on the World Today

THE crown colony of Singapore, a green and prosperous little island frequently accused of smugness or, at the least, a head-in-the-sand placidity, has received several ugly shocks since the day the Japanese crossed the Strait of Johore to take the “impregnable British bastion.” One blow to European complacency was the Malay rioting a couple of years ago, when members of a community the British had always considered loyal ran amok, attacking and killing white men in the generally well-ordered city streets.

A more recent shock came last April from the Chinese, the colony’s principal community. In elections for a legislative assembly in which, under the new constitution, government-appointed members were to be in a clear minority for the first time, Singapore’s voters, predominantly Chinese, supported the left-of-center parties. Then Chinese workers and students, flouting government authority, almost paralyzed the city with disorders.

The left-wing election victory and the disturbances which followed showed the British that, as far as white control in Singapore is concerned, it is later than they thought. Though no date has been set for the end of British rule, Whitehall has promised both Singapore and the Federation of Malaya (two separate political entities) complete local self-government and then full independence in the reasonable future. The British government satisfied Nehru of its good faith and intentions, so that, at the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, where colonialism was the chief target and colonial rule as far away as North Africa was soundly berated, the Indian Prime Minister saw to it that the British colonies just next door were not even mentioned.

How far to the left?

The constitution under which Singapore’s April elections were held, giving the legislature all powers except defense, finance, and internal security, was a step in what the British hoped would be an orderly and not too rapid progression toward full self-rule. Many Englishmen, in Singapore and in London, counted on at least a ten-year interval of transition. The elections and the subsequent disorders indicate that the interval may well be much shorter. They suggest, too, that an independent Singapore will very possibly be left-controlled, and sympathetic and friendly toward — if not an instrument of— Peiping.

Almost no one in Singapore foresaw that the leftwing parties—the Labor Front and the People’s Action Party (PAP) — would come out so well in the elections, least of all the leftist parties themselves. This universal miscalculation was due partly to an unnatural surface calm caused by the Emergency Regulations, which, while enabling the government to fight Communist infiltration and subversion, have at the same time curtailed free political discussion and activity. In a sense, the lid has been on, and no one — except perhaps the Communists— knew just what was brewing.

Singapore’s Chinese community

Another reason for the undue complacency on the part of right-wing Asians and the European community was that they overlooked the real composition and character of Singapore’s Chinese community. The colony is, after all, a Chinese island with a very light British veneer and a sprinkling of Malays and Indians; 80 per cent of the population is of Chinese origin. The classic British view of this mass of people has been that they were simply transients interested only in making money.

But since the Japanese took Singapore and restricted Chinese movement, the Chinese have not been transients. A resurgent China has roused in them a heightened sense of pride and power and Chinese-ness; and as they have watched their voteless compatriots all through Southeast Asia being squeezed by indigenous independent governments, the Chinese in Singapore and the Federation have made up their minds to get political power.

Heretofore, in its dealings with the British, the Singapore Chinese community has been represented chiefly by the Progressive Party and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The Progressive Party, which most people mistakenly assumed would come out ahead in the elections, is led by and chiefly composed of Anglicized Chinese with British educations, British accents, plenty of money, and no great sense of urgency about an independence which might mean less stability for accumulating fortunes. The Chamber of Commerce Chinese leaders are less Anglicized and more Chinese; but they, too, represent wealth.

The great majority of Singapore Chinese are laborers, little farmers, and shopkeepers and their clerks and apprentices. In a town where 20 and 30 per cent dividends on shares are not remarkable, and where the highest income tax on the city’s many millionaire and multimillionaire fortunes is only 33 per cent, these little Chinese live in squalor. They went to the polls, repudiated their wealthy Chinese “leaders,” and put the left — which promised them a better deal in a new order soon — into office.

The winning parties

Singapore’s two victorious leftist parties are the People’s Action Party and the Labor Front. The latter was “catapulted” into office, as its leader, David Marshall, put it. Its program is full self-government within three years, neutralism in foreign affairs, and the establishment of a welfare state, which means higher wages for workers, and better housing, social insurance, and health and educational facilities for lower income bracket people in general. Money for rapid progress in these fields would have to come out of increased taxation— import duties in what has always been a free port, luxury taxes, higher income and corporation taxes, and so on. These prospects make the bigbusiness community shudder.

Marshall, besides being the head of the Labor Front, is Singapore’s first Chief Minister, and is an intelligent, well-intentioned, and engaging Singapore-born Iraqi Jew, a self-made man and a successful lawyer. He has a real feeling for the underprivileged and an honest faith in democratic methods and principles. He came into office suffering from a dearth of capable co-workers and a plethora of campaign promises.

Though he is no experienced politician, Marshall is canny enough to realize that a slightly left moderate like himself is, during this phase of Singapore’s history, in a very exposed, lonely, and hazardous position. “I am under fire from left and right,” he says wryly. “The British business community says, for instance, that I have sent a personal fortune of three hundred thousand dollars (U.S. $100,000) out of the country because I have no faith in Singapore’s future. At the same time the left says I have just taken a fifty-thousand-dollar bribe from the employer of a company whose workers are on strike.”

Marshall points out accurately that the voters have jettisoned the right-wing parties and that the political tendency in Singapore is now leftward. (“On my left are the Communists, with guns; but on my right are corpses.”) He predicts that if the British and the Malay and Chinese moderates do not rally behind his program, they will find themselves confronting, after the next elections, a government a good deal further to the left.

Independence now?

The party really sitting pretty is the left opposition group, the People’s Action Party, which put up only four candidates (out of a total slate of twenty-five) in April and got three of them elected; the PAP leader, Lee Kuan Yew (Harry Lee), got more votes than any other assemblyman. At thirty-two he is an extremely intelligent, capable lawyer (double firsts at Cambridge), who has been adviser and legal counsel to a number of Singapore unions and is the darling of the Chinese students, who did much to elect him. The People’s Action Party is left-wing socialist, infiltrated, it is generally believed, by Communists. Two of its party planks are immediate independence and an end to the Emergency Regulations.

The Emergency Regulations, which make Communist organization or activity illegal and enable the government to intern suspects for a limited time without trial, are one of the chief weapons used by Singapore and the Federation of Malaya against an armed Communist rebellion which has now lasted six years. The Malayan Communist Party still has, today, five thousand armed men in the Malayan jungle, an unknown but large number of sympathizers outside it, and an underground apparatus which extends right down into the city of Singapore. The state where the Communist rebels are most successful is Johore, across the Strait from Singapore.

Lee does not seem at all certain that Communism can be averted in Malaya. But independence now, says the PAP leader, is the only chance to save Singapore and the Federation from turning Communist. “I think, with Mr. Nehru,” says Lee, “that colonialism is worse than Communism. As long as colonialism is here, I will not fight the Communists, because for the moment they are fighting for the same end as I: complete independence.”

Singapore Chinese, he adds, are overwhelmingly and irrevocably proPeiping, and an independent Singapore and Federation will certainly not be anti-Communist or anti-Peiping. Malaya can, he thinks, be an independent, left-wing, non-Communist state, aligned, like India, with neither power bloc but safe from both because, as he explains, if either bloc were to attack Malaya, the other would have to defend it.

Teen-age left-wingers

PAP support comes chiefly from workers and from Chinese students. Incredible as it may sound, high school boys and girls have been for months the single most pressing political problem in Singapore. There are roughly two kinds of high schools— or middle schools, as the Chinese call them — in Singapore: English schools, which teach in English and receive government subsidy and are therefore subject to official control; and Chinese schools, which use Chinese texts (often pro-Peiping) and the Chinese language as a medium of instruction and which take no funds — and therefore no direction — from the government.

Today, in Singapore, where over 50 per cent of the population is under twenty-one, there are about eleven thousand Chinese students in less than a dozen Chinese high schools controlled by boards of Chinese who hold the posts merely because they donate money. Most principals are simply business managers, and teachers are underpaid, sometimes proPeiping, and generally intimidated by their students.

Students in Chinese high schools are, first of all, frustrated, because without English they can neither enter the University nor get ahead in business and government in this British colony; many graduate into the most menial jobs. In the second place, they are fired with pride in the New China, which, they feel, has stood off the United Nations, thumbed its nose at the West, and is taking its rightful place in the sun after centuries of humiliation. In the third place, the Malayan Communist Party and, it is believed, Peiping Communists have been working quietly among them for a decade, and vigorously for the last year or so. Results: a very small core of the eleven thousand is Communist, and a very large number indeed are left-oriented, pro-Peiping, and violently anti-government and anti-colonial.

The Chinese students of Singapore have got well organized and well out of hand, defying their teachers, their parents, and the government. High school boys and girls form front organizations for political purposes, hold constant political meetings even in school time and on school premises, and organize mammoth demonstrations which incite and produce violence. They encourage and assist strikers; in a frighteningly regimented manner, busloads of students regularly visit strikers and picket lines, rousing them to frenzy with songs, dances, slogans, and speeches, and giving them “comfort” in the form of cold drinks, food, and money which has amounted to tens of thousands of Singapore dollars.

The pattern is depressingly familiar to anyone who watched the Chinese Communists use the students on the China mainland in the last few years preceding Mao Tse-tung’s victory. The tactic is to utilize the young people — who generally are unaware they are tools — by exploiting violent nationalism and grievances that are legitimate or semi-legitimate, for ends that are Communist and subversive. The situation has not been improved by frequent official tactlessness and inability to face up to a situation until it is almost past mending.

Recent trends and events in Singapore must give pause to the Commonwealth nations, to adjacent Southeast Asian countries, and to the Malays in Singapore and the Federation. It is difficult to see how Britain, Australia, and New Zealand will be able to maintain Singapore as the Commonwealth’s chief Far Eastern military base if the island goes “neutral” or pro-Peiping.