Communalism and Communism at Singaporean Independence

Lim Siew Yea, MA

Independence had been thrust upon an excessively divided nation in which three major racial communities -- Chinese, Malays and Indians -- lived as different, mutually exclusive societies. With a multi-ethnic population that did not share a distinctive culture, a common past, or had been "shaped into a common mould for more than one generation" (Sunday Times, 8.12.1996: 8), the sense of nationhood was strongly amiss. As observed by Lee, "Up till the '60s, many returned to their countries of origin to die in China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia" (Sunday Times, 8.12.1996: 8). The lack of people committed to working together for the future of the nation threatened its survival.

In the absence of a sense of nationhood, the political loyalties of most Singaporeans were based on ethnicity. The differences in interests among the ethnic qroups, fanned by the incendiary speeches of communalists aiming to stir up racial and religious feelings, gave rise to several major riots in which many people were killed and injured: "the Maria Hertogh riots of December 1950; the July and September 1964 unpublicized racial riots which occurred in Singapore as a result of the spillover effects of the 13 May 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur" (Quah, 1990: 58). The existence of "conflicting primordial issues like ethnic, religious, cultural and sectoral differences", therefore, further made the "formulation of a common natural identity...an elusive goal" (Seow, 1975:1).

Besides communalism, communism was another cause for anxiety for the newly formed government. The rise of communism began during the Japanese Occupation (1942-5) when many students in Chinese schools were strong supporters of the Malayan Communist Party guerilla movement. After the war, as Singapore came under the British colonial rule again, some of these radical students became "leaders of Communist United Front activities in the Chinese schools, old boys and clan associations, and many Chinese community organisations" (Sunday Times, 8.12.1996: 8).

In the 1950s, pro-communists and Chinese chauvinists enjoyed widespread support and loyalty within the Chinese community, which accounted for three-fourths of the population. This massive support gained by the procommunists derived importantly from the British colonial government's refusal to accept Chinese educational qualifications for employment the civil service. The antipathy between the British government and the proCommunist Chinese was a long-drawn out one. With subsequent events like the bus workers' strikes and the conscription of youths by the British government, what eventually arose were the violent "Chinese middle high school riots" in 1956 (Quah, 1990: 12).

Although the Internal Security Act and an efficient Internal Security Department successfully curbed the danger of communist influence, nevertheless, as long as there was the presence of these political groups not given to observing the rules of democratic political competition, the threat from this sector was far from over. As asserted by Mr Lee, "it will be a grave mistake to believe that these dangerous primeval forces, driven by religious and racial feelings, cannot erupt again" (Sunday Times 8.12.1996: 8). Both communism and communalism therefore remained anxieties of the new PAP government, which was determined to sustain the very existence and integrity of a multiracial Singapore.


Chan Heng Chee. Singapore: The Politics of Survival, 1965-67. Singapore, Kuala Lumpur: University Press, 1971.

Chua, Beng Huat. Communitarian Ideology and Politics in Singapore. London: Routledge, 1995.

Quah, Jon S. T. "National Values and Nation-Building: Defining the Problem." In Search of Singapore's National Values. Ed. Jon S. T. Quah. Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1990.

Seah, Chee Meow. The Singapore Bureacracy and Issues of Transition. Singapore: National University of Singapore, Department of Political Science, Occasional Paper No. 12, 1975.

[This essay has been adapted, with kind permission of the author, from Politics and Self: A Study of Gopal Baratham and Suchen Christine Lim, her 1996 National University of Singapore Master's thesis. GPL]

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