Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew was an early proponent of forming a political union with The Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and his home island of Singapore. In 1959, while still under the umbrella of British rule, Singapore’s first election under a new constitution for self-government saw Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) win a landslide victory.
In 1962, Singaporeans voted in a referendum in which it was decided that Singapore was to retain some autonomy in matters of labour law, language law and cultural affairs but would otherwise join the newly formed federated country of Malaysia. As Singapore was a small island with no meaningful natural resources, it was conventional wisdom at the time that without political union with a larger entity, Singapore would ultimately perish under impoverished conditions.
But whist logic dictated that union with the rest of Malaysia was necessary, there were systematic and existential problems with the union that became self evident from the beginning. Singapore’s most popular party, Lee’s PAP was a supporter of full legal equality between the racial groups of the country. This meant that according to Lee Kuan Yew, social equability could best be achieved if no special privileges were given to any of the country’s racial groups including Han Chinese, Malays and Indians (Tamil speakers). Likewise, while all faiths were to be given full equality under the law, it was and remains the PAP’s position that no one faith would attain a privileged social position.
In peninsular Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) favoured a policy of affirmative action in which ethnic Malays were reserved commercial, political and social privileges over other races. The UMNO also tended to prioritise Muslims over non-Muslims in social affairs. These measures were particularly controversial in Singapore because unlike the rest of Malay/Muslim majority Malaysia, Singapore had a majority ethnic Han Chinese population.
Whilst it was the UMNO’s assumption that the PAP’s electoral popularity would be limited to the island of Singapore within Malaysia, the self-styled national UMNO failed to win a single parliamentary seat in Singapore’s first election as part of Malaysia in 1963. The next year, as part of a drive to make the PAP a pan-Malaysian party, Lee’s party stood candidates in federal-elections outside of Singapore and ended up winning one such seat. This infuriated UMNO leader and Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman whose relationship with Lee became increasingly strained.
Then in 1964, race riots broke out in Singapore after pro-UMNO newspaper Utusan Malaysia provoked ethnic Malays into action. This was the final straw in respect of Singapore remaining in Malaysia.
It was mutually agreed that Singapore would be effectively kicked out of Malaysia and in 1965 the Republic of Singapore became an independent country. While a country’s first independence day is usually a joyous occasion, for Lee, it was a moment of sadness. Lee wept on television as he spoke of his dream of a united Malaysia but that in spite of this dream failing, he would continue to pursue the best policies for his people no matter how challenging the future would be.
For Lee, many challenges lay ahead but he faced them with the same problem solving spirit that came to define Singapore.
The result was that Singapore became transformed from a swampy shipping post to one of Asia’s towering economic success stories. By the middle of the 1970s, Singapore was one of the most dynamic economies in the world whilst the country became a beacon for tourism and migration. Crime under Lee was incredibly low and educational standards rose to top of global league tables.
The key to Lee’s success was a realistic and hard working approach that accepted situations as they were and dealt with them accordingly on a rational and logical basis. Even though the exit of Singapore from Malaysia was the opposite to what Lee wanted and had previously worked for, he accepted the reality and not only made the best of it but ended up turning his country into one of the go-to economic and tourist destinations in the world, one which was jetted ahead of Malaysia in terms of development after 1965.
Today in Britain, the Lee Kuan Yew spirit is noticeably absent among those who voted to remain in the European Union in 2016. Like Singapore splitting from Malaysia, Britain’s split from political union with Brussels has in many ways always been inevitable. Like Lee, many previous British Prime Ministers wanted union with Europe but the circumstances at hand as confirmed by a people’s vote in 2016 said otherwise.
Rather than attempt to wish away reality, it is time for those who supported the UK’s membership of the EU to do what Lee did in 1965 and make the best of a situation that might appear unwanted but in reality holds vast amounts of potential.
Singapore being effectively kicked out of Malaysia turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Likewise, those who remain Brexit-sceptics in the UK might soon be surprised about the positive future fortunes of the UK economy and society.
But in order to make the future better, people have got to stop thinking about the past, accept the present and work together for a brighter independent future. It can be done, just as it was in Singapore, not least because modern Britain has multiple advantages that Singapore did not have in the mid-1960s.