riots happened in 12 separate districts and continued for 5 days. The riots caused 22 deaths and 454 injured while 256 were arrested for unlawful assembly and rioting.1 Curfew was enforced from 8pm to 5 am.
The above scenario depicts the life during that period. To have a clearer view of the whole picture, I will analyze further in terms of the reasons for the start of the riot and the effects of the riots. I will discuss these aspects with reference to the interview and the historical sources that I have found.
(C) Events that sparked the riots
Mr H. Ismail recalled that the riot broke out when the procession was marching towards Arab Street. He also said that the riots started when a Chinese man threw a bottle at the procession. This was apparently not the case in historical books. According the research, the riot started at Kallang Road, near the Kallang Gasworks around five in the evening. It started when a group of young Malays broke away from a section of the procession. This group of young Malays refused to heed the order of a member of the Federal Reserve (police sent down from peninsula Malaysia) to join back the procession and instead assaulted this policeman. Then, more groups became unruly and attacked passers-by and innocent bystanders. According to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, by 7.30, the riot broke out in the city itself.2
(D) Reasons for the 1964 July riot
UMNO and the Malay Extremists
Mr H. Ismail told me that the main reason behind the racial riots in 1964 was the
politics surrounding Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Mr H. Ismail was under the impression the UMNO did not like Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s way of handling Singapore. He also thought that the UMNO wanted to win over the Malays’ support and they did this by telling the Malays that the PAP government did not care about them.
There was some truth between the information gathered from the oral interview and the actual events that happened. According to the actual information gathered from historical journals, it’s true when Mr H. Ismail said that there are three main factors that contributed to the racial riot that happened in July 1964. All of these factors resulted in the rise of Malay sentiments and hatred towards the PAP government, especially towards Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who did not see the need to acknowledge the constitutional rights of the Malays in Singapore.
One such factor was Syed Ja’afar Albar, the Secretary-General of UMNO. He was responsible for arousing the Malay sentiments, through his speeches. According to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in The Singapore Story, “ [Syed] was a great rable-rouser, skilful in working up the mob and, as I was to learn, totally ruthless and unscrupulous in his methods.” This perspective of Mr Lee Kuan Yew was accurate as Syed’s role in stirring up the communal disturbances was very apparently ruthless. He used the media who was bought by UMNO to his advantage. He used the Malay newspapers, Utusan Melayu, to convey his messages. As the Utusan Melayu was printed in the Arabic script, the information was limited to the Malays.
Members of Singapore UMNO were also responsible in stoking up the Malay passion. Although H. Ismail remarked that that there was only one of the speeches that was made at the Padang that sounded political, history shown that speeches made by SUMNO leaders during the religious rally at the Padang were political in nature; regardless of the unspoken understanding speeches made on that day must be religious and non-political. For example, SUMNO’s religious officer, Syed Ali Redza Alsagoff gave a speech saying that Malays must come together to fight for their rights. Another example was the speech given by SUMNO’s Secretary-General, Syed Esa Almenoar, where he said that the teaching of Islam was that Muslims must sacrifice their lives for the sake of the country and whoever works towards disintegration of the country would be treated as traitors.3 There could be two reasons for this discrepancy. Firstly, Mr H. Ismail could have been withholding the information to prevent me from blaming the Malays extremists. Secondly, it could be that he had truly forgotten the events that took place on that day. However, I suspected the first reason to be the main factor as Mr H. Ismail was a supporter of UMNO.
The presence of Malay extremists also fuelled the Malay sentiments. However, this factor was not mentioned by H. Ismail. It could be due to the fact that he did not receive any leaflets. Groups such as Kesatuan Kemajuan Islam and Pertobohan Perjuangan Kebangsaan Melayu Singapore were giving out leaflets that further flamed the Malay sentiments. The leaflets given be these groups were similar in nature because it urged the Malays to work together to eliminate the “dictatorial Chinese PAP Government led by the wretched Lee Kuan Yew…because the PAP government does not want Malay Sultans…[so] we should wipe out all the Chinese from Singapore soil…[to prevent them] from making a fool of [us]”4
The role of the vernacular press also was at fault in driving the races further apart. Mr H. Ismail did mentioned briefly that one method that the UMNO employ to win the Malays over was giving speeches through newspapers and television. One influential form of media, The Utusan Melayu, was frequently printing articles, casting a bad light on PAP and Lee Kuan Yew, when he did not acknowledge the constitutional rights of the Malays. This can be seen when the Utusan Melayu printed an article on May 23, 1964 where the PAP government “of inciting non-Malays to demand the abolition of the special rights of the Malays.”5 From this quote, the Malays were portrayed as the poorest and the least unsuccessful among the communities in Singapore. The Utusan Melayu also twisted Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches to just to win the Singaporean Malays over. For example, in one of his speeches, Mr Lee said, “40 per cent of Malays in Malaysia cannot drive away the 60 per cent non-Malays. The Utusan Melayu [twisted] his speech and reported [it] as: Those able to drive others away from Malaysia are the Chinese and other non-Malays and those who are driven away are the Malays because their numbers are very small.” This showed that the Utusan Melayu was prepared to print falsehoods as long as they can win the Malays over by making them hate PAP and Mr Lee Kuan Yew. However, in the interview conducted, Mr H. Ismail defended both UMNO and Utusan Melayu by saying that it was not a deliberate attempt and it might be due to the fact that the reporters were misinformed about the situation. However, I still suspected that Mr H. Ismail deliberately did not want to cast any bad light on the UMNO because he supported the party.
Mr H. Ismail also recalled that the Indonesian government had also caused the riot by sending some people to Singapore to stir up trouble. However, Mr H. Ismail did not have primary evidence to support his statement. This was because he might have gathered this information from reading newspapers or watching television.
However, it seemed that there might be a grain of truth to what he was saying. During this period of time, Indonesia was facing a series of major problems such as economic perils and corruption. In order to divert the attention of Indonesians from the problems the country was facing, the government tried to create chaos and disorder in Malaysia. This period was also known as the Confrontation, where Indonesia opposed the formation of Malaysia because she was eyeing to conquer Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia. According to The Singapore Story, “Sukarno also made a radio broadcast urging Singapore Chinese not to support Malaysia, which had been formed to oppress them.” This showed that Indonesia was also responsible in driving both the Chinese and Malays apart. In the period from 1963 to 1965, research shown that there were 42 bomb explosions by Indonesian-directed saboteurs. In fact, Indonesian agents who wanted to create trouble and disrupt the stability in Singapore also caused the racial riot that happened in 3 September 1964.
Malayan Chinese Association (MCA)
Another reason that H. Ismail failed to mention was the role of the Malayan Chinese
Association (MCA) in contributing to the racial riot. For example, its minister, Khaw Kai Boh, accused that the Singapore’s Progress was especially meant for the Chinese. This was done because the MCA was jealous of the fact that PAP was gaining the support of more Chinese in Malaya. MCA was also afraid that the PAP might “replaced them in the Alliance that ruled Malaysia if PAP grew in political strength.”6 Thus, similar to UMNO, the MCP tried to create disorders in Singapore so that PAP rule would be weakened, thus reducing its political threat.
(E) Effects of the July 1964 Racial Riots
Mr H. Ismail recounted the events and mentioned that it was one of the most terrible events that happened in Singapore’s history. The death of his friend was a great loss to him as his expression became wistful and somber when he told me that his best friend died in the riot. This effect of people getting killed in the riots was greatly fell as the death toll during the period rose as can be seen from the statistics that I have given in the summary of the riots.
According to Mr H. Ismail, the relationship between the Malays and Chinese were very tense. The Times (U.K) described the grim situation by saying that there was “an air of oppression and threatening calm in the streets.” This shows that many Chinese and Malays were afraid to venture out to the streets except when necessary because they were afraid of bumping to people of the different race. This evident was enforced by the interview of a 52-year-old teacher, Mr Baey Theng Mong, who recounted that “kid like to go out to the streets and play but during the rioting times, when the curfew was on, the streets were so quiet. The shops were all closed and it was quite scary!”7 Mr Baey also mentioned that his parents told him to stay at home as fights could flare up anytime. However, a retired 63-year-old teacher, Mr Tan Kim Hor recounted that he was not affected by the conflicts because all the Malays and Chinese in his kampong community were friends. They were only worried that outsiders would try to come into the kampong and make trouble. This shows that people had different perceptions and experiences of the riots.
Another effect was that the government tried hard to mend the relationship between the Chinese and the Malays. However, according to Mr H. Ismail, the government did little to stop the riot. He also said that, although the government had imposed curfews, people still went out at night. Mr H. Ismail also said that people continued to assault others in broad daylights. Although there is some truth, I felt the government had employed the correct and appropriate strategies at that time. The curfews managed to keep most people at home and this reduced the number of riots. Besides curfews, the government also introduced Racial Harmony and National Language Week. These measures are to promote cohesion and understanding among the various races. Secret society members were also swiftly arrested before they could create any trouble. According to my findings, “the police pre-empted potential trouble-makers and detained 46 people who were alleged to be involved in secret societies that had exploited the riots. Gang weapons like bicycle chains, daggers and long knives were confiscated.” This shows that the government treated this matter seriously, thus I disagree with Mr H. Ismail when he said that the government did little to solve the problem.
Lastly, one major effect of the riots that was not mentioned by Mr H. Ismail was the increase in prices of daily goods. This was because when the curfew was lifted temporarily, people rushed to stock up the basic necessities. This led to a threefold increase in food prices. According to an online article, Singapore: July 21, 1964 Racial Riots, “the vendors in the market would not even bargain with the customers. For any one unwilling customer, there were at least 10 customers who were willing to buy the fresh goods.” The prices of taxi-fares also doubled, as buses were not fully operational. As this effect was major, it was strange that Mr H. Ismail did not mention it. It might be because he lived in a community where people helped one another in need. Furthermore, Mr H. Ismail always walked to his work, which was situated in Mount Faber, near his home. This might explain why he was not affected by the increase in transportation prices.
Thus, to conclude, this interview with my grandfather had enforced my notion of the importance of racial harmony in Singapore. As Mr H. Ismail was not directly involved in the riot, it was difficult to decide whether his interpretation of the events was authentic enough for comparisons. At the end of the interview and from the research gathered, it is safe to deduce that UMNO played a huge part in causing the riots. However, other factors should also be taken into account when analyzing the reasons. I also realized that most Malays in Mr H. Ismail’s generation are pro-UMNO because they felt that PAP was more of a Chinese party, who supported the Communists.
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