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Table of content
Section 1
Section 2
Section 3

How significant was the Role of UMNO in causing the separation of Singapore from Malaysia?

How significant was the Role of UMNO in causing the separation of Singapore from Malaysia? Reading Time
11 mins Read
How significant was the Role of UMNO in causing the separation of Singapore from Malaysia? Word Count
2,200 Words
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Table of content

Section 1

This investigation explores the separation of Singapore from Malaysia on 9 August 1965, and will examine the question: “How significant was the Role of UMNO in causing the separation of Singapore from Malaysia?”


The sources chosen are From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region 1945-1965 by Mohamed Noordin Sopiee, which discusses the successes and failures of various unifications, including the merger with Singapore. The other source is The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, by Lee and details his thoughts and motives behind key events in Singapore’s history including the separation in 1965. The first source has an accusatory tone towards the PAP and their opposition to the central government, while the second source insinuates that the Malaysian government instigated the tensions. Thus, these sources provide conflicting perspectives on which political party played the bigger role in the separation.


The first source is valuable based on content as it utilizes archival sources that are restricted including Ibu Pejabat UMNO Papers deposited at Arkib Negara, thereby presenting exclusive information that would otherwise be unobtainable. It is also valuable based on origin as the author, Mohamed Noordin Sopiee is a student of political science, and wrote this book as a revised version of his Ph.D thesis, hence the information presented would be thoroughly researched and peer reviewed.


However, this source is limited based on origin as the author is a Malaysian native, and while he attempts to be objective, his national identity may cause him to downplay the faults of UMNO. It is also limited based on purpose as the Malaysian Department of Information was credited to provide invaluable help, implying that the contents of the book may be swayed towards painting Malaysia’s historical past in a protagonistic manner, skewing their role in the 1965 separation.


The second source is valuable based on its origin as it was a first person recount by Lee Kwan Yew, who was the Prime Minister of Singapore following their separation as well as the leader of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Therefore, his comments would accurately reflect why the PAP felt they were unjustly treated racially and reveals their motivations for an eventual separation. It is also valuable based on content as his memoirs speak about the primary reason for the separation in great detail, citing it as “UMNO’s determination to maintain total Malay supremacy”, which evidently provides significant content for the separation.


On the other hand, the source is limited based on purpose when considering that despite the retrospective view that a memoir brings, Lee still favours Singapore’s government which he was the leader of, thus downplaying the various actions taken by the PAP that led to the separation in order to boost his party’s image. It is also limited based on origin as although it is a primary source, being the memoirs of Lee, he had to recount certain events decades after they occurred, thus causing some details surrounding the separation to be remembered inaccurately.

Section 2

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was the primary ruling party during Singapore’s introduction into the nation in 1963, and had jurisdiction over local affairs. UMNO’s role in causing Singapore’s eventual separation on 9 August 1965 could be attributed to a multitude of factors. One such factor was the imposition of Article 153, which grants responsibility to the Tunku (King) to safeguard the special position of Malays, which was particularly controversial as it conflicted with Singapore’s meritocratic social structure. Aside from this, UMNO’s role in inciting the race riots of 1964 also escalated tensions between various racial groups in Singapore. Furthermore, their unfair economic policy towards Singapore would also strain relations between the two parties. The investigation focuses on these factors when examining UMNO’s role in provoking the separation. However, the significance of UMNO in the separation is limited by other factors such as the PAP’s role in instigating political unrest.


Firstly, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia is attributed to UMNO’s forceful introduction of Article 153, or the Bumiputera Policy. Briefly, the policy was targetted at resolving the disparities between Malays and non-Malays, assisting Malays in attaining social and economic equity through various aids including reservations of public civil service positions and education provisions such as priorities for scholarships. This would ideally promote intergenerational upward mobility as well as to empower the Malays, who suffered under British colonial rule as the British had imported chinese immigrants to fulfill their economic needs. As this policy was aptly moulded to fit the socio-economic climate of Malaya, it did not translate well into Singapore. For instance, the population distribution in Singapore was 75% chinese, and thus Article 153 would disadvantage an overwhelming majority. Furthermore, the PAP and its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, maintained a belief in a merit-based system after coming into power in 1959. This indicates a fundamental incompatibility between the two nations’ social systems, setting up hostility between UMNO and the PAP. Thus, UMNO’s choice to introduce Article 153 was part of the reasoning behind Singapore’s separation, evidenced by Lee citing meritocracy in an October 1965 speech when he mentions “anybody who wants ‘special rights’ had better put in some special effort for me to see.” when referring to Singapore’s recent independence.


Secondly, while Article 153 played the role of instigating racial tensions, these tensions were further escalated by other actions by UMNO, eventually culminating in the racial riots of July 1964. One of these actions comprised of radicalised Malays within SUMNO instigating conflict in the form inflamatory speeches such as in the case of Syed Ali Redza Alsagoff where he preached “Malays must unite and rise.” Along with Lee’s refusal to adhere to Article 153 during a PAP-organsied Malay convention, it degraded the local government’s status to both a political opponent of UMNO and a foe of the Malay community. These directly resulted in the riots leading to 23 fatalities and 454 casualties, accompanied by subsequent riots, which was directly incited by the aforementioned actions by UMNO since they occurred merely hours after the congregation of Malays.


Aside from the comments made by radical UMNO leaders, they also played a role in stirring racial tensions through the utilization of the Utusan Melayu, the Malay state newspaper, as a propaganda tool. According to Lee, they created a narrative that the PAP had been unjust in their treatment of Malays in Singapore, which disrupted the communal peace. Naturally, it can be seen that the state had influenced the Malay population into believing that they were being racially targeted, propagating them into taking a hostile view towards other races. This gave the Malays at the SUMNO rally more incentive to protest the motif of PAP’s unfair treatment of the Malays. The outbreak of the riots was a major milestone en route to Singapore’s separation as evidenced by the pressure by UMNO leaders to replace the PAP and even remove Lee from power following the event. These leaders, dubbed ‘ultras’, became aggressive in their efforts to achieve this goal, and this possibility of further violence compounded in a higher chance of the separation occuring. Furthermore, the violent unrest concerned the Tunku as he wanted the international committee to view his state as racially prosperous, further spurring talks of a separation. Thus, UMNO’s role in provoking racial tensions played a crucial role in Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia, as it had led to the riots and unrest.


Lastly, the economic difficulties that UMNO set against the PAP also contributed to the separation. In January 1965, the Tunku clashed with Singapore’s government as he adamantly rejected their demands for representation in the central parliament if they were to be taxed. The PAP’s vexation towards their economic position was further worsened as this clash was preceded by an increase of taxes in Singapore by 39.8% in November despite the state comprising 17% of the population, something that Singapore’s finance minister Goh Keng Swee deemed as “incongruous”. Due to the combination of taxation without representation, this economic issue spiralled into one with more severe political fallout. For instance, after unfairly treating the PAP with their taxation policy, they accused their refusal to adhere to it as anti-Malay at the Dewan Ra’ayat (Malaysian Parliment) in May 1965. This further cemented the rift between Singapore and Malaysia, making the possibility of the separation imminent, as those in parliament labelled Lee as the most disruptive force in Malaysia’s history, sparking additional dissent. Thus, the separation can also be significantly attributed to UMNO’s economic policy followed by their antagonization of the PAP.


However, when looking at the causes of the separation, UMNO’s role can be contrasted with the PAP’s. This was due the political interference of the PAP when they campaigned in Malaysia and accused UMNO of neglecting the welfare of non-Malays, with Malay politicians interpreting the attempt as a bid by Lee to begin attaining premiership in Kuala Lumpur. Consequently, the Malaysian perspective argues that these actions by the PAP ostracized UMNO whilst attempting to humiliate them. This stirred racial tensions in Singapore, evidenced by Merdeka’s (UMNO’s journal) report on the riots, citing “(PAP) caused a feeling of dissatisfaction or frustration” among the Malays in Singapore. Thus, the PAP were not innocent during the racial riots which was a large factor for the separation, since their actions and social agenda had clashed with the central government, thereby compounding the racial pressures.


Furthermore, going back to the political clash at the Dewan Ra’ayat, some of their antagonization of the PAP were justified, further emphasizing the PAP’s involvement in the breakdown of political relations. Lee himself admitted that his racially-charged agenda during the speech, where he vouched for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, played a crucial role in the Tunku’s decision to oust Singapore. This was because the Tunku was fearful of a similar outbreak of violence, and he dreaded that Lee’s agenda would “disturb the equilibrium” of the social balance. Hence, the PAP did have a role in the separation as they had mirrored the role that the UMNO ‘ultras’ played with their racially charged remarks.


In conclusion, this essay has presented the argument that UMNO’s actions played a prominent role in the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. Their role consisted of the forceful imposition of Article 153, social strains imposed by the radical ‘ultras’ and the predatory economic policy towards Singapore. However, the onus of the separation also partly falls on the PAP due to their actions in instigating political and social unrest. Nevertheless, the actions done by UMNO outweigh that of the PAP as they had directly rallied the masses, spurring aggression, while the PAP played a more indirect role, where they targetted UMNO rather than the people. Thus, UMNO’s role was significant and the most important in the separation.

Section 3

Firstly, when studying various sources which may have conflicting perspectives, a notable challenge that I encountered were the contrasting interpretations of the same event. In the context of my investigation, the works of Lee Kuan Yew and Mohamed Noordin Sopiee, interpret the causes of the 1964 Singapore riots in a contradictory manner. Lee places much of the blame on the radical Malay ‘ultras’ while Sopiee believes that the PAP incited such tensions. From this, I gained exposure on how authors of historical works may manipulate certain evidence in order to construct their own perception or agenda of an event. Frequently, this is an issue that many historians face, and a possible method to partially alleviate it is through the corroboration of data. In my case, besides evaluating both perspectives, I further substantiated it with other documents and works by historians such as with Richard Clutterbuck’s book. It also enabled me to strive towards historical objectivity, as the various works I used referenced an array of archival material from both perspectives, creating a narrative based more on facts rather than opinion. These methods are employed by historians such as Albert Lau, a leading reason as to why his work was referenced prevelantly, ensuring that the presented argument is not favoured to one perspective.


Secondly, aside from Lee’s memoirs, primary information regarding the topic was also collected through speeches by figure heads of both the PAP and UMNO. They were primarily used as a means to examine each party’s view of who was at fault en route to the separation. However, they are evidently biased towards their own government, teeming with emotive language and having an accusatory tone. Here, I learnt that due to the nature of speeches, historians would largely employ them as a mere illustration for a point, rather than the basis for an argument. For instance, Lee’s speech on meritocracy was used in my investigation to further cement a point on the role of Article 153 instead of the crux of the entire argument. Historians avoid referring to speeches as the main backing for a perspective as it would diminish the strength of the perspective since it would be built on emotions rather than facts. Therefore, aside from considering varying perspectives, within the same argument, it is wise for historians to select sources stemming from differing mediums, such that the argument would be impervious to being countered easily.



  • Ongkili, James P. Nation-Building in Malaysia: 1946-1974. Singapore u.a.: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1985.
  • Trends in Southeast Asia. Singapore: The Institute, 1971.
  • Clutterbuck, Richard. Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia. 1945- 1983, Place of publication not identified: ROUTLEDGE, 2019.
  • Menon, Ramachandran. One of a Kind: Remembering SAFTI's First Batch. Singapore: Pointer, Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, SAFTI Military Institute, 2015.
  • Sopiee, Mohamed Noordin. From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region 1945-1965. Kuala Lumpur: University Malaya Press, 2007.
  • Lee, Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2015.
  • Lau, Albert. A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement. Singapore: Times Media Private Ltd./Eastern Univ. Press, 2003.
  • Rahman, Abdul. Looking Back: Monday Musings and Memories. Kuala Lumpur: MPH Publishing, 2011.
  • Sadka, Emily. Singapore and the Federation: Problems of Merger. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1962.


  • Moore, R. Quinn. “Multiracialism and Meritocracy: Singapore's Approach to Race and Inequality.” Review of Social Economy 58, no. 3 (2000):
  • Bellows, Thomas J. “Meritocracy and the Singapore Political System.” Asian Journal of Political Science 17, no. 1 (2009):
  • Milne, R. S., and Nancy McHenry Fletcher. “The Separation of Singapore from Malaysia.” Pacific Affairs 43, no. 2 (1970):
  • Omar, Rusdi. “An Analysis of the Underlying Factors That Affected Malaysia- Singapore Relations During the Mahathir Era: Discords and Continuity,” May 2014.
  • Jasmin, Fairus Bin. “ANALYZING THE PERCEPTIONS AND PORTRAYALS OF THE 1964 RACIAL RIOT IN SINGAPORE,” National University of Singapore, 2013.


Speeches and official documents