1964 race riots in Singapore

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1964 race riots in Singapore
Part of the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation
Date21 July 1964 (1964-07-21)
3 September 1964 (1964-09-03)
Kallang, Geylang and various districts in Singapore
Caused byPolitical and religious tensions between ethnic Chinese and Malay groups
Resulted in
  • Islandwide curfew imposed from 21 July 1964 to 2 August 1964 in the aftermath of the July riots [1]
  • Islandwide curfew imposed from 4 September 1964 to 11 September 1964 in the aftermath of the September riots [1]
  • Temporary establishment of the Commission of Inquiry team [1]
  • Indirectly led to Singapore's expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia
  • Indirectly led to the independence of Singapore the following year
  • Establishment of Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution after its independence
  • Annual commemoration of Racial Harmony Day on 21 July to mark the day of the July riots
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
Casualties and arrests
Death(s)23 (July riots)
13 (September riots) [1]
Injuries454 (July riots)
106 (September riots) [1]
Arrested3,568 (July riots)
1,439 (September riots) [1]
Detained945 (July riots)
268 (September riots) [1]
Charged715 (July riots)
154 (September riots) [1]
Part of a series on the
History of Singapore
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Part of a series on the
History of Malaysia
The independence of Malaya and the merger proclamation of North Borneo and Sarawak to formed Malaysia.
Flag of Malaysia.svg Malaysia portal

The 1964 July racial riot is considered to be one of the worst incidents in the history of Singapore as this riot killed 22 people and caused 454 to suffer severe injuries.[2] This riot occurred during the procession to celebrate Mawlid where twenty-five thousand Malay had gathered at the Padang. Besides the recital of some prayers and engagement in some religious activities, a series of fiery speeches was also made by the organisers instigating racial tensions. During the procession, clashes occurred between the Malays and the Chinese which eventually led to a riot spreading to other areas.[3] There are multiple accounts and reports on how the riots began. The racial riot played a pivotal role in shaping Singapore's future policies which centred on the principles of multiracialism and multiculturalism.

Pre-independence political context in Singapore from 1963-1964[edit]

Singapore's union with Malaysia in 1963[edit]

16 September 1963 marked the year of Singapore's merger with Malaysia for economic and security interests as the former lacked the natural resources for survival. Malaysia's Prime Minister Tunku had initially rejected Lee Kuan Yew's proposal for a merger due to the fear of communist insurgency in Singapore and the large number of Chinese population in Singapore which might outnumber the Malay population in Malaysia.[4] However, Tunku had changed his mind to call for the merger with Singapore, as the Pro-communist leader Ong Eng Guan had won a seat for the PAP in one of the by-elections which worried Malaysia as this would mean the potential use of Singapore as a communist base to spread communism to Malaysia.[3] Furthermore, maintenance of the high number of Malays in Malaysia was addressed by the inclusion of Borneo regions Sabah and Sarawak into the Malaysian federation.

PAP’s Non-Communal Vs UMNO’s Communal Political Ideologies[edit]

The PAP, the dominant political party in Singapore and UMNO the null dominant political party in Malaysia had two differing competing political ideologies. The PAP led by Lee Kuan Yew adopted non-communal politics whereby it called for equality for all regardless of race or religion whereas UMNO led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, who advocated for the provision of special rights for the bumiputeras indigenous Malays in Malaysia. These ideological differences were important and crucial factors causing social and political tensions from 1963 until the point of separation of Singapore from Malaysia. [4] One of the conditions imposed by Tunku Adbul Rahman was Singapore's interference in Malaysian politics and federal elections. The relationship between UMNO and PAP began to sour when the PAP won 37 seats in the elections that were conducted five days after the merger with Singapore.[4] The Singapore Alliance Party which was supported by UMNO and had hoped to receive the support from the local Malay community fielded its 42 candidates with all failing to win even a single seat.[5] The UMNO saw these results as threatening as these candidates were contesting in Malay dominated areas and yet they were defeated by the PAP.[5] Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP instead of abiding to the request made by Tunku Abdul Rahman of not interfering in Malaysia's federal elections, fielded some of its candidates to contest in the 1964 Federal elections in April as an attempt to portray itself as a Malaysian political party as well. Eventually, PAP did win one seat which was seen as an intrusion into Malaysia's political space and a threat to the provision of special rights to the Malays.[5] Tunku viewed this defeat as a humiliating blow to the credibility of UMNO. Lee Kuan Yew's intentions of creating a Malaysian Malaysia advocating for equal treatment and opportunities for all races was viewed with suspicion and hostility. In an attempt to safeguard Malaysia's political interest and to sway the Singaporean Malay's support towards UMNO, Malaysia began to launch anti-PAP campaign through the publication of news in using newspapers and political rallies.

Events leading to the outbreak of Racial Riots in 1964[edit]

The official state's narrative on the cause of the 21st July 1964 characterizes the UMNO and Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu as playing an instigating role. It points to the publishing of anti-PAP headlines and instigating the Malays to demonstrate hatred towards the PAP. Utusan Melayu is the first Malay owned newspaper founded by Singapore's first President Yusuf Ishak in 1939.[6] Utusan Melayu which was controlled by UMNO was aim to “fight for religion, race and its homeland” placing key emphasis on the rights and the elevated status of the local Malays in Singapore.[4] Utusan Melayu aroused anti-PAP sentiments among the local Malays by publishing and amplifying the Singapore government's decision to evict the Malays from Crawford area for redevelopment of the urban spaces. This was seen as a violation of the Malay rights. The newspaper failed to report that in reality along the Malays, the Chinese were also evicted.[5]

To address the grievances of the Malays, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew held a meeting with the various Malay organisations on July 19 and this angered UNMO as it was not given an invitation to attend this meeting. In this meeting Lee had assured the Malays that they will be given ample opportunities for the Malays to be educated and trained with sufficient skills for them to compete effectively with the non-Malays in the country. However, PM Lee refused to promise the granting of special rights for the Malays. This meeting did satisfy some of the Malay community leaders and agitated some that the needs and pleas of the Malays were not being heard.[4] The Singapore Malayan National Committee was one of the groups that was present during this meeting and seems not convinced by PM Lee's promises and thus in order to rally the support of the Malays to go against the PAP government, leaflets containing rumours of the Chinese in Singapore trying to kill the Malays were published and distributed throughout the island on 20 July 1964. The spread of such information was also carried out during the procession of the Prophet Mohammad birthday celebration which triggered the riots.

As a form of retaliation and to further heighten the conflict between the Malays and PAP, UNMO called for a meeting which was attending by a close to 12,000 people. This meeting was chaired by Secretary General of UMNO Syed Ja’far Albar who referred to PM Lee as an ‘Ikan Sepet’, which lives in muddy waters, and called for collective action against the Chinese community led by the PAP. While this convention was under way, communal violence was sparked in Bukit Mertajam killing two people. This was seen as a prelude to the much bigger riots that followed on 21st July 1964.[4]

Former Minister for Social Affairs Mr Othman Wok in his autobiography mentioned that he had come to know from one of the reporters from the Utsan Melayu that the latter had already known about the potential riots even before the outbreak of the riots which raises the suspicions of the UNMO leaders of orchestrating this riot.[7] Othman also makes references to some key important political meetings which took place among the Malay community in Singapore the politicians in Singapore to express their grievances. Accounts from the meetings prove that the Malays in Singapore had no major grievances and that UMNO’s Secretary-General Syed Ja’afar was responsible for instigating them.[7] Some of the matters brought up by the Malay community included infrastructural issues that Malay schools faced and these issues were contrary to what the UMNO and Utusan Melayu had portrayed.

Outbreak of the July 1964 Race Riots[edit]

On 21st July 1964 afternoon, about 20,000 Malays representing the different Muslim organisations in Singapore had gathered for the procession to begin to mark the birthday celebrations of Prophet Muhammad. The procession started at Padang and was planned to end at the Jamiyah Headquarters located at Lorong 12, Geylang area.[5] The dominant narration of the July 1964 Racial riot on public forums and history textbooks is simplified and remembered as a riot which involved 20,000 Chinese throwing bottles and rocks at the Malays at the Padang. In reality, some scholars[6][5][8] argue that the bottles and rocks being overthrown and clash with a Malay policeman who tried to restrain the Malays were not the reasons for the cause of the riots. But rather, part of the reasons could be also attributed to the distribution of leaflets to the Malay community before the start of the procession by a group named Pertobohan Perjuangan Kebangsaan Melayu Singapore.[8] The leaflets instigated anti-Chinese and anti-PAP sentiments among the Malays as it called for a greater union of the Malays to oppose and wipe out the Chinese as they were believed to be starting a ploy to kill the Malays.[6] SUMO's (Singapore Malay National Organisation) Secretary-General Syed Esa Almenoar had given a fiery speech on the need for the Malay community to fight for their rights instead of giving a religious and non-political speech.[7] This further heightened the suspicions that the Malays had toward the PAP and the Chinese community. The procession was being led by Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Yusof bin Ishak and other PAP political leaders such as Othman Wok.[7] The procession went along Arab Street, Kallang and Geylang areas. The riots occurred around 5 pm where a few Malay youths were seen to be hitting a Chinese cyclist along Victoria Street which was intervened by a Chinese constable.[8] Mr Othman Wok in his autobiography[7] recounted that while he and his team were along Lorong 14, a group of Youths were believed to be from UMNO shouted to strike the Chinese and these youths were seen to be marching in front of Wok's contingent. The riots which occurred around Victoria and Geylang had spread to other parts of Singapore such as Palmer road and Madras Street.[7][8] The police force, military and the Gurkha battalion were activated to curb the violence and at 9.30p.m, a curfew was imposed whereby everyone was ordered to stay at home.[6] The riot saw serious damages to the private properties, loss of lives and injuries sustained by the citizens. According to the reports from the police force, a total of 220 incidents were recorded with 4 being killed and 178 people having sustained some injuries.[8] Furthermore, a close to 20 shophouses owned by the Chinese around Geylang and Jalan Eunos regions were being burnt.[8] The curfew was lifted at 6a.m on 22 July 1964 and the curfew was being re-imposed at 11.30 a.m as the clashes and tensions between the Malays and Chinese had not subsided.[5]

Political leaders of both Malaysia and Singapore, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew in their respective radio broadcasts had emphasised for the need to maintain peace and harmony among the different racial and religious groups and appeal was made to the people to remain indoors and not create in any unlawful acts.[6]

The racial riots subsided by 24 July 1964, as the number of communal clashes reported was reduced to seven cases and on 2 August, the imposition of the curfew since 21 July had been completely lifted and the high police and military supervision removed.[8]

Immediate Aftermath[edit]

2nd September 1964 Race Riots[edit]

The year 1964 was a year of turbulence for Singapore with a heightened communal violence between the Chinese and the Malays. After the July riots, a period of relative calm was broken by another riot on 2 September 1964. This riot was triggered by the mysterious killing of a Malay Trishaw rider along Geylang Serai and this incident sparked attempted of stabbings and heightened violence. 13 people were killed, 106 sustained injuries while 1,439 were arrested.[8]

Indonesia was accused of encouraging communal strife to coincide with the landing of the Indonesian commandos in Johor Bahru. This accusation was found to be highly improbable by the American Ambassador to Singapore, who cited the tense situation following the July riots as the cause of the September riot.[5]

Singapore’s separation from Malaysia[edit]

According to Lee Kuan Yew, there were irreconcilable differences between the two from the outset, due to the UMNO's communal politics. The racial riots in July 1964, triggered and intensified the political rift between PAP and UMNO. Communal politics was often the central theme of Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman's speeches and he often pointed the finger at the PAP leaders and Lee Kuan Yew for interfering in his political party's decisions and for contesting in Malaya's federal elections advocating for a non-communal politics. Furthermore, Tunku Abdul Rahman's encouragement of racial tension and anti-PAP sentiments among Singaporean Malays made it difficult for the PAP to work with UMNO to forge good relations. Thus, these ideological differences on party politics and the outbreaks of the racial riots in 1964 were some of the important contributing factors which led to the eventual separation of Singapore from the Malayan, paving the way for Singapore's independence in June 1965. Singapore was finally declared an independent and sovereign state on August 9, 1965.[4]

Perpetrators of the riots[edit]

There were calls for an inquiry on who was responsible for starting the riots by the central government on 29 July 1964. The UMNO and the Malaysian Federal government blamed the Indonesian forces for stirring up potential conflict among the Malay Kampong regions.[8] However, this was denied by W.A Luscombe the second secretary of the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur due to the lack of evidence.[3]

From the Malaysian government's point of view, Lee Kuan Yew and PAP were responsible for instigating these series of riots and discontent among the Malay community in Singapore. UMNO and Tun Razak had attributed to the Malay's anger and hostility towards the Chinese and Lee Kuan Yew's former speech made on 30 June 1964 for passing inflammatory remarks of the UMNO's communal politics.[3] However, the American Embassy had refuted these claims by stating that Utusan Melayu could have misquoted Lee's speech.[8]

Whereas for the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew, strongly believed that the 1964 July riot was not a spontaneous one as UNMO had always tried to stir anti-PAP sentiments and communal politics among the Singapore Malays. Furthermore, they had often used fiery speeches and Utusan Melayu as a tool to propagate pro-Malay sentiments and to sway their support towards UMNO.

Social Memory of 1964 Race Riots[edit]

The narration of the 1964 race riots often includes the political dimension where UMNO and PAP had a political rift. This narration does not examine how the Singaporeans who had lived through this period of time had viewed this Racial Riots. Thus, Cheng (2001)[2] attempted to revive the memories of the people who had lived through the racial riots and most of them associated the racial riots as more of a religious tension as it took place during Prophet Mohammad's birthday procession. Some of the Singaporeans felt that this riot had not much of significant impact on them since they were living in regions far from Geylang and they did not view this riot as being serious.[2] Contrary to the official discourse which cites Syed Ja'far Albar as the culprit instigating the riots, most of the Malays saw the throwing of a bottle by a Chinese causing the riots while the Chinese saw the Malay's aggressive actions towards their racial group as the main factor for the outbreak of the riot. Most of them did not believe that this riot was due to political incompatibility between PAP and UMNO but rather they viewed this as a mere religious and racial clash.[2]

Aftermath of 1964 Racial Riots[edit]

The July 1964 racial riots played a significant role in shaping some of Singapore's fundamental principles such as multiculturalism and multiracialism once it had gained independence from Malaysia in 1965. The Singapore constitution emphasized the need to adopt non-discriminatory policies based on race or religion. Furthermore, the state also guaranteed the grant of minority rights and to ensure that the minorities in Singapore are not mistreated, the Maintenance of the Religious Harmony Act was drafted and implemented in 1990. Furthermore, the Presidential Council for the Minority Rights (PCMR) established in 1970 to ensure that the bills passed by the parliament are not discriminatory against any racial groups.[2] The government has used the recollection of the 1964 race riots to frame its Singapore's story. For instance, former Prime Minister Goh had implemented a new curriculum known as National Education to foster social and national cohesiveness among Singaporeans. In this national education programme, students were taught about the 1964 racial riots to educate the younger generation about the detrimental implications of the racial tension to the cohesiveness of a nation. Furthermore, commemorative days such as racial harmony day was also introduced in 1997 to foster greater cultural appreciation and to enable students to inculcate values such as respect. Every year on July 21, schools commemorate the racial riots to emphasise the need for tolerance among each other.[2] During this commemoration day, schools recall the racial riots that occurred but however, the emphasis on the events are focused on the tension between the Malays and the Chinese rather than on the political differences between UMNO and PAP.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Singapore, National Library Board,. "Communal riots of 1977 - Infopedia". eresources.nlb.gov.sg.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Cheng, Adeline Low Hwee (2001). "The past in the present: Memories of the 1964 'racial riots' in Singapore". Asian Journal of Social Science. 29 (3): 431–455.
  3. ^ a b c d Turnbull, C.M. (2009). "A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005". A History of Modern Singapore, 1819-2005. Singapore: NUS Press.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Leifer, M. (1965). "Singapore in Malaysia: the politics of Federation". Journal of Southeast Asian History. 6 (2): 54–70.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Keith, P. (2005). ousted!. Singapore: Media Masters.
  6. ^ a b c d e Rahim, L.Z. (2008). "Winning and losing Malay support: PAP-Malay community relations". In Barr, M.; Trocki, C. A. Paths not taken: Political pluralism in post-war Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press. pp. 95–115.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Wok, O. (2000). Never in my wildest dream. Singapore: Singapore National Printers.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lau, A (2000). A moment of anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the politics of disengagement. Singapore: Times Academic Press.

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