The talk of treason: how Singapore’s historical ties to Malaya explains it all

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What does PJ Thum’s reference to our “brothers and sisters in Malaya” and the Singapore government’s exceptional hostility towards anything it sees as having the slightest potential to undermine our sovereignty have in common? They can both be traced back to our journey to independence and our historical place in the Malayan world.

Singapore was never destined to be a sovereign state in the sense that throughout our history prior to independence, we were always part of some bigger political entity – whether it was the Johor Sultanate, the Straits Settlements or the Federation of Malaysia.

Even in 1963 – just two years before our independence – the dream of a “Greater Malaya” was a very vivid part of the Singaporean imagination. It can be quite easy to forget that the PAP was the most fervent supporter of merger, having believed that the historic and economic ties between the island and the remainder of the peninsula made merger not just sensible, but necessary for the survival and prosperity of the Malayan people.

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This idea might appear unimaginable today, but it was completely natural for its time. The ties between the two lands are perhaps most vividly demonstrated by the fact that several of Singapore’s most notable founding fathers were born in Malaya, not Singapore. S. Rajaratnam was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Seremban and Selangor. Goh Keng Swee was born in Malacca. Toh Chin Chye was born in Taiping, a town in Northwest Malaysia. These three men were all key founders of the PAP.

Imagine then, how Singapore’s leaders must have felt when Singapore left Malaysia. Our survival as a sovereign state depended on whether we could construct an identity that centred on us being a sovereign, independent nation. This, among other things, meant breaking away from the dream of being part of a “Greater Malaya”, which only a few years prior, was something that the PAP had fought tooth and nail for.

The pursuit of this identity became a very big part of Singapore’s journey as a nation. One could say that this project had both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aspects. The soft aspects included building a sense of community and introducing national symbols and songs to invoke in Singaporeans a sense of identity. The hard aspects, on the other hand, included standing up to foreign powers who attempt to assert themselves over us. One could easily see how useful this can be – whenever we stand against someone, we immediately create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy and by sending the message to others that we have ‘our way of life’, ‘our way of doing things’, we reinforce the idea of ‘us’ as one people, separate and independent from the ‘others’.

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Arguably, our attempt to build a Singaporean identity has been successful (and given our issues today with extremism and xenophobia, some might say too successful). Today’s Singaporeans clearly do not see themselves as part of Malaysia; in fact, many young Singaporeans might not be aware of the extent of the PAP’s involvement in fighting to be part of Malaysia, or the sentiment of the Malayan people of that bygone era.

Hence, when PJ Thum spoke of “our brothers and sisters in Malaya”, he was using language that Singaporeans from two generations ago would not at all have found peculiar. Having had access to the plethora of historical sources from that era, it is perhaps not difficult for Thum to live and breathe the ideas of that time and see almost as ‘natural’ the use and conveyance of certain words and ideas about Singapore’s relationship with the Malayan world. However, these are words and ideas which, to an ordinary person with no access to these sources and (especially after over 50 years of nation-building) no connection with that period of Singaporean history, will seem bizarre – some even say “traitorous”. But Thum’s words were not traitorous – in fact, they appeal to an idea which the PAP itself campaigned vigorously for over 50 years ago. So Thum is not a traitor; he is just half a century behind.

At the same time, the government’s aggressive response should come as unsurprising. Given its long history of standing against even the slightest attempt to undermine Singapore’s sovereignty, by attacking Thum, the government was simply acting out on a very old habit – behaving this way has become second nature for them. In fact, on this occasion, you could say that its response was very apt since the ideas that Thum alluded to were the very things that, in 1965, were probably the PAP’s biggest fear.

However, one might wonder whether this attitude is still relevant today, now that we have gone through so many years of nation-building. Perhaps not. But I would not be surprised if the government felt that when it comes to what it considers a sensitive issue which can be traced back to the circumstances in which our country came into existence (and the history of the party itself), it is better to be safe than sorry.

By Rio Hoe

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Cover photo credit: Straits Times

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