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Saturday June 26, 2010

Goh the architect of separation

Singaporeans were surprised to learn that it was Dr Goh Keng Swee – and not Lee Kuan Yew - who played the pivotal role in taking Singapore out of Malaysia, resulting in an independent country.

AS new generations in Singapore and Malaysia work for a closer partnership, a bit of the past history has popped up to baffle some old-timers here. It involved the question of who in Singapore really made the decision for the break-up with Malaysia in 1965.

Until recently, the majority had thought that Lee Kuan Yew, the chief engineer who had navigated Singapore into it, was also pivotal in pulling it out when relations became intolerable. Not so, according to the 86-year-old Minister Mentor.

In his eulogy at his late former deputy leader Dr Goh Keng Swee’s funeral, Lee said the decision for a “clean break” was actually made by Dr Goh, who was tasked to negotiate with Kuala Lumpur.

Founding fathers: Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew (left) on their return from the London talks on the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in November 1962.

“I did not want this, and asked Keng Swee to work towards a looser federation,” Lee told surprised Singaporeans.

“In his talks with Tun (Abdul) Razak, then Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, and (Tun) Dr Ismail (Abdul Rahman), then Malaysia’s Minister for External Affairs and Minister for Home Affairs, Keng Swee decided it was best to separate.

“He decided that the best alternative was a clean break ... I had to agree,” Lee added.

(In his memoirs, Lee said he found out that Dr Goh “never pressed Razak for a looser rearrangement as I had asked him to ... he knew they wanted Singapore out of their Parliament and went along with their desire to have us hive off”.)

All this is now water under the bridge but the disclosure has raised questions about how important a role Dr Goh really played in Singapore’s history.

According to Associate Professor of Political Science, Hussin Mutalib, from what Lee revealed, that role appeared more significant than so far believed. This was because Lee’s remarks had suggested the break-up was decided unilaterally at the crucial moment by Dr Goh, against the proposition of Lee and even the collective Cabinet.

The National University of Singapore academician observed that Lee had said that the key Malaysian leaders agreed to Dr Goh’s break-up proposal.

“This would imply that it may well have been Singapore which precipitated the idea of separation, rather than Malaysia, as has been the notion all this while,” Hussin said.

Singaporeans were surprised to learn that it was Dr Goh – and not Lee - who played the pivotal role in taking Singapore out of Malaysia, resulting in an independent country.

It has set tongues wagging. “Why did Lee talk about it now after so many years, and only after Goh’s death?

“Like others, I had always thought Lee was the main player,” a retired teacher said. “Does it mean that if he had been negotiating, instead of Goh, Singapore would today still be in Malaysia?”

Another wanted to know whether Lee was implying that separation was a bad move and he was blaming Dr Goh for it.

If Lee’s allegation was surprising, his preference to remain in Malaysia was no surprise. At the time, Lee, Dr Goh and other leaders strongly believed that Singapore’s future was in the federation.

Since separation, the subject of possible re-merger has occasionally surfaced – more as a talking point, rather than a serious discourse for action.

When the recent global crisis hit Singapore’s economy and people’s confidence about the future, a number of online writers revived the talk of the “inevitability of reuniting with Malaysia”.

Their rationale was that tiny Singapore, without natural resources, was too dependent on the outside world to be able to survive for long by itself.

Opposition leader Chiam See Tong has advocated that both countries form “an economic union” or a “common market” to compete with the world. He was once quoted as saying: “A political union is out of the question. The Malaysians will never agree.” Not to mention, the bulk of the Singaporean public!

Since 1996, Lee Kuan Yew had commented twice when he was questioned on the prospect of getting back with Malaysia, and on each occasion, he talked of conditions that upset some Malaysian leaders.

In the view of Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Lee probably had in mind “50 to 100 years down the road” when he talked about rejoining Malaysia.

Malaysian researcher Dr Ooi Kee Beng told Today newspaper that the prospect of it happening is next to zero. “The very idea of a re-merger on Singapore’s terms is appalling to most Malays (in Malaysia),” he said.

The younger set, however, seems less stirred by this theoretical debate of political union than they are about practical measures to give both peoples more opportunities for jobs, business or studies.

Within three months, both sides hope to conclude an agreement on exchanging land parcels between the two countries. Meanwhile, the leaders want to adopt plans for easier and cheaper travel between their territories.

“This is the way to go, step by step, rather than talk of political union,” said a journalist who has extensively covered both countries. “Each success will build confidence and trust between distrusting parties, and push them to the next project,” he said.

The impact is steadily emerging. Mobile phone users, as well as drivers who use the Second Link, will soon enjoy lower costs. This could just be the start of more to come.