Certain elements of UMNO were from the outset opposed to Singapore's merger with Malaya as Singapore had a large number of Chinese.
These more extreme Malay nationalists within UMNO were also unhappy with the high profile adopted by Lee Kuan Yew, an ethnic Chinese politician, in the negotiation for Merger and the immediate period after Merger.
Celebrations to mark the birthday of Prophet Mohammad were held throughout Malaysia. In many towns, it was a grand occasion. Various units of the armed forces, police, fire brigade and ex-servicemen for instance, participated in the celebrations at Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
In Singapore, 212 Muslim organisations participated in the rally. By 1 pm on 21 July 1964, 25 thousand Muslims gathered on the Padang. At 2 pm, the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Singapore's head of state, made a formal address. Muslims were urged to follow Islamic teachings and be "patient, forebearing and industrious". At 3.30 pm, the crowd was supposed to march from the Padang to St Andrews Road, Beach Road, Arab Street, Victoria Street, Kallang Road, and eventually to Lorong 12, Geylang.
During the procession, at the Kallang area, some one threw a bottle at the procession. Tempers were frayed. When a federal reserve unit policeman asked the procession-marchers to stick to the route near the Kallang gas works at around 5 pm, he was attacked. Disorder quickly spread. By 6 pm, arson affected the Geylang area between Kallang and Geylang Serai, and cars were overturned. By 6.30 pm, clashes in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar were reported. At 6.45 pm, there were further reports of clashes at Arab Street and North Bridge Road junction. 50 injured people, mostly with head injuries, were treated at the Singapore General Hospital by 8.30 pm. The disorder was so great that many cinemas announced the cancellation of their 9.30 pm film screening. In the first day of rioting, 4 were killed and 178 injured.
Disorder spread to some other areas of Singapore in the next few days. 2 men were assaulted in the Upper Serangoon area at 9.15 pm on 22 July. Malay families living in Queenstown left their homes for fear of their personal safety. A dusk to dawn curfew was imposed island-wide to control the disorder on 23 July, and was only completely lifted on 2 August, 11 days later. 45 curfew breakers were jailed.
With instability, the prices of food and provisions shot up during this period. All work had to cease for three days. Most important of all, fear was widespread. In all, 23 were killed and 460 injured.
Causes of the racial riots
Racial sentiments were aroused in Singapore in various ways. On 12 July 64 UMNO held a convention of about 150 Malay organisations in Singapore. It was chaired by Syed Jaafar Albar, secretary-general of UMNO in Malaya. He concluded that Malays in Singapore had not been treated fairly by the PAP government as they had not progressed in material terms. He urged the Malays to unite to overcome this unfair treatment.
The Utusan Melayu, a Malay newspaper in Malaya, owned by prominent UMNO members, also constantly adopted a communal line in their publications, and it accused the PAP of humiliating and trying to divide the Malay community in Singapore. It was not easy for Tunku Abdul Rahman to control the more racialist elements in UMNO as he would be seen to be unprotective of Malay interests.
There were already daily Indonesian accusations that he had sold out the Malays to the Chinese and Indian merchants in Malaysia. After the racial riot, Tunku suggested that it was caused by the long neglect of the Singapore Malays, pointing out for instance that, "(the Malays) were being driven out of their homes which they had owned to make way for new flats and so on ..."
The Malayan Chinese Association, a component party in the Alliance which governed Malaysia also contributed to the racially-charged atmosphere. Its minister in the government, Khaw Kai Boh, who was the minister for local government and housing, for instance, alleged that Singapore's progress was especially meant for the Chinese, and he spoke of Chinese chauvinism in Singapore. PAP's position was that the Malays would have to raise their educational standards in order to improve their economic position. No special treatment, other than that stated in the Singapore constitution, was envisaged.
There were more fundamental reasons why some prominent members of UMNO and MCA were eager to create social and racial tension in Singapore, and thus weaken PAP rule and reduce its political threat. Certain elements of UMNO were from the outset opposed to Singapore's merger with Malaya as Singapore had a large number of Chinese. These more extreme Malay nationalists within UMNO were also unhappy with the high profile adopted by Lee Kuan Yew, an ethnic Chinese politician, in the negotiation for Merger and the immediate period after Merger.
For instance, the Singaporean leader publicised the difficulties he faced during the negotiations for Merger; and on a BBC television news analysis programme, "Panorama", on the course of events leading to the formation of Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew was the only one who was invited and whose views were aired. In January 1964, Lee Kuan Yew led a 12-member goodwill mission tour of 17 African states and India to counter Indonesian propaganda aimed at Malaysia, an act which attracted the protests of Malay nationalists like Syed Jaafar Albar.
The concern of UMNO was heightened when the Alliance branch in Singapore failed to win any seat in Singapore in the elections on 21 September 1963, even in constituencies where Malays dominated. The implication of the PAP victory was obvious to UMNO. In anger, Tunku labelled the Malays who gave their support to PAP, rather than UMNO, "traitors". The PAP candidates voted in by the Malays in Singapore were however also Malay --- it was not an ethnic "betrayal" as Tunku portrayed.
Prominent UMNO members were also displeased with Singapore's perceived indocility to the federal authority. Despite Tunku's public statements supporting MCA, PAP contested against MCA in the April 1964 federal elections.
Moreover, PAP made clear that by attempting to become a bigger political force in Malaya, it could bring about "the winds of change" in Malaysia, whereby UMNO would be forced to accept the non-communal, more egalitarian political ideology and approach of PAP.
Tun Razak, deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, then expressed his doubts of PAP's sincerity towards the interests and welfare of Malays. PAP's participation in the federal elections was thus seen as an attempt to undermine the Malays' special and privileged position in Malaya, though PAP did not contest against UMNO directly.
Malay chauvinists in UMNO portrayed PAP as an anti-Malay party and it was against this context that Syed Jaafar Albar's campaign of hatred against the anti-Malay PAP government could be understood. Feelings of the Singapore Malays against Chinese were inflamed. Lee Kuan Yew was certain that the UMNO extremists were to be blamed for the racial riots.
The Malayan Chinese Association's suspicions of PAP-led Singapore were political. They feared losing the support of their Chinese supporters in Malaya to Lee Kuan Yew. Key leaders of MCA tried to derail the negotiations prior to the Merger. MCA also attempted to reduce the political influence of PAP by revitalising its branch in Singapore, and involving itself in Singaporean politics.
The PAP on the other hand, refused to accept that the MCA represented the interests of all Chinese in Malaya. MCA was seen as a "rich man's club" whose failure to represent the interests of less well-off Chinese, especially in the urban areas, could lead to the growth in influence of the pro-communist parties. MCA thus harboured deep fears that PAP might seek to replace it in the Alliance which ruled Malaysia if PAP grew in political strength, despite public statements by Tunku that he would stand by the MCA, its "staunch partner".
Relations between MCA and PAP were worsened by constant antagonistic public statements, of a political and personal nature. Such statements came thick and fast in the midst of the campaigning for the April 1964 elections in Peninsular Malaysia, when PAP contested unsuccessfully in the urban areas against MCA, in order to show that PAP was more useful to UMNO electorally than MCA. Tension was further raised when Tan Siew Sin, the federal Finance Minister, refused to implement the common market in Malaysia as agreed during the negotiations prior to the Merger, unless Singapore remitted 60%, instead of 40%, of her national revenue to Kuala Lumpur.
It was believed that MCA did not want to increase Singapore's economic advantages at the expense of MCA members engaged in business.
Indonesian agents could also have been involved in provoking the disorder. This was the period of Confrontation. Indonesia, under the direction of President Sukarno, were opposed to the formation of Malaysia as she was interested in capturing Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia. The Indonesian government was also faced with various problems, such as economic perils, corruption, maladministration and subversive activities by communists. Its attempt to create disorder and instability in Malaysia would divert the attention of Indonesians from such problems.
In the period from September 1963 to May 1965, there were 42 bomb explosions by Indonesian-directed saboteurs. After the racial riot on 21 July 1964, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, condemned Indonesia as the possible agent behind the riots. However, the Indonesian saboteurs would not have been successful, if racial tension has not already been heightened.
Other racial troubles in Singapore's recent history:
The 21 July 1964 racial riots were not an isolated incident. Three other significant incidents took place as well.
1. The first took place between 21 August 1945 and 11 September 1945, in the interim period between the Surrender of the Japanese and the return of the British forces.
2. The second was the Maria Hertogh riots from 11 to 13 December 1950, during which Malay-Muslim sensitivities were aroused by a colonial court judgement that a Dutch girl who was brought up as a Muslim, was to be returned to her Christian natural parents. The ensuing riot which was fanned by inflammatory press photographs and articles left 18 dead and 173 injured.
3. The third incident occurred on 3 September 1964. The riots were inspired by Indonesian agents who wanted to disrupt stability in Singapore. Though the clashes were sporadic, by the time the curfew were lifted on 9 September 1964, 13 persons had been killed in rioting and 102 injured. Some 240 "political agitators" who were deemed responsible for the disturbance were arrested.
Did you know that...
* the Causeway was closed from 22nd to 26th July 1964, when curfew was imposed on Singapore?
As a result, many Singaporeans working in Johor Bahru could not go home. All hotels and motels in Johor Bahru were fully occupied in those days by Singaporeans.
*· there was a massive traffic jam on the morning of 22nd July 1964?
At 10 am, the government announced that the curfew would be re-imposed at 11.30 am, after it had earlier been lifted at 6 in the morning. The curfew was re-imposed in response to further disorder in the morning of 22nd July. Many people had to rush home from work and the streets were still not cleared by 12 noon.
*many rumours spread during the period of disorder?
It was widely rumoured that the water pipe carrying water from Johor had burst. Many families brought out all their containers to top them up with water. The panic only subsided when PUB issued a statement denying that there was any damage to the water pipe from Johor. Any one convicted of rumour-mongering could be jailed for three years.
* people were encouraged to use their phones less frequently?
Because of the curfew, Telecoms were understaffed and there were simply too few people to help connect the lines.
*· when the curfew was imposed, those people who still could not get any transport home, would quickly go the nearest police station?
Over in these police stations, such stranded people would request the police to transport them back. Sometimes, the police would accede to their requests.
* the price of food increased two to three times?
The vendors in the market would not even bargain with the customers. For any one unwilling customer, there were at least 10 customers who were willing to buy the fresh goods. The Goodwill Committees established in many areas of Singapore exhorted all vendors and shopkeepers not to make excessive profits. Such committees were established to calm racial tension and Chinese shopkeepers were also advised not to turn away Malay customers.
* many weddings had to be postponed when the curfew was imposed?
Many notices announcing such postponement appeared in the local press.
*· the hearse travelled faster than usual?
Many mourning families had to settle the funeral of their loved ones before the curfew was reimposed. Any one caught breaking the curfew would be charged and usually jailed.
*· newspaper sales increased several folds?
Stranded at home, many bought newspapers to find out what was happening in Singapore. They also needed to know what the curfew hours were.
*· taxi drivers charged exorbitant rates for commuters rushing to get home before the curfew hours?
* cinemas were closed for 1 week?
When they were reopened on 27 July, they only had 1 or 2 screenings and such screenings had to allow people enough time to reach home before the curfew.
*· remarkably, on one of the longest roads in Singapore, Bukit Timah Road, no violent incident happened?
* in many kampongs, Chinese and Malay residents protected each other from disorderly elements from outside their kampongs?
carjacking, mob attacks of cyclists and lone pedestrians, and the violent use of sticks, parangs and chairs, were the most common forms of disorderly behaviour?