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Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Founding Father

Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March 2015, is known for being the longest serving prime minster in the world and the creator of modern Singapore. His legacy is not without controversy, however. He was a smart yet fierce politician who was not afraid to completely destroy his rivals and those he believed might undermine his authority. In the early 1960s, his leftist policies led many to fear that Singapore was going to be the Cuba of Southeast Asia. He campaigned for Britain to relinquish its colonial rule, merging with Malaysia in 1963.

However, after Singapore was kicked out of the Federation of Malaya in 1965, where he had worked so hard to “project a unified, multicultural, socialistic approach,” Lee Kuan Yew was devastated. Leading a newly independent Singapore from 1965 on, he guided the country through tumultuous times in Southeast Asia and oversaw its transformation from a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost with no natural resources to a vibrant economy. However, he was widely criticized for his human rights record and control over the media, which he justified as necessary for political stability.

In these interviews which focus on Singapore’s early years, William Andreas Brown discusses the creation of the Federation of Malaya and the concerns that Lee was leftist. Robert W. Duemling recounts Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation, while Samuel F. Hart notes how Lee was a “steamroller” who did not let anything stand in his way and cites when he revealed publicly that a cabinet minister was on the CIA payroll. Charles Stuart Kennedy conducted interviews with Brown in November of 1998, Duemling in September of 1989, and Samuel F. Hart in June of 1992.

Go here to read about Singapore’s famous caning incident. Read other Moments from East Asia and Pacific.


“The Emergency” and the Creation of the Federation of Malaya

William Andreas Brown — Political Officer Singapore 1961-1964

BROWN:  In the history of Malaya the British had gone through the period of the “troubles,” that is, from 1948 through 1960, known as “The Emergency”…. That amounted to a civil war. Chinese leftist students and workers had gone against the British supported and Malay- dominated political structure. They had taken to the bush [jungle] in the Federation of Malaya [in 1948].

For those long years between 1948 and the mid-1950s, they had a patron and supporter in Communist China. These ethnic Chinese, some of them youths and some of them older than that, took to or were driven into the bush, where they were hunted down by British and Malay troops and police. This created great ethnic tension.

The British way of handling all of this was to move many of the Chinese living in areas in or near the jungle into camps, which were called New Villages. These villages were enclosed with barbed wire and fortified, to some extent. The villagers had a curfew imposed on them, usually from sunset to sunrise.

Any Chinese found outside that New Village after the curfew went into effect at dusk, particularly if he were carrying food, let alone weapons, was subject to extreme measures, including execution by hanging. Malays and Indians were told that if they saw a suspicious character, which they knew meant a Chinese out of place after the curfew began, were encouraged to report him to the police.

A guerrilla war had been underway and this was the British answer. It took a long time and a great deal of effort and energy, but the British pacified Malaya by this approach. So there were a lot of bitter memories left over among the ethnic Chinese after this process was completed….

The Emergency was virtually over by 1957, when the Federation of Malaya was recognized as independent by the British and by the U.S. The Emergency lasted three more years until it was officially declared to have ended in 1960.

There were nine states in the Federation of Malaya. Then there was a federal center at Kuala Lumpur. Of course, they had a British Parliamentary system of government.

At the time the Federation was recognized as independent in 1957, the leader of the Federation was Tengku Abdul Rahman. He was a British-trained lawyer. I think that it took him about 15 years to get his law degree. He wasn’t a great student but he was a well-born member of the ruling family of the State of Kedah. He was a great figure in modern Malay history because he was a moderate and an ideal father figure….

“Singapore was being described as a kind of Chinese Cuba, a hotbed of left-wing activity”

I went to the Consulate General in Singapore. I arrived in Singapore on Lumumba Day, February, 1961 [the execution of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba]….The situation in Singapore was as follows:

There was a very young Government, led by a very young, elected Prime Minister, whose name was Lee Kuan Yew… There had been previous elections, but they had not been full elections. If you will, they had been partial elections.

Lee Kuan Yew had gotten a law degree in London with honors and had come back to Singapore. He had created a political machine [in 1954] called the “People’s Action Party” [PAP], whose logo was a great bolt of lightning….

Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of the People’s Action Party, was swept into power in elections held in 1959. Lee Kuan Yew’s party platform was socialism and union with the Federation of Malaya. As the PAP program ran, “We are socialists, but we cannot run this place as an independent, socialist entity.”

What did Singapore consist of? It was an entrepot [a port or trading post where merchandise may be imported, stored and/or traded, typically to be exported again] which did a great deal of business….

The PAP said that its goal would be to come into the Federation on the right terms. Then, the PAP argued, they could agitate among those Chinese, Indian, the workers in the tin mines and the rubber plantations, industry, and so forth, and eventually take over the whole country.

As a Chinese language officer, I heard this line up, down, and sideways during my first days in Singapore. This was a time of great unemployment, social unrest, ferment, and ethnic tensions. Lee Kuan Yew was determined to project a unified, multicultural, socialistic approach. The national language was to be Malay, the Bahasa Kebangsaan. However, in fact there would be four official languages: Malay, Chinese, English, and Tamil [a language of southern India]. There was a tiny, five percent minority of Indian Tamils in Singapore.

Q: When you say “Chinese,” what Chinese were they talking about? 

BROWN: Mandarin speaking, although most of them spoke it as a second dialect. For this reason Lee Kuan Yew, who couldn’t speak Mandarin, set about to learn to speak Mandarin. In the midst of all of his many concerns, he assiduously studied Mandarin and put it to use….

When I arrived in Singapore in 1961, the British had significant, military forces there. They had Army, Navy, and Air Force bases. Since Singapore was in significant, political turmoil, all of this was fascinating.

Lee Kuan Yew and his party were urging the establishment of a federation with Malaya, in socialist terms and with a socialist program. He had a brain trust,which was relatively moderate, and cadre [party workers] who were overwhelmingly leftist. The PAP at this time was essentially a Leninist party in its structure. All of this was to become very important as things developed….

Singapore was being described as a kind of Chinese Cuba, a hotbed of left-wing activity with a leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who was regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. His rhetoric jarred the sensitivities of many people.

What the British had in mind was how to pull out but yet hand things over to local leaders in Singapore in such a way as to ensure future stability, peace, and prosperity. They came up with what was known in code language as the “Grand Design.”

That was to persuade Tengku Abdul Rahman [pictured] to include Singapore and fold its 85 percent Chinese ethnic population into the Federation of Malaya. Tengku Abdul Rahman, to put it mildly, was quite reluctant to do this. He didn’t need another 2.5 million Chinese in the Federation. He already had enough Chinese in it….

Q: And you have to admit that the ethnic Chinese were a destabilizing force in Malaya. 

BROWN: Many of them were. There were also many moderates among the Chinese community, but it was a very difficult situation. Now came the idea of including Singapore in this federation. Tengku [or Tunku] Abdul Rahman was very reluctant to go along with this British proposal to incorporate Singapore into the Federation of Malaya.

He felt that he did not need additional Chinese, who would essentially be led by Lee Kuan Yew who was considered by many conservative Malays as pro-Communist.

The bargaining went on, back and forth. For his part, Lee Kuan Yew subscribed to this British proposal as a chance to broaden substantially his opportunities and achieve his goal of a united, Malayan federation, ultimately to be dominated by the PAP in Singapore, with its superior intellect, expertise, and so forth. Of course, he was looking well down the road.

For three years I attended Lee Kuan Yew’s political rallies and any others that I could. It was a remarkable thing…. I had recently graduated from the Chinese language school at Taichung, Taiwan. My knowledge of Mandarin was at the S-4, R-4 level [speaking, fluent; reading, fluent, on a five-point scale]….What I did was to go out into this really exciting scene and attend every rally that I could, at noon, and in the evenings. I went on my own. It wasn’t a requirement of the job. I tried to build up a picture of the situation….

For three years, day and night, I followed Lee Kuan Yew as best I could. It was a fascinating experience. His knowledge of Mandarin was improving. He had a fantastic ability to orate. Depending on the audience, he would speak first in English, then in Malay, and his Malay was very fluent, then in somewhat broken Mandarin. Then he would go back and sum it up in English.

To come back to the overall plan, Tengku Abdul Rahman didn’t want to include Singapore in the Federation of Malaya. The British said, “Okay, we’ll throw in the Borneo Territories [of Sarawak, Brunei, and North Borneo].”

Well, the Tengku didn’t particularly like the idea of including the rather impoverished territory of Sarawak. Sabah, or North Borneo, was more affluent, but dominated by Chinese businessmen.

In Sarawak there was a virulent progressive Chinese political party, the Sarawak United Peoples Party. He didn’t like that. Of the whole kit and caboodle, the one thing that attracted him was Brunei, whose population consisted almost entirely of Malay Muslims. He thought that they were his kind of people, and they were sitting on a pot of oil.

In the end, after tremendously complicated negotiations, he got everything but what he wanted most. In the end the Sultan of Brunei didn’t agree to come into the Federation of Malaya. It turned out that Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo, also known as Sabah, were to be included in the Federation of Malaya.

As soon as Lee Kuan Yew’s cadres or rank-and-file party workers realized what was up and that there was to be a referendum on the inclusion of Singapore in the Federation, all hell broke loose. Many of them, perhaps 90 percent of the membership, broke away from the PAP.

However, since it had a Leninist party structure, they couldn’t overthrow Lee Kuan Yew in party terms. They just all left the PAP. They set up something called the “Barisan Sosialis” [BS], or the “Socialist Front.” This was in 1962.

“You’ve got to be willing to cut your grandmother’s throat in this business” 

Q: You were in Singapore from 1961 to 1964. 

BROWN: Yes. Now I was really in business. Now rallies were going on, day and night, all around Singapore. The debates were in Mandarin, although the leaders of the Barisan Socialists also spoke Hokkien, Teo Chew, and Cantonese, depending on their audiences. However, mass communications were conducted in Mandarin. I can’t tell you how many rallies I attended in a white sport shirt hunkered down like everybody else.

The Barisan Socialist Chinese political activists really had a machine for turning out great numbers of people. The activists were saying: “Absolutely, No” to the idea of including Singapore in the Federation of Malaya. Lee Kuan Yew was saying: “Absolutely, yes, under the right conditions which I will obtain.”

The Federation was to be called the “Federation of Malaysia.” Lee Kuan Yew’s opponents knew what was coming, and it came. They were hounded, arrested, and incarcerated. Lee Kuan Yew was able to hang much of the responsibility for this on the British and then on the Malay authorities. He was a politician par excellence.

As I heard him say, “You’ve got to be willing to cut your grandmother’s throat in this business.” I also heard him say, “Look, I’ve got the little gun. But behind me is the big gun,” meaning the British. It was a situation where what he was implying, really, was that if the Chinese left got too frisky or too violent, the British would conduct another security sweep and put many of the activist leaders in jail. In fact, this is what eventually happened.

It was like mowing the lawn. The British progressively arrested the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew’s erstwhile colleagues who had set up the Barisan Sosialis, and into prison they went! 

Q: I would have thought that we would be particularly vigilant regarding the influence of Communist China in this. 

BROWN: Oh, yes, we did. ­So what then developed was an American effort, after considerable to-ing and fro-ing internally. Remember, the Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur, Charles Peterson, who was a political appointee but had once been Consul General in Singapore, thought that this was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

The Ambassador in Indonesia, Howard P. Jones, hearing the remarks made by President Sukarno and his supporters in Indonesia, thought that the inclusion of Singapore in Malaysia was a distinctly bad idea. He thought that it would only rile things up in Indonesia which, from his point of view, should be the center of our attention in the area.

Our Ambassador in Manila, also had qualms after hearing the claim made by the Philippine Government under President Diosdado Macapagal that what we called “Sabah” rightfully belonged to the Philippines. Macapagal said that this territory had somehow been confiscated from them by British sleight of hand.

In Singapore our independent Consulate General was in the middle. We made our frank comments and we were very much a part of the discussion. In the end, Singapore was included in the Federation of Malaysia. When this happened, the Barisan Sosialis was essentially decimated, with its leadership in prison, following progressive security sweeps by the Singapore police.

President Sukarno of Indonesia then launched what he called “Konfrontasi” or Indonesian confrontation of Malaysia. It was not an official war, but it amounted to that. Terrorist bombings began to take place in Singapore, and all kinds of threats were made….

When I arrived in Singapore in 1961, the British Governors in the Borneo Territories, in their formal, colonial uniforms, were addressing the people along traditional paternalistic lines, asserting in effect, “We hold these territories in trust for you against dark forces.” This was an apparent reference to the Chinese Communists.

Independence and a Revolt in Brunei

They continued: “There is talk of independence and so forth. One need not pay any attention to this. All of this will take time, a great deal of time, and we will go at it gradually, always protecting your rights.”

Suddenly, London told these Governors: “Let’s go to independence.” These same Governors then had to come out and say, “It’s now time for independence.” The plurality of the voters in the Borneo territories was non-Muslim.

The prospect of being taken over by a Muslim-headed Federation of Malaysia was not very appetizing, except for the Muslim minority groups, which amounted to about 20 or 25 percent of the total population. They thought that this arrangement was great!

In Sabah the Chinese community was conservative and unhappy about coming under Malay domination. The Chinese in Sarawak included some moderate, conservative types, but some hot-headed leftists as well. They had a party, the Sarawak United Peoples Party (SUPP), which was something like Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP, i.e. moderates at the top and leftist cadres. Its leaders were not as skilled as Lee Kuan Yew was. There were pro-Communist newspapers in the various little ports of Sarawak. I subscribed to and read them. They were putting out the straight, Beijing line. It was amazing….

So I was building up a certain expertise on the situation in Sarawak and Sabah, plus that in Brunei. Brunei was a British-protected Sultanate. Its oil production was declining, but it was still a wealthy area. Brunei had a Malay Muslim population and a smaller Chinese ethnic population, which was doing much of the work within a British shell.

Into all of this came a firebrand named Sheikh Azahari, an ethnic Malay. He had Indonesian connections. As Sukarno launched the Konfrontasi against Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah, Azahari and his crowd launched an abortive, Muslim coup in Brunei [on December 8, 1962].

I had the good fortune, professionally speaking, to predict it. After home leave I had come back to Brunei where I always spoke to Chinese shopkeepers. I found that a lot of green camouflage cloth and sharp instruments were being sold.

Putting all of this together, with some other information, I came back to Singapore fresh from home leave and said, “There’s going to be a revolt in Brunei.” I drafted a cable about this. My boss, Sam Gilstrap, who was then the Consul General in Singapore, and Bob Donhauser, my immediate supervisor, called me in and said, “This is pretty strong stuff that you’re writing about a coming revolt.”

I said, “Yes, I predicted a rebellion.”

They said, “Well, this is pretty far out. Tell you what we’ll do. We’ll make it an Airgram.” So we wrote it up as an Airgram [which were longer and sent by diplomatic pouch, rather than by cables], sent it in, and the revolt did break out. Naturally, Washington asked “Why didn’t we know about this?” Sam Gilstrap, the Consul General, was visiting Washington and said, “Well, we predicted it for you. It’s all there!”….

“That’s it, baby, you’re out of here!”

Robert W. Duemling – Consul Malaysia, 1963-1966

DUEMLING: During this very turbulent political period, one of [High Commissioner to Malaysia Lord Anthony] Head’s frequently unannounced visitors was Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore who made Singapore independent again in 1965. I was at the British residence on the day that in effect the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, threw Singapore out of Malaysia.

I’ll never forget Lee Kuan Yew rushing to the British residence unannounced because he was in such close touch with the British government about these problems. He was in tears. He consulted with the High Commissioner and then left. I asked Lord Head what was going on and he told me confidentially that Lee just had a session with the Malaysian Prime Minister who told Lee that he thought that he (Lee) had violated a gentlemen’s agreement regarding the forthcoming elections.

The Prime Minister thought that Lee’s party, which was based in Singapore, would not contest any elections on the mainland. But apparently Lee, after having made that agreement, went back to his own Cabinet which over-ruled him. It decided that their party would contest in two or three constituencies on the mainland.

That was obviously contrary to the agreement originally reached and the Tunku threw Singapore out of Malaysia. This anecdote is interesting in part because there are many versions of how the rupture between Malaysia and Singapore took place. One version had it that Singapore and Lee took the initiative to opt out of Malaysia. That was not the case.

My sense was that Lee would have preferred to stay in Malaysia because at the time there was considerable question about the economic viability of a little city-state like Singapore. Singapore then, as contrasted to now, was not the economic major player. It was a busy little place with a certain amount of commerce and some manufacturing, but it was nothing like Hong Kong.

A cabinet minister on the CIA payroll, wired to a polygraph

Samuel Hart- Consular/Political Officer Malaysia 1964-1966

HART: There was one big political event while I was there although it ended up not being as big a deal as everybody feared it would be. Lee Kuan Yew, “the George Washington of Singapore,” had brought Singapore into the Federation on September 16, 1963.

But on the morning of August 9, 1965, we woke up and Singapore was no longer in the Federation. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, had decided he’d had enough of Lee Kuan Yew’s Chinese lip, and one night he said, “That’s it, baby, you’re out of here,” and Singapore was out of the Federation — a unilateral act on the part of the Prime Minister, who had a solid majority in the parliament and he didn’t have to worry about where the votes were coming from. And that was it.

Q: What was the embassy reaction to this? I’m sure everything at that point was predicated on what we considered the fragility of Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War was going and we were just getting cranked-up into it. I’m sure we saw everything in terms of what does this mean to the Communists and all that, so how did that hit us? 

HART: Well, I’m not sure that it was looked at quite this way. Kuan Yew was a known quantity to us.

You may recall that Kuan Yew, in ’65, I guess it was, caused the United States a great amount of discomfort….The intelligence function in Malaysia and Singapore was a British MI-5 function. There were some limits on what we were supposed to get into there. Supposedly MI-5 took the lead, and the CIA was just more or less a bit player in the whole thing.

Well, of course, as it happens in most intelligence things, we were cheating. And in other instances, they were cheating. And we had a bandit down in Singapore, a cabinet minister who was on the CIA payroll.

One night they had him wired to a polygraph in a safe house in Singapore. This happened in the early ’60s. The Singapore MI-5 burst in on the safe house and there’s this cabinet minister wired to the polygraph. Kuan Yew was really pissed off, but he didn’t go public on us.

But after Singapore became independent and Kuan Yew got to a point where he was asking the United States for aid, he wasn’t getting the answers from Secretary of State Dean Rusk that he wanted to get. And his response was, “If you keep saying things like you’re saying right now about me, I’m going to go public about this thing.” He didn’t get the money, and he did go public.

And the immediate response of the Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur, as well as Dean Rusk in Washington, was: “This is all a lie. CIA didn’t have one of his cabinet members wired.” Everybody in the embassy knew that they did. And in the end, he proved that they did. And it made a big fool out of the American Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur, and out of Dean Rusk.

But we weren’t big players. And I don’t think there was a general feeling that the breakup of Malaysia was a big setback in the anti-Communist movement, in part because it was just about that time that the end to the emergency in Malaysia took place, which had been going on for about 15 years.

The Malaysian Communist rebellion along the Thailand-Malaysia border had been reduced to nothing more than a little irritant, a couple of hundred people, something like that. Of course, it never amounted to more than about 5,000, and it tied down 100,000 troops. But it was gone. So we didn’t look at it as a big geopolitical crisis, I don’t think. And even to the extent that it was a crisis, it wasn’t ours. It was British…. 

Q: So we worked at being secondary players?

HART: Right. When the Tunku threw Kuan Yew out of the federation, he called the British High Commissioner first. He called the British High Commissioner about ten minutes to midnight, and he threw Kuan Yew out at midnight. That’s how much notice he had. The American Ambassador, I think, got a call from the British High Commissioner sometime after that, saying this is coming down. Those were the lines, as they should be.

BROWN: As far as Singapore was concerned, I had my doubts as to how the relationship with the Federation of Malaysia would survive over the long term. Indeed, shortly thereafter Lee Kuan Yew was seen by the Malay leadership of the Federation of Malaysia as so rambunctious that Tengku Abdul Rahman summoned him to Kuala Lumpur and told him that Singapore was out of the Federation.

Lee Kuan Yew had been preaching for a long time that Singapore’s water and commerce were so intertwined with Malaysia that it could not make it alone. I had heard him make this statement on many occasions. Then, when he came back from his meeting with Tengku Abdul Rahman, he called a press conference and said, “Of course we can make it alone, and we’re going to make this place really go ahead.” And he did.

Now Lee made a success of Singapore as an independent entity at the expense of many other people. Anybody who got in his way, and this has always been the case, he ran over like a steamroller.

I had mixed feelings concerning how long Singapore could last in this way. I still have mixed feelings on this subject. The question was whether only Lee Kuan Yew could do what was done. Did things have to work out that way, or could it not have been done in a nicer, more democratic manner? This is something for scholars to debate.