1964 Race Riots in Singapore considered to be one of the worst incidents in the history of Singapore. 23 people died in the riot and 454 others suffered severe injuries. This riot occurred during the procession to celebrate Mawlid (the birthday of the Muslim prophet Muhammad). Twenty-five thousand majority-Muslim Malay people had gathered at the Padang.
Besides the recital of some prayers and engagement in some religious activities, a series of fiery speeches were also made by the organizers, instigating racial tensions. During the procession, clashes occurred between the Malays and the Chinese which eventually led to a riot spreading to other areas. There are multiple accounts and reports on how the riots began. The riots are seen as pivotal leading up to the independence of Singapore, for fear from the government of Malaysia (of which Singapore was briefly a part) that Malay-Chinese ethnic violence would spread in the rest of the newly federated country.
Events leading to the outbreak of the 1964 Race Riots in Singapore
The official state’s narrative on the cause of the 21st July 1964 characterizes the UMNO and Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu controlled by UMNO as playing an instigating role. It points to the publishing of anti-PAP headlines and incitement for the Malays against the PAP. Utusan Melayu is the first Malay owned newspaper founded by Singapore’s first President Yusuf Ishak in 1939. Utusan Melayu’s stated aim was to “fight for religion, race and its homeland”, placing key emphasis on the rights and the elevated status of the local Malays in Singapore. Utusan Melayu aroused anti-PAP sentiments among the local Malays by publishing and amplifying the Singapore government’s decision to evict the Malays from the Crawford area for the redevelopment of the urban spaces. This was seen as a violation of Malay rights. The newspaper did not report that along with the Malays, the Chinese residents were also evicted.
To address the grievances of the Malays, Lee Kuan Yew held a meeting with the various Malay organizations on July 19. This angered UMNO, as it was not invited to attend this meeting. In that meeting, Lee assured the Malays that they would be given ample opportunities for education, employment, and skill training 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 Malay community leaders and agitated some, who had the view that the needs and pleas of the Malays were not being heard. The Singapore Malayan National Committee was one such group that was not convinced of PM Lee‘s promises. Thus in order to rally the support of the Malays to go against the PAP government, leaflets containing rumors of the Chinese in Singapore trying to kill the Malays were published and distributed throughout the island on July 20, 1964. The spread of such information was also carried out during the procession of the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday celebration, triggering the riots.
As a form of retaliation and to further incite the conflict between the Malays and PAP, UNMO called for a meeting which was attended by close to 12,000 people. This meeting was chaired by Secretary-General of UMNO Syed Ja’far Albar who referred to 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 underway, communal violence was sparked in Bukit Mertajam killing two people. This was seen as a prelude to the much bigger riots that followed on July 21st, 1964.
Former Minister for Social Affairs, Othman Wok wrote in his autobiography that he had come to know from one of the reporters from the Utusan Melayu that the latter had already known about the potential riots even before their outbreak, which raised official suspicions that UNMO leaders may have orchestrated the riots. Othman also makes references to some key political meetings which took place between the Malay community in Singapore and politicians in Singapore to express their grievances. Accounts from the meetings indicate that the Malays in Singapore had no major grievances and that UMNO’s Secretary-General Syed Ja’afar was responsible for instigating them. 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.
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