The afternoon of 21 July 1964, a public holiday, was warm and sunny. About 20,000 Malays and Muslims gathered at the Padang attending a mass rally celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. They were representatives of social, welfare, religious and political organisations in Singapore, listening to speeches by religious leaders.
But the atmosphere surrounding the Padang was very tense. Since September 1963, extremist United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) leaders in Kuala Lumpur had purposely launched a campaign playing up the sensitive issues of race, language and religion raising the emotion and sentiment of Malays against the Chinese. The main reason for this was due to the loss suffered by all UMNO candidates in the Singapore general elections in September 1963, particularly in the Malay dominated constituencies of Geylang Serai, Kampong Kembangan and the Southern Islands.
The speeches were interrupted by shouts of “God is Great” from the huge crowd. I was there leading a group of 70 PAP Malay/Muslim members. Seeing the mood of the crowd I had a feeling that something unpleasant would happen.
At the end of the rally, the procession to Lorong 12, Geylang, began passing through Beach Road, Arab Street, Kallang Road and Geylang Road. It was about 4:30pm when trouble began. The PAP contingent, being almost at the tail-end of the procession, was passing the old Kallang gaswork when I saw a number of Malays roughing up some Chinese who were watching the procession. They were beaten up for no reason. A Chinese old man riding a bicycle was pulled down and beaten up and his bicycle thrown into the drain. He was severely injured.
More incidents took place as the procession proceeded towards Kallang Bridge. More people were beaten up and there was complete chaos. The worst racial riots in Singapore lasted for several days. Many were killed and injured and properties destroyed.
It was a frightening experience for me and my colleagues. What had happened taught us a bitter lesson that the sensitive issues of race, language and religion should never be played up. We should always be alert and prevent them from happening again.
Since our independence there has always been peace and harmony among our multiracial population. We should always maintain and improve this. This is a continuing process to guarantee that there is always peace, stability and harmony in Singapore not only for ourselves but also for our future generations. The most important thing we should never forget to not to take things for granted.
Othman Wok (b. 8 October 1924, Singapore) is a former Minister for Social Affairs and a Member of Parliament who represented Pasir Panjang Constituency between 1963 and 1977. He was a prominent Malay journalist and later, rose to become the deputy editor of the Malay language newspaper, Utusan Melayu. He is also known for his work in the Singapore Grand Prix, the establishment of the National Stadium, the implementation of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), Mosque Building Fund (MBF), and the management of Hajj services by his ministry. A father of four daughters, Othman Wok has published his life experiences in his biography, Never in My Wildest Dream (2000).
Photo credits: National Archives, Singapore.