Monday, August 11, 2014

Singapore’s fight against the 3Cs


AUGUST 11, 2014

Many in our pioneer generation remember World War II, as we had lived through a harrowing three years and eight months in the early 1940s under Japanese Occupation. The war hardened the will of a new generation of leaders in Malaya and Singapore to end colonialism. They were determined to achieve independence so their people could decide their own destinies. In doing so, they had to overcome three major political challenges, or what I call the 3Cs — colonialism, communism and communalism.

Today, fresh from celebrating 49 years of independence, it is useful for all of us in Singapore to remember the fight against the 3Cs and the lessons it holds for a nation at a crossroads.


In their anti-colonial struggle, Federation of Malaya leaders formed the Alliance, bringing together race-based parties the United Malays National Organisation, the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress. Their internal tensions were communal.

In Singapore, the first generation of leaders including Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye and S Rajaratnam led a multiracial People’s Action Party (PAP). Their internal tensions were ideological.

Going into the 1959 General Election, Mr Lee, who was an opposition leader then, predicted that the struggle for power would be between the PAP and the communists: “The ultimate contestants will be the PAP and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) — the PAP for a democratic non-communist socialist Malaya and the MCP for a soviet republic of Malaya. And the side that recruits more ability and talent will be the side that wins.”

The MCP, the oldest political organisation in the two territories, had collaborated with the British against the Japanese during World War II, but had mounted an armed insurgency against the British after the war in its bid to capture power.

The Federation’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had two fears at the time — that the communists would capture power in Singapore and subvert the Federation, and that if Singapore became part of the Federation, its Chinese majority would upset the racial balance in the combined Malaya.

However, when it appeared in 1961 that the communists might trump the PAP, the Tunku acted. He proposed “Malaysia”, in which Singapore would merge with the Federation to form a larger entity together with the three Borneo territories of Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak.

The struggle for merger drew a line between the democratic non-communist and the pro-communist forces in Singapore. The PAP wanted to secure Singapore’s independence from the British by joining the Federation, but the pro-communists wanted Singapore to be on its own so it could come to power without having to deal with an anti-communist Federation.

In the 1963 Singapore General Election held after Singapore joined Malaysia alongside Sabah and Sarawak, the PAP defeated the pro-communist Barisan Sosialis, which won about a third of the vote and one-quarter of the seats in the Legislative Assembly.

While Malaysian and Singapore leaders were winning their fight against colonialism and communism, they failed to overcome the third “C”: Communalism. The inter-communal Alliance contested the 1963 Singapore General Election and lost every seat. The multiracial PAP then contested the 1964 Malaysian General Election. It lost every seat except one, in Kuala Lumpur.

[I'm not sure that the Malaysian leaders were fighting Communalism. UMNO, MIC, MCA and the Malaysian political landscape has been set up with communalism as the premise.]

The leaders from both sides then fought over their alternative visions of society, with the PAP leading multiracial parties in Malaysia in calling for “a Malaysian Malaysia”. Malaysia-Singapore relations deteriorated, as did interracial relations. Racial riots broke out in Singapore twice in 1964. The Tunku decided to ask Singapore to leave Malaysia, and Singapore became an independent and sovereign republic on Aug 9, 1965.

[UMNO called for a "Malay Malaysia".]

In their struggle against the 3Cs, those who stood up for Singapore risked life and limb. Their choices were stark — between independence and colonial rule, between democracy and communism, and between multiracialism and communalism.


In the early years of independence, Singapore’s leaders had to make tough decisions to ensure that the nation survived and thrived. Singaporeans had to earn peace and prosperity for their country through blood, sweat and tears.

[I wish he had elaborated on the "blood" part.]

Singapore has progressed from a Third World to a First World country. There are new and perhaps greater challenges, as international terrorism, globalisation and information technologies transform the way we live and interact with one another. The flames of communalism can still be fanned. Recent debates on community values and social norms show that some Singaporeans hold strong views on these issues.

The country is at a crossroads now, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described in a speech earlier this year. As it matures as a global city, we have to better manage the stresses and challenges of being one.

We have to get the balance right, between national identity and cosmopolitanism and between economic imperatives and social solidarity.

Above all, we must stay united as a people in our constant pursuit of opportunities, excellence and growth.

This had been the spirit of the pioneer generation and one that we must continue to uphold. History does not end because we forget. Our people must be prepared to defend our independence and territorial integrity.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela had said that during his 27 years in prison, he was inspired by these lines in the poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

We are what Singapore is.


Dr Chiang Hai Ding, a historian, was an elected Member of Parliament from 1970 to 1984 and is editor of the book, We Also Served: Reflections Of Former PAP MPs, published last month. He served as Singapore’s Ambassador to 18 countries over 18 years, including as High Commissioner to Malaysia from 1971 to 1973.

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