‘Albatross file’ with details of top-level talks before Singapore separated from Malaysia to be declassified, released publicly
Parts of the Albatross file on display at a special exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore in 2015. — TODAY pic
Tuesday, 28 Feb 2023 10:01 PM MYT
SINGAPORE, Feb 28 — The Government has agreed to declassify and release documents in Dr Goh Keng Swee’s “famous Albatross file”, Dr Janil Puthucheary, Minister of State for Communications and Information, said.
This is a file that the late deputy prime minister, who is considered one of modern Singapore’s founding fathers, kept in the run-up to the nation’s separation from Malaysia in August 1965.
Aside from being an important record of a pivotal moment in Singapore’s history, the Albatross file provides insights into top-level discussions among the leaders of Singapore and Malaysia in the weeks leading up to the separation.
Some of the contents of the Albatross file have been made public in various historical accounts over the years, including in the book The Singapore Story, which is the first volume of the memoirs of the country’s late first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Parts of the file has also been exhibited before at the National Museum.
Contrary to popular descriptions of Singapore having been “expelled” by Malaysia, the file offers a more nuanced look at how Singapore’s leaders themselves played a part in proposing and facilitating the separation, alongside Malaysia’s leaders.
Dr Puthucheary, who was speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 28) at the budget debate for the Ministry of Communications and Information, said that some of the Albatross documents will be released in a book on the Separation Agreement, which is to be published later this year.
The process of declassification began “some time ago” and took some time given the complexity of the material, he added.
“A subset of the material was part of a public exhibition, and a larger set of declassified documents will be released in a book on separation to be published later this year.”
This will include Cabinet papers, as well as Dr Goh’s notes of his conversations with Malaysian leaders.
Dr Goh was finance minister before Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, and helmed various government ministries afterwards, rising to the position of deputy prime minister in 1973. He retired from politics owing to ill health in 1984 and died in May 2010, aged 91.
What is the albatross file?
Based on information published by the National Library Board, the Albatross file is a secret file that offered insights into the negotiations leading up to the separation from Malaysia in 1965.
The negotiations, which also involved Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and then-Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, culminated in the decision for Singapore to leave the Federation of Malaysia on Aug 9,1965. Singapore had been part of the federation since 1963.
The first time that the existence of the file was revealed to the public was in an interview in 1980, where Dr Goh stated that the “Albatross” referred to Malaysia.
Dr Goh said then: “By that time, the great expectation that we foolishly had — that Malaysia would bring prosperity, common market, peace, harmony, all that — we were quickly disillusioned. And it became an albatross round our necks.”
The Ministry of Communications and Information began the pilot phase of declassifying files under its purview in late 2013 with a team of researchers, which included retired senior public officers. This was the first-ever systematic declassification project undertaken in Singapore.
In 2015, parts of the top-secret document were showcased at the National Museum of Singapore.
Declassification of records an ongoing process
Responding to a question by He Ting Ru, Sengkang Group Representation Constituency Member of Parliament (MP), on whether archival material can be made more accessible, Dr Puthucheary said that the National Archives of Singapore has been working with government agencies to declassify and make available more government records.
Metadata of around 780,000 records are publicly accessible on archives online, and this has been increasing over the years, he added.
“In addition, since 2016, government agencies have reviewed more than 7,000 government records that were not yet declassified.”
This was in response to more than 2,130 requests by members of the public.
In all, 83 per cent of these records have been approved for access. In total, about 68,000 file records have been declassified and made accessible to the public.
“We are committed to ensuring greater access to government records, so that they can be a reference for the public to research and obtain information on Singapore,” Dr Puthucheary said.
Speaking in Parliament, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh praised the move to release the Albatross file.
Referring to a commentary published by TODAY about Singapore’s founding fathers, Singh said: “I think the release of these documents... is important for the nation, as it is part of the nation-building process.”
On classified information for research purposes
Singh also asked if the Government were prepared to release classified information that had already been extended for research purposes to all sitting MPs.
Dr Puthucheary said that Singh’s question was pointing to his request to an agency where the information sought had yet to be transferred to the National Archives of Singapore for preservation.
“To be clear, the file in question is not available for public access and remains classified,” Dr Puthucheary clarified.
This is distinct from public archives, which are public records that have been transferred to the National Archives of Singapore and can be requested for inspection by any person for the purposes of reference or research.
He added that for records that remain classified and are not part of the public archives, agencies may grant access to specific information for specific purposes, such as writing a book.
This will be subject to conditions such as complying with the Official Secrets Act and submitting the information to be quoted for vetting before release, he added.
“As a matter of policy, the Government does provide researchers access to information for legitimate research purposes, but doing so does not mean that the entire record has been declassified, nor that it is generally available to the public,” Dr Puthucheary said.
“If someone has a specific reason to access closed records, a request can be made and the request will be assessed by the Government on its merits.”
He also said that if Singh would like more information on background thinking or the rationale behind the government policy, there are several routes he may take.
One would be to approach the relevant government ministry to give more details and clarification.
Singh and other MPs also have the option to file a parliamentary question and receive a formal reply from the government, Dr Puthucheary said.
Dr Goh Keng Swee has long gone to a better place so I'll respect the dead and refrain from criticizing what I see as his revisionist attempt to save face for an expelled Singapore.
Revisionist? Well, didn't Lee Kuan Yew cry on TV when he announced the separation and lament Sing's ouster from Malaysia. In fact Lee was worried sick about Sing's survival prospect without the embrace of Malaysia, whilst Tengku's covet plan was to have a subdued Lee Kuan Yew subsequently coming back with his 'tail between his legs' begging for readmittance into Malaysia
The saga all started from the ultra-ism of Syed Jaafar Albar, known as the "Lion of UMNO" - Jaafar Albar was the father of UMNO's Syed Hamid Albar, who later followed in his footsteps to be active in politics. Syed Hamid went on to serve as Foreign Affairs Minister and Home Minister. In April 2009 however, Syed Hamid was dropped from the cabinet.
Anyway, here's what Wiki has to say about Syed Jaafar Albar:
After the 1963 Singapore state elections held shortly after Singapore merged with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia, it emerged that the Singapore UMNO branch had been terribly defeated by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). Albar then travelled to Singapore to address the Malays, and denounced Malay PAP leaders such as Othman Wok as traitors to the Malay race and UnIslamic.
Later, he had participated in verbal duels with the Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, over the issue of ketuanan Melayu (Malay sovereignty over Malaysia). Lee accused Albar of being an "ultra" for making remarks such as "Wherever I am, I am a Malay." Lee criticised him for this, asking "If I had been going round and saying what [he] has been saying – wherever I am, I am a Chinese – where would we be? But I keep on reminding the people that I am a Malaysian. I am learning Bahasa Kebangsaan (Malay, the national language) and I accept Article 153 of the Constitution."
Albar also accused Lee and some other Chinese Malaysians – referring to them as kaum pendatang or pendatang asing (immigrants) – of being lodgers (orang tumpangan), abusing the hospitality of the Malays who were the "masters of the house". This provoked a response from Cabinet member Lim Swee Aun, who insisted "we are co-owners, not lodgers, not guests."
Lee took a swipe at his politics by arguing "According to history, Malays began to migrate to Malaysia in noticeable numbers only about 700 years ago. Of the 39% Malays in Malaysia today, about one-third are comparatively new immigrants like the secretary-general of UMNO, Dato' Syed Jaafar Albar. Therefore it is wrong and illogical for a particular racial group to think that they are more justified to be called Malaysians and that the others can become Malaysian only through their favour."
The Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, eventually tired of the bickering and told Singapore to secede from Malaysia. The matter was hushed up, with not even the UMNO Members of Parliament such as Albar being informed of what 9 August 1965 Parliamentary session would be concerned about. When Albar demanded more information on why their presence was demanded, he was rebuffed. Upon discovering that day itself that the purpose of the meeting was to allow Singapore to secede, Albar left Parliament House, not participating in the final unanimous vote. As this was directly contrary to his orders, the Tunku insisted on sacking Albar as UMNO Secretary-General, but was later persuaded to permit Albar to graciously resign instead.
Albar was opposed to the idea of allowing Singapore to secede, because he felt that imposing emergency rule over Singapore and removing Lee as Prime Minister would have been an ideal solution. Before secession, he had vocally called for Lee to be arrested for destroying racial harmony through his "Malaysian Malaysia" campaign, which the Malays saw as threatening the special rights granted to them under Article 153 of the Constitution.
And that's the true story!