The 1964 Race Riots were a series of riots that took place in Singapore during two separate periods in July and September between Chinese and Malay groups. The first incident occurred on 21 July during a Malay procession that marked Muhammad's birthday. In total, the violence killed 36 people and injured another 556. About 3,000 people were arrested. The riots are also known as the Prophet Muhammad Birthday Riots, 1964 Racial Riots, and 1964 Sino-Malay Riots. At that time, Singapore was a state in the Federation of Malaysia.
This article is part of
the History of Singapore series
Early history of Singapore
|Founding of modern
|Sook Ching massacre (1942–1945)|
|First Legislative Council (1948–1951)|
|Maria Hertogh riots(1950)|
Legislative Council (1951–1955)
Anti-National Service Riots (1954)
|Hock Lee bus riots (1955)|
|Chinese middle schools riots (1956)|
with Malaysia (1962–1965)
|Merger referendum, 1962|
|Operation Coldstore (1963)|
|1964 race riots in Singapore|
|MacDonald House bombing (1965)|
|1969 race riots of Singapore (1969)|
|Operation Spectrum (1987)|
|East Asian financial crisis (1997)|
|Embassies attack plot (2001)|
|See also Timeline of Singaporean history|
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On 21 July 1964, about 25,000 Malays gathered at the Padang, Singapore to celebrate the Muslim prophet Muhammad's birthday. After the speeches, the procession went on to Geylang. Along the way, a policeman asked a group that was dispersed to rejoin the main procession. Instead of obeying the orders, the group attacked the policeman. This incident led to a race riot after the group of Malays attacked ethnic Chinese-Malay passers-by and spectators. The riots were reported to have started at about 5:00 p.m. between Kallang and Geylang Serai. The government declared a curfew at 9.30 p.m. to restore order, but in the first day of rioting, four people were killed and 178 injured.
After the curfew was lifted at 6 a.m. the next morning, the conflict grew even more tense, and another curfew was imposed – it was only lifted for short periods to allow people to buy food. The curfew was not completely lifted until 2 August, 11 days after the start of the riots.
After the riots, goodwill committees were set up made up of community leaders from the various racial groups. The main job of these leaders was to help restore peace and harmony between the Malays and ethnic Chinese by addressing the concerns of the residents. About 23 people were killed and 450 people were injured during the July riots. There was significant damage to property and vehicles.
The government arrested about 3,000 people, including 600 secret society members and 256 people charged with possession of dangerous weapons. The rest were arrested for violating the curfew.
Different reasons have been cited for the riots. Malaysia Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak blamed ethnic Indonesian and Communist provocateurs.
On the other hand, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and several foreign observers attributed the riots as the result of agitation by Syed Jaafar Albar and other elements of the ultra-nationalist faction in United Malays National Organization (UMNO). According to the Australian Deputy High Commissioner, W. B. Pritchett:
"...there can be no doubt that UMNO was solely responsible for the riots. Its members ran the communal campaign or allowed it to happen."
The riots occurred during the period when the People's Action Party (PAP) and UMNO relations were severely strained after the PAP challenged the UMNO in the March 1964 Malaysia federal election. PAP ran on the campaign slogan of Malaysian Malaysia. In addition, analysts suggested the participation of Chinese secret societies in the riots increased the level of violence.
A second race riot occurred just a month after the first on 3 September. This time, a Malay trishaw-rider was found murdered in the Geylang Serai neighborhood. His attackers were believed to be a group of ethnic Chinese. The race riot ensued in the neighbourhoods of Geylang, Joo Chiat and Siglap, and the government again imposed a curfew. In this incident, 13 people were killed and 106 people were injured. With the presence of troops and imposition of curfews, these tensions eventually eased after a few days. Nearly 500 people were arrested.
Leaders in Malaysia and Singapore were surprised by the rapid escalation of racial violence and both sides made frequent appeals for calm. The riots exposed serious racial tension. The fear of further violence contributed to Singapore's decision to secede from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, when both sides were unable to resolve their disputes. Three-quarters of Singapore's population was of Chinese descent. In contrast, the rest of Malaysia had a majority of Malays, who lived in mostly rural areas, with ethnic Chinese comprising about 25% of the population and ethnic Indians another 10%.
During the riots, the government made numerous arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA), for those involved in subversion and rioters who were members of secret societies. This helped to contain the violence, especially during the September riots. Both Singapore and Malaysia use the ISA to counter potential threats of communism or racial and religious violence.