AT THE eye of the Malaysian storm is the island of Singapore, the world’s fifth largest port, Britain’s main military base in Asia, and to the surprise of those who knew the explosive potential in its predominantly Chinese population, South-east Asia’s most conspicuously successful example of self-government.

Within sight of the islands of Indonesia and linked with Malaya physically by causeway and politically through Malaysia, Singapore has gone about its business with untropical zest and energy ever since Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles picked on its unpopulated swamp and jungle to build a British Far Eastern trading center a hundred and forty-five years ago. With immigrant Chinese labor, British know-how, one of the world’s finest harbors, the attractions of a free port, and the unique geographical advantage of being a sort of buoy at the southeastern tip of the Asian continent, Singapore made spectacular progress under colonial rule.

Self-government in 1959 gave it a new head of steam. In an article discussing the first four years of rule by the People’s Action Party government, the conservative Far Eastern Review described it as certainly one of the most efficient and energetic governments in the world today, and then added: “Since it came to power it has dynamically exploited Singapore’s advantage in a way that makes the island’s previous colonial and semicolonial governments, which were by no means idle, appear second-rate.’ This was high praise, but not an overstatement.

Success story

Nowhere else in Asia is there a government of which it may be said that it is untainted by hint of scandal or corruption. Nowhere else has a government concentrated so effectively on the welfare of its society at the grass roots while so vigorously encouraging by legislation and direct financial aid the rapid development of industry. In a great slum-clearance scheme, the Housing Development Board provided homes for some 100,000 people during the P.A.P.’s first three years in office and is now starting a ten-story apartment house every four days and completing a new family unit every forty-five minutes. Every housing area has shopping and community centers, schools, markets, and playing fields, for a rent as low as $6.65 a month for a small, modern apartment.

To entice new industries, the government cleared and reclaimed thousands of acres of mangrove swamps, built deepwater port facilities, provided access roads, a railway, and all essential services to a section of the island regarded only a few years ago as worthless. It visualized a great Southeast Asian industrial complex rising from the swamps, and judging by the early applications for factory sites, its optimism seems fully justified. By the middle of last year new factories built on the island since 1959 had provided for direct employment for 3500 workers; and more than sixty applications had been received for sites at the new industrial area at Jurong. With its outlets apparently assured through the Malaysian common market, a Japanese industrialist prophesied that Singapore would become “the Osaka of the South Seas.”

Fighting fire with fire

At the center of Singapore’s success story is a brilliant and industrious Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, a Chinese, who won wide support in 1959 by promising almost to match the promises of the illegal Communist Party. “We will be as far to the Left as we can go within the democratic framework,” said Lee, a Cambridge University graduate in law. One of his conditions for accepting office was the release by the British of P.A.P. political detainees regarded, with good cause, as Communists.

British and Chinese capital fled across the causeway to the calmer political climate of Malaya. Expatriate officials found their contracts canceled without notice, and the English-educated Chinese, especially those born in Singapore, who were not then generally sympathetic to the P.A.P. came in for much bigoted criticism.

By giving expression to its doctrinaire enthusiasms, the P.A.P. at first kept in step with the Communist-led masses and its own extremist labor leaders. Nervous anxiety on the part of the business community and the temporary loss of capital were the price the government had to pay for labor stability while it organized its own plans to win independent support for its social reform and plans for industrialization. It was a well-calculated risk. But as soon as it became apparent that Lee did not intend to force the withdrawal of the British bases or to set about creating socialism in Singapore, thirteen assemblymen broke away and formed the Barisan Sosialis Party. They were quickly joined by others. Instead of its initial whacking majority of forty-three of the fifty-one seats in the Assembly, the P.A.P. found itself whittled down to twenty-six, a precarious majority of one.

Malaysia, a safety valve

There were few who held much hope for Lee’s political future at this time. It was not easy to be optimistic about Singapore itself. With the highest birthrate in the world (4.3 percent) and no natural resources, the island, which is only twenty-six miles long and fourteen miles wide, was bursting at the seams. The population had doubled to 1,800,000 between the end of the war and 1963. With more than half of the inhabitants under the age of twenty, neither the British military bases, which directly employ 40,000 people, nor the entrepôt trade could absorb the thousands of youths who flooded the labor market each year. Industrialization depended ultimately on markets. Singapore had to find a safety valve for its energies and its people, or explode.

Malaysia was to be the safety valve. Lee had long argued with Malaya’s genial Malay Prime Minister, Abdul Rahman, that Singapore’s labor could be turned to the mutual advantage of both territories, and that, racially dangerous as the merger of the two territories might seem to Kuala Lumpur, it would be much more dangerous if mass unemployment in Singapore led to a Communist takeover.

Lee’s image of Singapore as the industrial base for Malaya conflicted with Rahman’s own plans for Malayan industrialization. His even more compelling fear was that the addition of Singapore’s 1,300,000 Chinese would destroy the finely drawn balance in favor of the indigenous Malays and, even worse, heavily reinforce the ranks of the underground Malayan Communist Party, which is largely Chinese.

In May. 1961, at least partly as a response to Lee’s urgent pleas that he had to be given some hope of merger or go under to the Communists, Rahman proposed a wider federation which would dilute Singapore’s Chinese with Land and Sea Dayaks, Melanaus, Dusuns, Bajaus, Muruts, and other people from the British territories of North Borneo (now Sabah), Sarawak, and Brunei.

Few federations have received wider approval or been born amid such opposition. The British rejoiced that they had found what they called an orderly process of decolonization. Most people in Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo were in favor of the new union, which at least had a common colonial base.

Brunei, with a population of only 85,000 and substantial benefits from oil royalties that it was disinclined to share with its neighbors, showed its opposition by rising in revolt against the British. The Chinese left wing in Singapore and Sarawak reacted bitterly. The Barisan Sosialis Party called Malaysia a sellout, and its kin in Sarawak, the Sarawak United People’s Party, led the opposition there. Chinese students began to disappear across the Sarawak border into Indonesian territory, where they were trained as guerrillas and sent back with guns to raid British, and later Malaysian, outposts.

Lee gave Singapore its chance to express its views by plebiscite, but since its alternatives were intended to demonstrate solidarity for Malaysia rather than to test the will of the people, he did not silence his opposition. In February, 1963, he adopted measures of an entirely different order, and with the blessing of the Internal Security Council, on which Singapore had three seats, Britain three, and Malaya the deciding vote, some of the colleagues who had been released as his condition for accepting office three years earlier went back to jail. In all, Lee detained at this time 131 politicians, union leaders, journalists, and others, including twenty-four executives of the opposition.

Against a background of rising international tension, as Indonesia moved from indifferent acceptance of Malaysia to warlike “confrontation" and the Philippines revived an old claim to North Borneo, Lee negotiated his conditions of entry into the new federation with Abdul Rahman. The never very friendly relations between Malaya and Singapore were not improved by the bargaining, and Kuala Lumpur’s old fears of Singapore’s Chinese revived.

Singapore wins the day

Politically, Singapore appeared to emerge badly from the deal. In the Malaysian House of Representatives, its 1,800,000 inhabitants have 15 members, while Sarawak, with less than half Singapore’s population, has 24, and Sabah, with fewer than half a million people, 16. Malaya (population 7 million) has 104 members. In the fields of trade and finance, however, Singapore won the day. It will continue as a regional entrepôt, and its position as a free port within Malaysia will be phased out only gradually. It kept control of 60 percent of locally earned revenue; and the way was open for it to become the chief industrial component of a Malaysian common market.

Every post was a winning post now for Lee. When Abdul Rahman agreed under pressure from Indonesia and the Philippines to postpone Malaysia Day from August 31 to September 16, thereby giving the United Nations time to test the feeling of the Borneo peoples, Lee embarrassed Kuala Lumpur and Whitehall by proclaiming Singapore’s de facto independence in advance. It was chauvinistic and successful, as was a melodramatic rally he addressed at the same time. Beneath banners slung between palm trees showing various tortures practiced by the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore in World War II. he told an audience of 120,000 people that Japanese industrialists would be kept out of Singapore until they settled their “blood debt.”

Lee Kuan Yew’s triumph

Lee celebrated his fortieth birthday on Malaysia Day. With singular timing, he was now in the middle of an election campaign in which he used the full resources of the state machinery, especially radio and television, in an attempt to crush his opposition, both left and right. Intellectually arrogant, Lee appears to be a cold, calculating, and by extension, unscrupulous man. He also has boundless drive and energy. Night after night he toured the country on a meet-the-people campaign that wore his subordinates into the ground.

With his most dangerous opponents under detention, Lee campaigned on grass roots issues in the rural villages — on standpipes and schools, housing and jobs. The right he attacked as corrupt political bosses and merchant adventurers who would not hesitate to subordinate Singapore’s interests to their own predatory designs. The left he lashed for its Communism. In the center was Lee, architect of Malaysia, the man who had provided Singapore not only with its social welfare but its hope for the future.

Whatever might be said against the P.A.P.’s use of state machinery to further its own political ends, the polls were secret and honestly conducted. They swept Lee back into office. The P.A.P. won thirty-seven seats, the Barisan Sosialis thirteen. The remaining seat went to Ong Eng Guan, a minister in the first P.A.P. government, who campaigned as an independent.

With the right now destroyed as a political force, Lee pressed his war more vigorously against the left. Twenty-four hours after the election, he announced proceedings to deprive the richest and most powerful of the Peiping-oriented Chinese, a rubber magnate and founder of Nanyang University, Tan Lark Sye, of his Singapore citizenship. He gave an underground Communist leader two weeks to get out of Malaysia, dissolved all known Communist-infiltrated associations, broke a general strike organized by the Communist-oriented Singapore Association of Trade Unions, swooped on Nanyang University, the only purely Chinese center of higher education in Southeast Asia, and placed under arrest a number of its students.

From a position perilously close to political extinction, Lee had now re-emerged triumphant. Since he is the most outstanding figure among Southeast Asia’s 12 million overseas Chinese, his influence reaches far beyond Singapore, or the crossbenches of the Malaysian parliament, where he now sits in opposition. The Malaysian agreement was carefully drawn up to prevent a Chinese from becoming the Malaysian leader, but it reckoned without the drive and ambition of Lee Kuan Yew.

Friction with Indonesia

For some considerable time, however, Lee’s hands are likely to be full at home. Indonesia’s economic “confrontation.” which includes the severance of all trade ties with Malaysia, falls most heavily on Singapore. Its import-export trade with Indonesia was worth $365 million in 1962, out of its total trade of $2.4 billion. Most of the imports were in rubber, which Sumatran plantations sent to Singapore for processing. The loss of this business is not immediately apparent to a visitor to Singapore. But it has increased unemployment, sent the stock market plunging, and — so shopkeepers say — cut retail trade by about one fifth.

To the foreign industrialist looking for a site for a new industry in Asia, the convenience of Jurong and its facilities is now heavily compromised by the Indonesian threat and what it implies. Although they won so few seats at the polls, the Barisan Sosialis Party and their Communist backers received 33 percent of the votes, against 41 percent for the P.A.P. In seven constituencies the P.A.P.’s majority over the Barisan Sosialis ranged from 89 to 403 votes; and in each, Ong Eng Guan’s farleft candidates polled more than a thousand votes. Lee’s margin over the Communist left is therefore far from secure.