Man at His Best

Venture The Magical Hinterland With Eisner Winner, Sonny Liew

Allow the gang from Hodgepodge Hill to lead the way!

BY Sonny Liew | Aug 8, 2017 | Culture

Words and illustrations by Sonny Liew

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a 2017 Eisner Awards-winning graphic novel by Sonny Liew, is a magnum opus of storytelling about the life and times of Singapore on its yellow brick road to independence. “Bukit Chapalang“ (Hodgepodge Hill), the comic strip within the graphic novel, began as a straight retelling of Malay folktales. It features Lee Kuan Yew (Sang Kancil, a mouse deer); Lee’s nemesis, the popular socialist Lim Chin Siong (Sang Kucing, a cat); and The Tunku (King Tunku), among others. It’s set around the time of Singapore’s proposed merger with Malaysia.

At the time, almost everyone believed that a merger with the Federation of Malaya would be necessary for Singapore’s survival once full independence had been granted by the British. The Malayan mainland could serve as a hinterland for the fledgeling island state, providing both natural resources and a larger common market.

The leaders of Malaya, however, were not exactly keen on the idea. Absorbing Singapore’s large Chinese population of 1.3 million would mean altering Malaya’s “racial arithmetic”: the Malay population would be outnumbered by the Chinese, thereby transforming the electoral landscape.

Such a change would threaten the political dominance of the Malay ruling elite. Attitudes towards a merger shifted only after PAP candidates were defeated in two successive by-elections in 1961, sparking fears that a more radical party might ultimately prevail in Singapore. In Chan’s comic, “Mouseketeers” were used to represent the Malays, while the Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was depicted as a benevolent orangutan.

Note: Apart from its role in curtailing the perceived communist threat, a merger between Singapore and Malaya was also seen as both inevitable and a historical necessity by many. Along with the strong historical, cultural and geographical ties connecting the two territories, a merger also presented the allure of a common market, whilst providing a roadmap to independence that was acceptable to the British. See John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (Australia: George Allen and Unwin, 1984), pp. 258–60, 294–5. There was, however, some opposition to the merger. Indonesian leader Sukarno saw the formation of the Federation of Malaysia as an attempt by the British to maintain colonial rule and influence in the region, and started the Konfrontasi (Confrontation) campaign. The military operation was aimed at destabilising the new federation, and numerous armed infiltrations were launched in the Borneo territories and the Malaysian Peninsula, with indiscriminate bombings in Singapore, including the MacDonald House bombing on March 10, 1965. Konfrontasi formally ended with the signing of a peace treaty in 1966, soon after Suharto replaced Sukarno as president. See Marsita Omar, “The Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation.” 

The Tunku’s fears were heightened after Lim Chin Siong and his supporters formed the Barisan Sosialis following their expulsion from the PAP in 1961. Believing the Barisan to be a communist party, he was concerned that Singapore might become a “Little China” under Lim, a base and stepping stone from which communism could be propagated to Malaya.

Both the Tunku and Lee Kuan Yew saw the merger as a means of preventing such a scenario, since the conservative Malayan government would then be able to crack down on any left-wing ambitions. In order to preserve the existing balance of races, the British Borneo territories of Sabah and Sarawak, with their large non-Chinese populations, were subsequently incorporated into the plans for the union.

The Barisan Sosialis strongly objected to the proposal, fearing for their political survival if the merger was to go through, while questioning whether the terms of the merger were ideal for Singapore. In response, Lee Kuan Yew decided to hold a Referendum on Merger.

Note, above: Within Singapore, the Barisan Sosialis opposed the merger on various grounds, some of which were self-serving, and others perhaps more forward-looking. They were outmanoeuvred by the PAP in any case. For a closer look at the events leading up to the national referendum on merger in September 1962, see Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success, pp. 283–312, and Albert Lau, A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998).

The referendum ostensibly offered voters three choices. But as then Deputy Prime Minister and PAP stalwart Toh Chin Chye would later admit, “[T]he ballot paper was crafted by Lee Kuan Yew… frankly, they were all votes for merger… Few understood [it]. Few even knew where Sabah was… But we got away with it… It was a win-win situation for the government.”

The PAP’s strategy and tactics during the lead-up to the Merger Referendum would be described as acts of “Machiavellian brilliance,” while the Barisan’s reactions were muddled at best, often playing right into their opponent’s hands.

When the Barisan called for supporters to cast blank votes in protest, for example, they found that the PAP had already included a clause in the referendum bill, which allowed for blank and uncertain votes to be counted towards merger.

Note: See Chew, Leaders of Singapore, p. 92 on the formulation of the ballot papers for the referendum on merger, and Willard A Hanna, The Formation of Malaysia: New Factor in World Politics (New York: American Universities Field Staff, 1964, c. 1962), p. 116ff. on the PAP’s strategy during the lead-up to the referendum.

As it turned out, 71 percent of the votes were cast in favour of the PAP’s option “A”, whilst only 25 percent had cast a blank vote. The PAP had demonstrated their political mettle, and the Barisan Sosialis had been thoroughly outmanoeuvred.

Meanwhile, the governments of Britain, Malaya and Singapore all believed that it would be in their best interests to have the leaders of the Barisan Sosialis arrested. None of them wanted to shoulder the blame for such an unpopular action, however, and there was a period of hand-wringing as each side jostled to have another assume responsibility.

An attempted leftist revolution in Brunei led by Sheik AM Azahari in December 1962 finally provided a pretext for arresting Lim Chin Siong and more than a hundred other alleged subversives. Lim’s lunch meeting with Azahari in Singapore days before the revolt, together with the Barisan’s declaration of solidarity with the uprising, were held up as evidence that the radical party was ready and willing to resort to armed insurrection.

With the formation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963, the PAP had achieved their goal of merger. A convincing victory in the Singapore elections followed that same month. The party now felt emboldened enough to contest the 1964 federal general elections in the Malaysian mainland, despite assurances by Lee Kuan Yew that they would not do so.


Note: The PAP’s victory in the 1963 elections included wins in the predominantly Malay constituencies of Geylang Serai, Kampong Kembangan and the Southern Islands. This was despite the opposition from candidates of the Singapore Alliance, which had received the backing of Federal leaders, including Tunku Abdul Rahman himself. This ability to appeal across racial lines emboldened the PAP to take part in the Malaysian federal elections of 1964, a premature and, ultimately, disastrous move that resulted in raising antagonism among many federal political leaders, and eventually contributed to Singapore’s ouster from Malaysia in 1965. For more, see Lau, A Moment of Anguish. Lee Kuan Yew had made an initial commitment to the Tunku that the PAP would not take part in the first Malaysian elections, but the exact nature of this agreement remains disputed (see Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party [Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 2009], pp. 264–5). In any case, Lee would state in a speech that “we will not take part in the 1964 elections in the Federation.” (Sunday Times, Sep 29, 1963).

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) was one the three political parties that made up the ruling coalition, and the appointed representative of Chinese interests in the Federation. The PAP had hoped that a show of strength in the federal elections would demonstrate their appeal to Chinese voters, thereby convincing the Tunku that they could replace the MCA as a worthy coalition partner. This move, however, antagonised the MCA and its leader Tan Siew Sin, and further fuelled fears amongst conservative Malay leaders like UMNO Secretary-General Dato’ Syed Ja’afar Albar that Lee Kuan Yew’s ultimate ambitions lay in becoming the Prime Minister of all Malaysia.

Note: The movement towards merger as a means of containing the influence of the radical left in Singapore had arguably led to hurried negotiations where certain issues had been glossed over. Amongst these was the role Singapore would play in federal politics. UMNO leaders appeared to envision, at best, a slow integration of the PAP into their conservative and communalist style of governance, while the PAP leaders sought a much quicker timetable in which they could take an active role in Malaysian politics. The latter’s consequent push towards a greater voice and influence would lead to conflicts with threatened pro-Malay elements within the Federation, as well as the conservative Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). See Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, pp. 287–90.

Despite larger turnouts for their election rallies, the PAP performed dismally, winning only one of nine seats contested, whilst the MCA made significant gains. Incensed by what they saw as broken promises, and the overreaching ambition and impatience on the part of the PAP, the ruling coalition in Malaysia now sought to crush them in Singapore itself, with Syed Ja’afar Albar leading a virulent campaign to discredit the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew amongst Malay voters in Singapore.

Note: Although the PAP performed poorly in the 1964 Federal elections, they had effectively presented themselves as a potential threat to UMNO’s approach to politics. The latter now sought to attack the PAP within Singapore, with its secretary-general Dato Syed Ja’afar Albar spearheading attempts to exploit and stir up discontent amongst Singapore Malays. See Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, pp. 290–2 and “The Alliance Strikes Back” in Lau, A Moment of Anguish, pp. 131–60.

There was to be more trouble on other fronts. The Malaysian Minister of Finance was none other than MCA leader Tan Siew Sin, who now used his power and influence to make it difficult for Singapore to receive the financial and economic benefits it had hoped would come with merger. Meanwhile, Syed Ja’afar Albar and Lee Kuan Yew continued their war of words.

Note: MCA president Tan Siew Sin was able to use his position as Federal Finance Minister to curtail Singapore’s economy whenever he felt that the MCA’s importance as UMNO’s main ally was threatened. His proposals, such as a punishing tax plan raised during budgetary parliamentary debates in November 1964, would badly hamper Singapore’s own Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee’s plans for Singapore’s industrialisation. Goh eventually became a prime mover behind Singapore’s split from Malaysia, convinced as he was that, for all the intimidating challenges it would face, Singapore would stand a better chance of achieving economic growth and swifter development as an independent nation free of Federal interference. See Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, pp. 287–300 and Lau, A Moment of Anguish, pp. 214–17.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015) is published by Epigram Books.