Referendum on merger with Malaysia

Singapore Infopedia


The referendum on merger with the Federation of Malaysia, also known as the Singapore National Referendum, was held on 1 September 1962. The idea for a referendum to be held was championed by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of the People’s Action Party (PAP). The official purpose of the referendum was to allow the people of Singapore to express their preference on the terms of merger with Malaysia. The opposition political parties, notably the Barisan Sosialis (BS), were not satisfied with the framing of the referendum as it did not allow voters the choice of rejecting merger altogether. Despite such dissatisfactions, the referendum was carried out with three contentious options for merger being offered to voters.

The PAP government was not legally bound to call for a referendum on the issue of merger with the Federation of Malaysia.1 The results of such a referendum would also not have had any legal effect from a constitutional standpoint.However, then Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew explained that without a referendum the people would feel that they had “missed something by not getting full merger”.3 The official purpose of the referendum was therefore to “enable the people of Singapore to express their choice on the mode and manner of the inevitable reunification” of Malaya and Singapore under the new Federation of Malaysia.4

A joint government working committee had already discussed the terms of merger prior to the referendum. Discussions were concluded when a White Paper, The heads of agreement for a merger between the Federation of Malaya and Singapore, was accepted by the government on 6 December 1961.Although the government had promised to hold the referendum after the terms of merger were published and before a final decision was made, the referendum was only held nine months later on 1 September 1962.6

Legislative Assembly debates
Under the terms of the Singapore Constitution, an ordinance was required to be passed by members of the Legislative Assembly in order for a national referendum to be held. The Singapore National Referendum Bill was therefore brought up in the Legislative Assembly for debate. The drawn-out debates over the bill, which stretched from 27 June to 11 July 1962, highlighted the differing interests of the political parties.7 The disagreements centred on the kind of options to be made available to voters in the referendum.8

The Legislative Assembly debates started with Dr Lee Siew Choh of the BS, who proposed to have only one question put forth in the referendum:  “Yes” or “no” to merger. Supported by David Marshall of the Workers’ Party (WP) and Ong Eng Guan of the United People’s Party (UPP), Dr Lee’s proposal collected 30 “Noes”, 17 “Ayes” and 4 “Absent”. Following the failure of Dr Lee’s proposal to get sufficient support in the assembly, Prime Minister Lee moved to have two alternatives listed in the referendum: (a) merger in accordance with the White Paper or (b) “a complete or unconditional merger”.9

Subsequently, Lim Yew Hock, leader of the Singapore People's Alliance (SPA), proposed to have three questions included in the referendum: (a) merger in accordance with the White Paper; (b) merger on the basis of Singapore as a constituent state of the Federation of Malaysia; or, (c) merger on terms no less favourable than those given to the Borneo territories.10

The referendum took place only after much political debate and strategising by the different political parties.11 There were attempts by the opposition parties to declare the referendum invalid.12 Calling themselves the Council of Joint Action, its constituent members included the Liberal Socialists, BS, WP, United Democratic Party and Partai Rakyat.13 They petitioned the United Nations Committee on Colonialism to oppose the government’s referendum and the White Paper proposals on merger. The petition did not succeed.14 The bill was eventually passed and the Singapore National Referendum Ordinance came into operation on 13July 1962.15

Choice of three options
It was finally decided that the referendum would offer voters three alternative forms of merger:

A. The constitutional arrangements set out in Command Paper 33 of 1961 giving Singapore autonomy in education and labour and other agreed matters as amended by agreement between the two governments on the 30 July 1962, by which Singapore citizens will be citizens of Malaysia.

B. A complete and unconditional merger as a state on an equal basis with the other 11 states in accordance with the constitutional documents of the Federation of Malaya.

C. Entering Malaysia on terms no less favourable than the terms for the Borneo territories.16

One of the criticisms directed at the referendum was that the wording of the choices favoured the government’s merger proposals.17 There was also no option of voting against the merger itself.18 The basic assumption was that all citizens wanted merger. Marshall criticised this lack of choice by saying, “We have before the people allegedly three questions for a referendum, when in fact, there is but one, and that is not a question, Sir, because you are not allowed to give an answer yes or no. You must say yes".19

The PAP’s justification
The PAP government justified the three options by declaring that all of Singapore's political parties supported merger.20 It was claimed that the first alternative was based on the PAP’s proposal, the second as being the BS demand for a "complete merger" although this was denied by the party. The third alternative was described as the SPA’s preference.21

The opposition held that, while being in favour of merger, they could not accept anything less than automatic Malaysian citizenship for all Singapore citizens, and they considered the idea of proportional representation in the federal parliament as a “sell-out”.22 Under the citizenship clause, naturalised Singapore citizens would have to re-apply to be Malaysian citizens.23 However, just two weeks before the referendum, Lee persuaded then Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to agree to grant all Singapore citizens Malaysian citizenship regardless of their country of birth. This agreement deprived the BS of its main propaganda line regarding the citizenship issue.24

Battle for hearts and minds
On 14 August 1962, Lee announced that there would be two weeks of active campaigning for the referendum to be held on 1 September 1962.25 The PAP campaigned for alternative A. To remain in office, they needed the public to support their preferred option for merger. During the referendum debates, the PAP’s strength in the Legislative Assembly had been reduced from 43 to 25 seats.26 All available resources, “including slogans and songs on the radio and illuminated signs in the streets”, were mobilised to promote the idea of merger with Malaysia.27 Lee gave a series of radio talks to "clarify and explain the political situation in Singapore and the Federation".28

Countering claims that alternative B represented their position, the opposition asked the people to cast blank votes or spoil them as a sign of passive dissent.29 However, the government pre-empted this option by inserting a clause in the referendum whereby “unmarked or uncertain” ballot papers would be taken as following the decision of the majority in the assembly.30

A week before the referendum, Lee warned voters of the repercussions of casting blank votes. Should the number of blank votes cast tip the referendum in favour of alternative B, “it would have been the duty of this house to take note of the majority B votes”.31 With alternative B, those not born in Singapore would lose their citizenship.32 In such a situation, “400,000 people would have to re-apply their citizenship”.33

The referendum
During the referendum, the flags of Singapore, Penang, Sarawak and North Borneo were each attached to one of the three options. Alternative A carried the Singapore flag, alternative B the Penang flag, and alternative C had the Sarawak and North Borneo flags.34

Polling started at 8:00 a.m. on 1 September 1962 and ended at 8:00 p.m. the same day at all 345 polling stations.35 Voting was made compulsory36 and 90 percent or 561,559 of the 624,000 registered citizens turned up to vote. At 6:45 a.m. the following day, just before the results were announced, Dr Lee demanded a recount.37 The recount made no difference to the results and Dr Lee responded by calling it a “sham referendum” with results that “[did] not reflect the will of the people”.38

The results of the referendum were only announced in the early hours of 2 September 1962.39 Of a total of 417,482 marked ballot papers, 397,626 (70.8 percent of voter turnout) had voted for alternative A. Alternative B garnered only 9,422 votes (1.7 percent), and alternative C got 7,911 votes (1.4 percent). Blank votes totalled 144,077 (25.7 percent). The rest of the “uncertain” votes amounted to 2,370 (0.4 percent).40 Nearly 50 percent of Jurong’s voters, a BS stronghold, were found to have cast blank votes.41

1. R.S. Milne, “Malaysia: A New Federation in the Making,” Asian Survey, 3, no. 2. (February 1963): 80. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
2. Gordon P. Means, “Malaysia – A New Federation in Southeast Asia,” Pacific Affairs 36, no. 2 (Summer 1963): 144. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (Singapore: Times Books International, 1984), 301. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DRY-[HIS])
4. Singapore, Extraordinary, G. N. 55 of Government Gazette, 17 August 1962, 1093. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
5. Singapore, Extraordinary, 1093.
6. Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 204. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE–[HIS])
7. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, Singapore Press Holdings, 1998), 430. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE–[HIS]); Lee, Unexpected Nation, 204.
8. Means, “New Federation in Southeast Asia,” 144.
9. Lee, Unexpected Nation, 204.
10. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 430.
11. “Heated Debate Foreseen,” Straits Times, 27 June 1962, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
12. C. Paul Bradley, “Leftist Fissures in Singapore Politics,” The Western Political Quarterly, 18, no. 2, Part 1 (June 1965): 306. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
13. “Council of Joint Action on ‘Red Smear Tactics’,” Straits Times, 10 July 1962, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Bradley, “Leftist Fissures in Singapore Politics,” 306.
15. Singapore, Singapore National Referendum Ordinance, Ord. 19 of 1982, 1962 Supplement to the Laws of the State of Singapore, 13 July 1962, 105. (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SIN–[HWE])
16. Singapore, Extraordinary, 1093.
17. Means, “New Federation in Southeast Asia,” 144.
18. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 280. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR–[HIS])  
19. Lee, Unexpected Nation, 205.
20. Thomas B. Smith, “Referendum Politics in Asia,” Asian Survey, 26, no. 7 (July 1986): 807. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
21. Pang Cheng Lian, “The People’s Action Party, 1954–1963, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10, no. 1 (March 1969): 152. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
22. Daljit Singh and V. T. Arasu, eds., Singapore: An Illustrated History, 1941–1984 (Singapore: Information Division, Ministry of Culture, [1984]), 222. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN–[HIS])
23. Singapore, Extraordinary, 1094.
24. “Lee: ‘Trump Card’ Has Foiled the Anti-Nationalists,” Straits Times, 16 August 1962, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 446.
26. Albert Lau, A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2003), 21. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 LAU-[HIS]); Pang, “People’s Action Party, 1954–1963,” 152.
27. Smith, “Referendum of Politics in Asia,” 808.
28. Pang, “People’s Action Party, 1954–1963,” 152.
29. “'Cast blank votes' call by five parties,” Straits Times, 16 July 1962, 11(From NewspaperSG)
30. Lee, Unexpected Nation, 205.
31. Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Report on Singapore National Referendum (cmd. 18 of 1962) Uncertain and Umarked Ballot Papers, vol. 19 of Debates: Official Reports, 5 September 1962, cols. 641–740. (Call no. RCLOS 328.595 MAL)
32. Singh and Arasu, Illustrated History, 1941–1984, 224.
33. “Citizenship: Chamber To Meet,” Straits Times, 25 August 1962, 20(From NewspaperSG)
34. Singapore, Extraordinary, 1094.
35. Singapore. Superintendent of the Singapore National Referendum, Report of the Superintendent of the Singapore National Referendum on the Results of the Referendum Held on 1st September 1962, command paper, cmd. 18, 1. (Call no. RCLOS 324.5951 SIN)
36. Poteik Chia, “Vote Will Be Compulsory for Merger Referendum,” Straits Times, 1 June 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Lee, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, 451.
38. “'Proof That Singapore Rejects the Reds',” Straits Times, 3 September 1962, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Singapore, Extraordinary, G. N. 60 of Government Gazette, 3 September 1962, 1249. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
40. Singapore. Superintendent of the Singapore National Referendum, Report of the Superintendent of the Singapore National Referendum, 3.
41. Singh and Arasu, Illustrated History, 1941–1984, 243.

The information in this article is valid as at 23 October 2013 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 reading materials on the topic.

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