WI: Singapore Remains a Part of the Federation of Malaysia

“For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life... you see, the whole of my adult life... I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories.”, - PM Lee Kuan Yew on the Separation of Singapore from Malaysia

On the morning of the 9th of August 1965, the Parliament of Malaysia passed the act which would expel the State of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia, in the process creating two new nations as well as drastically changing the political landscape of South East Asia. More than 50 years later and Malaysia is a developing country fighting corruption with an improving and hopeful political landscape while Singapore is an economically prosperous city state with incredibly restrictive laws on free speech and the opposition. Both countries are leaders in the region and are known for their neutrality and ability to mediate political disagreements. As a Singaporean I've always wondered how things might have looked had our two countries not split ways? Would a united Malaysia be more Liberal? Would Singapore be less developed?
In the short term, Singapore is much better off under Malaysia. But only economically. Public attitude about Singaporean survival after the separation was quite bleak.

Denis Warner wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (10 Auguest 1965), "An independent Singapore was not regarded as viable three years ago [from separation]. Nothing in the current [time of separation] situation suggests that it is more viable today."

In the London Sunday Times (22 August 1965), Richard Hughes wrote, "Singapore's economy would collapse if the British bases—costing more than 100 million pounds sterling—were closed."

Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) held many of the same reservations about his own nation, fearing for its future and the livelihoods of its people. After separation, Singapore became a nation cut off from water supply, natural resources, and one that lacked almost any intrinsic value. 20% of its gross national product came from the British military base housed in it. When the British announced their plan to pull out of Singapore by the mid-1970s in 1967 to the Singaporean government, Singapore's defence and economic security was extremely threatened. LKY was so concerned by such an event that he threatened to withdraw from the pound sterling, give the dockyard to the Japanese, and disrupt British shipping and trade. He went to London with then Minister for Finance Goh Keng Sweeon for an intense campaign to try to convince the British public to stay in Singapore. Still, their lobbying failed and the UK government announced on 16 January 1968 that they would pull out from Southeast Asia by 1971. At the same time of these events unemployment was at an all time high, and still rising, reaching heights of 10% and greater. All in all, the Singaporean economic situation was dire. Staying on with Malaysia could curtail much of the effects the separation had, and in the short term be better economically for Singapore.

However, this is only one part of the story. The greatest factor of Singapore's departure from the federation was racial tensions. The ruling party of Malaysia, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) was dead-set on a Muslim Malay Malaysia. Singapore at the time was anything but that. Over 70% Chinese in a city of 2 million, Singapore is almost indigestible for a country that in itself constituted less than 10 million in 1965. Combined with the Chinese presence in Penang, other major cities, and even Kuala Lumpur itself, such a minority is intolerable for a party like the UMNO. Tunku Abdul Rahman, leader of the UMNO, advocated for special rights and privileges for the bumiputeras (indigenous Malays in Malaysia). This was meant as a form of affirmative action as the Straits Chinese (the first-migration wave Chinese living in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia) had traditionally better economic affluence and the Malays in the country were generally poorer. On the other hand, LKY led the People's Action Party which generally called for equality amongst all races and religions. This situation created an imbalance where the most prominent ethnic groups in Malaysia were essentially at each other's throats.

Racial riots broke out a multitude of times, first in 1964 (where almost 500 were injured and more than 30 killed as a result) and then in 1969 (with 80 injured and 4 dead), even after separation with Malaysia. The 1964 riot was actually a leading cause in the separation, and Chinese-Malay relations were severely marred by the events. If Singapore were to continue under Malaysia, it is not unreasonable to imagine even more civil strife or even an insurrection. Even after leaving the federation, LKY still feared invasion from a UMNO Malaysia. Singapore's only two military brigades (at the time) were under a Malaysian commander and many prominent UMNO leaders still believed that Singapore should be brought to the heel and absorbed into a Malay-led Malaysia. Immediately after separation, LKY became the number 1 most hated figure amongst radical UMNO Malays and the threat of being attacked by racial fanatics was so great that LKY was compelled to move from their home to Changi Cottage; this was a government chalet inside a protected zone near the RAF Changi airfield.

From what we can see from the race relations of the time, I think that separation from Malaysia was a mutually beneficial endeavor, and continued union would only sour relations further. I believe that Malaysia would actually be even less liberal in such a situation than it is today, and Singapore would be worse off in nearly every respect to boot. Deprived of the infrastructure and connections LYK and his government painstakingly built, Singapore would rapidly loose the importance they had as the center of British South East Asia and be relegated to a city like Penang or even Melaka. Malaysia however, may be marginally better off, retaining a sea-port and British military base. These would be sorry consolation prizes if remaining with Singapore means even more race riots, however.
Nice work @UnassumingCivilian .

The split was a shock for the British commitment in the region, as it came when British and Commonwealth forces were fighting the Confrontation specifically for the creation of the Federation of Malaysia. If the M-S split didn't happen in 1965 its likely that Britain would have remained engaged in SEA to a greater degree than announced in 1966 and drastically accelerated in January 1968.