Our forefathers were determined to defend ourselves, especially after having experienced the Japanese Occupation between 1942 and 1945. Events in the decades after our Independence further solidified our determination to build a credible defence force of our own and strengthen our external and homefront security.
The regional security landscape from the 1950s to 1970s was fraught with uncertainty, with threats from bigger neighbours and the looming shadow of communism hanging over the region at the height of the Cold War. Singapore’s security concerns were exacerbated by domestic unrest in the form of riots and terrorism as well.
Even as the government strived to beef up our military to guard against external threats, there was also much to do to quell internal unrest.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, against the backdrop of the Cold War, the then-Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and Maoist China sought to extend their influence over Southeast Asia, including in Singapore. Elements like the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) used strategies of armed violence such as the armed revolt in the 1948 Malayan Emergency and united front tactics (such as mobilising the masses) to subvert organisations like trade unions, political parties and student groups.
As a result, we had to grapple with domestic instability through the 1950s and 1960s as riots related to communism and communalism rocked the nation. The two were not always unrelated – political scientist Bilveer Singh wrote that communist elements in Singapore saw the Chinese community as “useful partners of the communist united front”, and instigated them against the authorities.
The government’s measures to clamp down on communist activities, such as disbanding pro-communist Chinese organisations, resulted in island-wide protests from thousands of Chinese middle school students in October 1956. Tensions swelled when students attacked police, sparking off violent riots across the country. When the disturbances ended, there were 13 deaths, 127 injured, and more than 1,000 arrested.
In 1964, Singapore had to deal with a series of racial riots amidst the thick of Konfrontasi (Confrontation) and tensions between the state government in Singapore and the federal government in Kuala Lumpur (KL).
Against the backdrop of Singapore’s tensions with Malaysia, the dominant power in the region – Indonesia – was carrying out Konfrontasi (Confrontation) against the states that were to be included in the Federation of Malaysia, namely Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo, through sabotage and bombing. Between 1963 and 1966, there were at least 42 Konfrontasi-related attacks in Singapore.
The conflict was driven by then-Indonesian President Sukarno, who opposed the formation of the Federation of Malaysia consisting of Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah). One of the major incidents that happened during Konfrontasi was the MacDonald House bombing in Singapore on 10 March 1965, which killed three and injured 33.
When Singapore sentenced and hanged the two Indonesian marines responsible for the bombing, the decision was met with public anger in Jakarta, and the Singapore embassy was ransacked.
Konfrontasi was put to an end in August 1966 when Indonesia signed a peace treaty with Malaysia. In September 1967, Singapore established formal diplomatic relations with Indonesia.
Watch the video on Konfrontasi –
In another occasion, tensions boiled over during a procession to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in July 1964 which saw clashes between Malays and Chinese. News of these led to further communal violence across the island, leading to 23 deaths and 454 people injured.
In September, a second series of communal riots was ignited by the killing of a Malay trishaw rider, leading to 13 deaths and 109 people injured. This time, Indonesia was accused of fomenting the unrest as part of Konfrontasi operations.
Besides these riots, there were others such as the 1950 Maria Hertogh riots, the 1954 National Service demonstrations, the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots and the 1969 race riots in Malaysia which spilled over to Singapore. These violent riots led to numerous deaths and significant damage to both our physical infrastructure and social fabric.
Domestic turmoil stretched an already thin law enforcement force, which was forced to draw heavily on police resources and military reinforcements. However, the internal threats did not end at deadly clashes sparked by communism and communalism. While terrorism is an issue that plagues modern-day Singapore, we faced our first international terrorist attack early on in the early 1970s.
Separation from Malaysia
Following separation from Malaysia in August 1965, Singapore’s foremost concern was defending ourselves and our “piece of real estate”, in the words of our Founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
The only two battalions in the country were still under command of a Malaysian Brigadier, Brigadier Syed Mohamed bin Syed Ahmad Alsagoff, and there was a need to deter Malay Ultras (extremists) in KL who were keen to reverse the independence acquired. Mr Lee revealed in his memoirs that many KL leaders believed Singapore should never have been allowed to leave Malaysia, and was to be kept a part of the country, by force if necessary.
Opening of First Parliament. Image: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (NAS).
One episode came to illustrate Malaysia’s lingering military presence in Singapore. Mr Lee shared that Brigadier Alsagoff insisted on escorting him to the first meeting of the Parliament of independent Singapore in December 1965.
Singapore’s first two regular infantry regiments were the 1st Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR) and the 2nd Singapore Infantry Regiment (2 SIR), formed in 1957 and 1962 respectively. In 1966, the 1st Royal Malay Regiment (1 RMR) of the Malaysian Armed Forces occupied Camp Temasek in Ulu Pandan, the barracks of 2 SIR. This took place after 2 SIR was sent to Sabah for operational duties a week after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. But on their return, 1 RMR refused to vacate the camp and 2 SIR had to be housed in tents at Farrer Park Sports Field. In a speech by former Defence Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee in Parliament, he said the issue was “symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the relations between the two governments on defence matters”.
These flashpoints of tension with Malaysia showed how Singapore had to confront the realities of being a new, small independent nation.
Passing-out parade of boxer recruits at Camp Temasek in 1966. Image: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (NAS). After separation from Malaysia, the Singapore government had sought to recruit soldiers under the recruitment drives code named ‘Boxer I’ and ‘Boxer II’.