Federation of Malaysia

Singapore Infopedia


The Federation of Malaysia was formed following the merger of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak on 16 September 1963.1 Then Prime Minister of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman was initially resistant to the idea of Singapore joining Malaysia. He was concerned that the large Chinese community in Singapore would displace the Malays as the majority in the federation.2 There was also the threat that Malaya would be similarly engulfed by the communist subversion and radical left-wing movements that were causing political instability in Singapore and Borneo territories.3 Ultimately, almost 700,000 Borneo natives were brought into the federation to prevent a Chinese majority after merger with Singapore.4

Proposal of merger

The Tunku first broached the idea of a merger on 27 May 1961 during a meeting of foreign correspondents held in Singapore. He proposed a unification plan comprising Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak.5 Together with Singapore’s then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a joint communiqué was issued by both leaders in August 1961 stating their commitment to the merger.6 In November 1961, a White Paper presenting the points of agreement on the merger between Singapore and Malaya was released.7 This was followed by a memorandum containing recommendations for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia that was signed in February 1962 by the leaders of the proposed five constituent territories – Singapore, Malaya, Brunei, North Borneo and Sarawak.8 Brunei subsequently pulled out from the planned union.9

Opposition to merger

In Singapore, the proposal triggered a bitter power struggle within the People’s Action Party (PAP) government that eventually led to its split. The splintered left-wing group then formed the political party Barisan Sosialis in July 1961.10

The PAP had agreed to the terms of merger as negotiated with the federal government so as to retain “autonomy in education and labour policies to suit Singapore’s special circumstances”.11 According to the terms, Singapore would be allocated 15 instead of 25 seats (as would have been proportionate to the size of its electorate) in the federal parliament, and all Singapore citizens would retain their Singapore citizenship while automatically becoming citizens of the larger Federation. However, they could only vote in Singapore.12 Barisan Sosialis vigorously campaigned against the PAP’s proposed terms for merger, arguing for Singapore to be the “12th state of the federation with all Singapore citizens becoming federal citizens and Singapore having proportional representation in the federal parliament”.13

Radio talks on the merger by Lee Kuan Yew

Lee responded with a series of 12 radio talks broadcast between 13 September and 9 October 1961 to convince the people to accept the merger and to “clarify and explain the political situation in Singapore and the Federation” to “prevent the people from being confused by the Communists, their front organisations and front men”.14 Lee also detailed the history of the anti-colonial united front between PAP and the communists, including how the communists operated, their objectives, their reasons for derailing the merger, and the factors that caused the united front to eventually break up.15

1962 Referendum

The government decided to subject the question of a merger to a popular referendum, presenting three different forms of merger.16 The options were: (1) the terms laid out in the PAP’s White Paper; (2) a complete and unconditional merger as a state on an equal basis with the other 11 states; and (3) on terms no less favourable than the terms for the Borneo territories.17 The referendum was held on 1 September 1962, in which 71 percent of the Singapore population voted for PAP’s proposed merger terms.18

Operation Coldstore

In December 1962, an anti-colonial revolt broke out in Brunei. Not only did Lim Chin Siong, the secretary-general of Barisan Socialis, express support for the uprising, he had met the leader of the Brunei revolt days before. This led to the conviction that the Barisan Sosialis was not averse to political violence and that they were ready “to depart from constitutional methods and to jeopardise national defence and Singapore’s security by joining with groups resorting to violence and bloodshed as in the Borneo Territories”.19

The Singapore Special Branch mounted Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963 to “safeguard against any attempt by the communists to mount violence or disorder in the closing stages of the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia” and ensure that Singapore joined Malaysia “in a more secure and sound state”. Acting under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, the Special Branch arrested key leaders of Barisan Sosialis and its associated pro-communist organisations. Explaining the arrests, the Internal Security Council (ISC), which had sanctioned the operation, stated that it had evidence pointing to communist infiltration and control of Barisan Sosialis and its affiliated labour unions.20


Shortly after the Brunei Revolt, the Indonesian government expressed opposition to the Federation proposal.21 On 20 January 1963, Indonesian Foreign Minister Subandrio (Dr) announced a policy of konfrontasi (confrontation) towards Malaysia, criticising the plan as a British “neo-colonialist project” and a threat to their country’s security.22 In May 1963, then Indonesian President Sukarno and Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman held talks and agreed that a plebiscite would be held before the federation was formed. Sukarno agreed that Indonesia would not object if the people of North Borneo supported the Federation.23 However, the Tunku proceeded to sign the London Agreement on 9 July, which formalised the formation of the Federation of Malaysia on 31 August 1963.24 In a bid to diffuse tensions, talks between Indonesia and Malaysia were held in Manila, Philippines from 30 July to 5 August.25 However, when Malaysia announced on 29 August that the Federation of Malaysia would be formed on 16 September, Indonesia saw it as a breach of faith.26 In response, President Sukarno announced a “ganyang Malaysia”, or “Crush Malaysia”, campaign on 25 September 1963.27

After the Federation of Malaysia was formed, cross-border incursions into Sarawak and North Borneo escalated. Indonesia also carried out raids in Singapore and the Malaysian Peninsula. Singapore was hit by a wave of bomb explosions that culminated in the bombing of MacDonald House, which killed two people and injured 33 others.28 

1964 election

After Singapore joined the Federation, the PAP announced that it would be sending a token team of candidates to contest the Malaysian general election to be held in April 1964.29 The PAP’s participation in the general election caused a political uproar in Kuala Lumpur. The Tunku saw the contest as a political challenge and an attempt by the PAP to intervene in federal politics.30 Subsequently, the winning PAP candidate, Devan Nair, and the rest of the Singapore representatives were branded as opposition in the federal parliament, and Lee was offered the post of leader of the opposition. Although Lee declined the offer, he highlighted in his first post-election speech in federal parliament that Kuala Lumpur’s communal approach to politics might not be conducive for promoting racial unity in the long-term. Lee was of the view that the PAP could provide new direction to better integrate the races. In response, the Tunku reiterated that the PAP should limit its purview to Singapore and devote its energy to turning the island into the New York of Malaysia. In exchange, the Tunku assured Lee that his Alliance party would not interfere in the affairs of Singapore.31

However, extremists within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party did not agree to such a compromise. They launched a smear campaign against the PAP, accusing Lee and his government of mistreating the Malays in Singapore, and depriving them of the special rights enjoyed by their counterparts in Malaysia. The extremists used inflammatory language and appeals in Malay newspapers and rallies to stir up anti-PAP sentiment within the Malay community in Singapore.32  

Political and economic differences
The two major political parties in Malaysia, PAP and UMNO, soon started accusing each other of communalism. The accusations escalated until they erupted into racial violence in Singapore on 21 July and 2 September 1964.33 Despite agreeing to a two-year truce in September 1964, the acrimony between UMNO and PAP soon flared up again. At the heart of the rift was Lee’s multi-racial slogan, “Malaysian Malaysia”, which sowed deep distrust among UMNO leaders, especially the “ultras”, who viewed this as a challenge to their party’s raison d'être of undisputed Malay dominance.34

Further, Singapore leaders were frustrated with the slow progress of the creation of a common market, while Kuala Lumpur was unhappy with Singapore's continued resistance to the federal government’s request for increased revenue contributions to combat Konfrontasi, and for an agreed loan to develop North Borneo and Sarawak.35

By the second half of 1965, the stormy political climate in Malaysia showed no signs of relenting. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had become the Malaysian prime minister, was pressed to intervene to avoid a repeat of the communal clashes that had taken place in 1964. During his trip to London for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in June 1965, the Tunku decided that removing Singapore from the federation was the only way forward. He communicated this to his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak, who was instructed to lay down the groundwork for separation.36

By the week leading to 9 August 1965, separation had become a certainty. Negotiations over the separation were conducted in complete secrecy.37 The negotiations were led by Singapore’s then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee and Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak.38 The separation agreement was drafted by then Law Minister E. W. Barker at the end of July, along with other legal documents such as the Proclamation of Independence.39

Goh, Barker and Lee arrived in Kuala Lumpur separately on 6 August. The final version of the separation agreement was signed by Goh, Barker, Razak, Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Ismail bin Dato Abdul Rahman, Malaysian Finance Minister Tan Siew Sin and Malaysian Minister for Works V. T. Sambanthan.40 Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye and Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam signed the document on 7 August.41 Lee then flew back to Singapore on 8 August so the agreement could be signed by the rest of his cabinet members.42 

The birth of Singapore
A proclamation declaring Singapore’s independence was broadcast on Radio Singapore at 10 am on 9 August 1965.43 The press conference called by Lee at 4.30 pm was also televised. During the press conference, Lee explained the inevitability of separation despite his long-standing belief in the merger, and called on the people to remain resolute and calm.44 

Reaction to the news of the separation was mixed – relief, shock, disappointment and regret.45 The merger had been marked by differences and bitter political wrangling between the leaders of Singapore and Malaysia.46 Slightly less than two years after the September 1962 referendum, Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia and became independent.47 

Lee Meiyu

1. “Up Goes the Flag,” Straits Times, 17 September 1963, 1; Felix Abisheganaden, “Hail Malaysia!”, Straits Times, 16 September 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Albert Lau, A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2003), 1. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 LAU-[HIS])
3. A History of Singapore, ed. Ernest C.T. Chew and Edwin Lee (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 117. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS])
4. Mohamed Noordin Sopiee, From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region, 1945–65 (Kuala Lumpur: University Malaya Press, 2005), 16–17. (Call no. RSING 959.9 MOH)
5. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 2.
6. Albert Lau, The Malayan Union Controversy 1942–1948 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 44. (Call no. RSING 320.95951 LAU)
7. Yeo Kim Wah, Political Development in Singapore, 1945–55 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), 12–14. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 YEO)
8. Sopiee, Malayan Union to Singapore Separation, 33–38; Lau, Moment of Anguish, 4–5.
9. Harry Miller, “Story of the Federation Agreement,” Straits Times, 1 February 1948, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Sopiee, Malayan Union to Singapore Separation, 21–22; Lau, Moment of Anguish, 4–5; “Malayan Federation Instead of Union,” Straits Times, 5 July 1946, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Miller, “Story of the Federation Agreement.”
12. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 3–4.
13. “S’pore ‘Must Merge’ with Federation,” Straits Times, 7 May 1952, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “S’pore Must Be On Equal Footing,” Straits Times, 8 May 1952, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Tan Tai Yong, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’: Decolonization and the Politics of Merger (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 33–37. (Call no. RSING 959.5051 TAN); “The Party Manifestoes,” Straits Times, 2 April 1955, 1; “Merger? Lib-Soc Leader on ‘First Step’,” Straits Times, 27 April 1959, 7; “PMIP Plan to Solve Merger Problem,” Straits Times, 7 May 1959, 2; “Merger: PAP has Ruined Chance,” Singapore Standard, 8 May 1959, 6; “A Merger Deal,” Straits Times, 18 May 1959, 6; “MCA-UMNO Pledge More Jobs, Capital,” Singapore Standard, 12 May 1959, 6; “PAP on Nation Building and Merger,” Straits Times, 20 May 1959, 7; “Vote for a Party that will Speed Up the Merger,” Singapore Standard, 22 May 1959, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Party Manifestoes”; “PAP on Nation Building and Merger”; “Vote for a Party.”
17. Lee Kuan Yew, The Guild of Nanyang University Graduates to mark United Nations Day, speech, 6 November 1960, transcript, Ministry of Culture. (From National Archives of Singapore, document no. lky19601106)
18. Lee Kuan Yew, The Battle for Merger (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2014), 4–5. (Call no. RSING 959.5704 LEE-[HIS])
19. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 10.
20. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 10–11.
21. Lee, Battle for Merger, 126–127.
22. Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng and Tan Tai Yong, Singapore, a 700-Year History: From Early Emporium to World City (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009), 164–165. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 KWA-[HIS])
23. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’,” 39–41. 
24. Lee, Battle for Merger, 126–129.
25. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 12.
26. “Big ‘Unity’ Plan,” (1961, May 28). Straits Times, 28 May 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 12–13.
28. Singapore. Ministry of Culture, The Merger Plan (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1961), 5–7. (Call no. RCLOS 320.15709595 SIN); Lau, Moment of Anguish, 14–15.
29. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 14–15.
30. Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 202. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
31. Gordon P. Means, “Malaysia – A New Federation in Southeast Asia,” Pacific Affairs, 36, no. 2 (Summer 1963): 138. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Lee, Unexpected Nation, 189.
32. Jackie Sam, Roderick Pestana and Alan Young, “Lee Backs Tengku,” Straits Times, 4 June 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Singapore 15 Seats,” Straits Times, 17 November 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Singapore. Ministry of Culture, Merger Plan.
34. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’,” 141–143. 
35. “Logic Triumphed: It was Just Settlement, Says Lee,” Straits Times, 10 July 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Malaysia: Agreement Concluded Between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore (Singapore: Govt. Printer, 1963), 228–232. (Call no. RCLOS 342.595 SIN)
36. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 12.
37. Lee, Battle for Merger, 61.
38. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’,” 40; “Anson: Unionist Support PAP,” Straits Times, 3 June 1961, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Lee, Battle for Merger, 62.
40. Lee, Battle for Merger, 62–63; Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Motion of Confidence, vol. 14 of Debates: Official Report, 20 July 1961, cols. 1664–1680. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
41. “Barisan Socialis is Registered,” Straits Times, 14 August 1961, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Lee Siew Choh, “Barisan Sosialis Stand On Merger,” Straits Times, 11 September 1961, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’,” 105.
44. “Lee to Give 9 Radio Talks on Merger and Politics,” Singapore Free Press, 12 September 1961, 3; “Prime Minister to Give Broadcast Talks,” Straits Times, 12 September 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, 1998), 394–399. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
45. “Lim Did Write to MCP,” Straits Times, 28 January 1962, 2; “The Reds and Lim,” Straits Times, 22 January 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 394–399.
46. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 406–407.
47. Lee Kuan Yew, “The Merger Motion At The Sitting of the Legislative Assembly,” speech, 24 November 1961, transcripts, Ministry of Culture. (From National Archives of Singapore, document lky19611124)
48. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’,” 105–108; Ee Boon Lee, “Lee: ‘Trump Card’ has Foiled the Anti-Nationalists,” Straits Times, 16 August 1962, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
49. John Drysdale, Singapore, Struggle for Success (Singapore: Times Books International, 1984), 301. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DRY-[HIS])
50. Singapore, Extraordinary, G. N. 55 of Government Gazette, 17 August 1962, 1093. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
51. Singapore, Extraordinary, 1093.
52. “Referendum Bill is Passed in Assembly,” Straits Times, 7 July 1962, 6. (From NewspaperSG); Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 430; Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004), 92. Call no. RSING 324.25957 HUS)
53. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 446; Jackie Sam, “Merger D-Day in S’pore,” Straits Times, 1 September 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
54. Singapore, Extraordinary, G. N. 60 of Government Gazette, 3 September 1962, 1249. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG); Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 451.
55. “Barisan Leader: We Reject the Result and We Fight On…,” Straits Times, 3 September 1962, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
56. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’, 115.
57. Leslie Hoffman, “Signing Drama,” Straits Times, 10 July 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
58. Felix Abisheganaden, “The Cobbold Report,” Straits Times, 2 August 1962, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
59. “The Majority View: ‘Well Balanced’ Malaysia Commission,” Straits Times, 19 January 1962, 8; Felix Abisheganaden, “Malaysia Blueprint: ‘Wishes of the People Must Be Respected’,”Straits Times, 7 February 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Abisheganaden, “Cobbold Report”; “Merger Next August,” Straits Times, 2 August 1962, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
61. “Brunei Team Seeks Views on Malaysia,” Straits Times, 19 January 1962, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
62. Felix Abisheganaden, “Door Open to Brunei Any Time: Razak,” Straits Times, 12 July 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
63. Hoffman, “Signing Drama.” 
64. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’, 189; Lau, Moment of Anguish, 14–17.
65. Tan, Creating ‘Greater Malaysia’, 189.
66. Lee Kuan Yew, "Malaysia Solidarity Day Mass Rally and March-Past on the Padang," speech, 31 August 1963, transcript, Ministry of Culture (From National Archives of Singapore document no. lky19630831); “Singapore’s Claim ‘Not Valid’,” Straits Times, 4 September 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
67. “Singapore’s Claim ‘Not Valid’.”
68. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 499; “A Great Day for Malaya’s Partners,” (1963, August 31). Straits Times, 31 August 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
69. Wee Kim Wee, “Sabah, Sarawak Get Home Rule,” Straits Times, 1 September 1963, 1; “Up Goes the Flag.”
70. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 10, 280–293.
71. Felix Abisheganaden, “Shock Taxes,” Straits Times, 26 November 1964, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Lau, Moment of Anguish, 214.
72. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 615.
73. Felix Abisheganadan, “Singapore is Out,” Straits Times, 10 August 1965, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
A. J. Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics During the Malayan Union Experiment, 1945–1948 (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1979). (Call no. RSING 959.51035 STO)

Alex Josey, Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years (Singapore: Times Book International, 2012). (Call no. RSING 959.57092 JOS-[HIS])

C. Paul Bradley, “Leftist Fissures in Singapore Politics,” The Western Political Quarterly, 18, no. 2, Part 1, (June 1965): 292–308. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005. (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009). (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])

Michael Leifer, “Singapore in Malaysia: The Politics of Federation,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, 6, no. 2 (September 1965) 54–70. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

Nancy McHenry Fletcher, The Separation of Singapore from Malaysia (NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1969). (Call no. RCLOS 959.5707 FLE)

Pang Cheng Lian, “The People’s Action Party, 1954–1963,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10, no. 1 (March 1969): 142–154. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

Robert Stephen Milne, “Malaysia: A New Federation in the Making,” Asian Survey, 3, no. 2 (February 1963): 76–82. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

The Singapore Legal System, ed. Kevin Y.L. Tan (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1999). (Call no. RSING 349.5957 SIN)

William P. Maddox, “Singapore: Problem Child,” Foreign Affairs, 40, no. 3 (April 1962): 479–488. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.

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