1964 race riots in Singapore

1964 race riots in Singapore
Part of the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation
Date21 July 1964 (1964-07-21)
3 September 1964 (1964-09-03)
Kallang, Geylang and various districts in Singapore
Caused byPolitical and religious tensions between ethnic Chinese and Malay groups
Resulted in
  • Islandwide curfew imposed from 21 July 1964 to 2 August 1964 in the aftermath of the July riots [1]
  • Islandwide curfew imposed from 4 September 1964 to 11 September 1964 in the aftermath of the September riots [1]
  • Temporary establishment of the Commission of Inquiry team [1]
  • Indirectly led to Singapore's expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia
  • Indirectly led to the independence of Singapore the following year
  • Establishment of Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution after its independence
  • Annual commemoration of Racial Harmony Day on 21 July to mark the day of the July riots
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
Casualties and arrests
Death(s)23 (July riots)
13 (September riots) [1]
Injuries454 (July riots)
106 (September riots) [1]
Arrested3,568 (July riots)
1,439 (September riots) [1]
Detained945 (July riots)
268 (September riots) [1]
Charged715 (July riots)
154 (September riots) [1]
Part of a series on the
Flag of Singapore.svg Singapore portal
Part of a series on the
The independence of Malaya and the merger proclamation of North Borneo and Sarawak to formed Malaysia.
Flag of Malaysia.svg Malaysia portal

The 1964 July racial riot is considered to be one of the worst incidents in the history of Singapore. 23 people died in the riot and 454 others suffered severe injuries.[2] This riot occurred during the procession to celebrate Mawlid (the birthday of the Muslim prophet Muhammad). Twenty-five thousand majority-Muslim Malay people had gathered at the Padang.

Besides the recital of some prayers and engagement in some religious activities, a series of fiery speeches was also made by the organisers, instigating racial tensions. During the procession, clashes occurred between the Malays and the Chinese which eventually led to a riot spreading to other areas.[3] There are multiple accounts and reports on how the riots began. The riots are seen as pivotal leading up to the independence of Singapore, for fear from the government of Malaysia (of which Singapore was briefly a part) that Malay-Chinese ethnic violence would spread in the rest of the newly federated country.

The racial riot played a pivotal role in shaping Singapore's future policies which centred on the principles of multiracialism and multiculturalism.

Pre-independence political context in Singapore from 1963-1964

Singapore's union with Malaysia in 1963

16 September 1963 marked the year of Singapore's merger with Malaysia for economic and security interests as the former lacked the natural resources for survival. Malaysia's Prime Minister Tunku had initially rejected Lee Kuan Yew's proposal for a merger due to the fear of communist insurgency in Singapore and the large number of ethnic Chinese in Singapore which might outnumber the Malay population in Malaysia.[4] (Additionally, Chinese Malaysians constituted a large portion of the population of Malaya/Malaysia at the time and continue to this day.)

However, Tunku changed his mind to call for the merger with Singapore, when the Pro-communist Singaporean leader Ong Eng Guan had won a seat for the PAP in one of the by-elections. This worried Malaysia as this would mean the potential use of Singapore as a communist base to spread communism to Malaysia, over which it would not have sovereignty.[3] Furthermore, maintenance of the high number of Malays in Malaysia was addressed by the inclusion of Borneo island's regions Sabah and Sarawak into the Malaysian federation.

Ideological differences: PAP vs. UMNO

The People's Action Party (PAP), the dominant political party in Singapore, and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the null dominant political party in Malaysia, had two differing competing political ideologies. The PAP, led by Lee Kuan Yew, adopted non-communal politics whereby it called for equality for all regardless of race or religion. By contrast, UMNO, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, advocated for the provision of special rights and privileges for the bumiputeras (indigenous Malays in Malaysia); meant as a form of affirmative action as the Straits Chinese had traditionally better economic affluence and the Malays tended to be poorer. These ideological differences were important factors causing social and political tensions from 1963 until the point of separation of Singapore from Malaysia.[4] One of the conditions imposed by Tunku Abdul Rahman was Singapore do not interfere with Malaysian politics and federal elections. The relationship between UMNO and PAP began to sour when the PAP won 37 out of 51 seats in the 1963 Singaporean general election that were conducted five days after the merger with Singapore.[4] The Singapore Alliance Party, which was supported by UMNO and had hoped to receive the support from the local Malay community, fielded its 42 candidates but failed to win even a single seat.[5] The UMNO saw these results as threatening, as these candidates were primarily running for election in Malay-dominated areas but were defeated by the PAP.[5]

Lee and the PAP fielded some of candidates to contest in the 1964 Federal elections in April as an attempt to portray itself as a Malaysian political party as well, in the interest of national unification. This was instead of the request made by Tunku Abdul Rahman not to "interfere" in Malaysia's federal elections.

The PAP won one seat, which was seen as an intrusion into Malaysia's political space and a threat to the provision of special rights to the Malays.[5] Tunku viewed this defeat as a humiliating blow to the credibility of UMNO. Lee's intentions of creating a Malaysian Malaysia, advocating for equal treatment and opportunity for all races, was viewed with suspicion and hostility by UMNO. In an attempt to safeguard Malaysia's political interest and to sway the Singaporean Malays' support towards UMNO, Malaysia began to launch anti-PAP propaganda campaign through the publication of news in using newspapers and political rallies.

Events leading to the outbreak of Racial Riots in 1964

The official state's[which?] narrative on the cause of the 21st July 1964 characterizes the UMNO and Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu controlled by UMNO as playing an instigating role. It points to the publishing of anti-PAP headlines and incitement for the Malays to against the PAP. Utusan Melayu is the first Malay owned newspaper founded by Singapore's first President Yusuf Ishak in 1939.[6] Utusan Melayu's stated aim was to “fight for religion, race and its homeland”, placing key emphasis on the rights and the elevated status of the local Malays in Singapore.[4] Utusan Melayu aroused anti-PAP sentiments among the local Malays by publishing and amplifying the Singapore government's decision to evict the Malays from Crawford area for redevelopment of the urban spaces. This was seen as a violation of Malay rights. The newspaper did not report that along with the Malays, the Chinese residents were also evicted.[5][quantify]

To address the grievances of the Malays, Lee held a meeting with the various Malay organisations on July 19. This angered UMNO, as it was not invited to attend this meeting. In that meeting, Lee assured the Malays that they would be given ample opportunities education, employment and skill training for them to compete effectively with the non-Malays in the country. However, PM Lee refused to promise the granting of special rights for the Malays. This meeting did satisfy some Malay community leaders and agitated some, who had the view that the needs and pleas of the Malays were not being heard.[4] The Singapore Malayan National Committee was one such group that was not convinced of PM Lee's promises. Thus in order to rally the support of the Malays to go against the PAP government, leaflets containing rumours of the Chinese in Singapore trying to kill the Malays were published and distributed throughout the island on July 20, 1964. The spread of such information was also carried out during the procession of the Prophet Mohammad's birthday celebration, triggering the riots.

As a form of retaliation and to further incite the conflict between the Malays and PAP, UNMO called for a meeting which was attending by a close to 12,000 people. This meeting was chaired by Secretary General of UMNO Syed Ja’far Albar who referred to Lee as an ‘Ikan Sepet’, which lives in muddy waters,[clarification needed] and called for collective action against the Chinese community led by the PAP. While this convention was under way, communal violence was sparked in Bukit Mertajam killing two people. This was seen as a prelude to the much bigger riots that followed on July 21st, 1964.[4]

Former Minister for Social Affairs, Othman Wok wrote in his autobiography that he had come to know from one of the reporters from the Utsan Melayu that the latter had already known about the potential riots even before their outbreak, which raised official suspicions that UNMO leaders may have orchestrated the riots.[7] Othman also makes references to some key political meetings which took place between the Malay community in Singapore and politicians in Singapore to express their grievances. Accounts from the meetings[citation needed] indicate that the Malays in Singapore had no major grievances and that UMNO’s Secretary-General Syed Ja’afar was responsible for instigating them.[7] Some of the matters brought up by the Malay community included infrastructural issues that Malay schools faced and these issues were contrary to what the UMNO and Utusan Melayu had portrayed.

Other Languages