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 marking the birthday of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. In total, the violence killed 36 people and injured another 560. About 3,000 people were arrested. At that time (1963–65), Singapore was a state in the Federation of Malaysia.
On 21 July 1964, about 25,000 Muslim Malays gathered at the Padang in Singapore to celebrate Prophet Muhammad's birthday with a religious procession. 212 Muslim organisations participated in the rally. At 2pm the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Singapore's head of state), Yusof bin Ishak, made a formal address. Muslims were urged to follow Islamic teachings and be "patient, forbearing and industrious". At 3:30 pm, the crowd was supposed to form a celebratory procession from the Padang to Saint Andrews Road, Beach Road, Arab Street, Victoria Street, Kallang Road, and eventually to Lorong 12, Geylang.
A huge group of Chinese threw rocks and bottles at the Malays during the procession.
Goaded (allegedly) by ultra-nationalists of Singapore United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), who had been pressing for special rights for the Malays in Singapore, the Islamic religious procession quickly turned violent. The riots were reported to have started at about 5:00 pm between Kallang and Geylang, near the former Kallang Gasworks. The government declared a curfew at 9:30 pm to restore order. In the first day of rioting, 23 people were killed and 454 injured.
The curfew was lifted at 6:00 am the next morning. However, with the situation remaining tense, the curfew was reimposed. 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, the government set up goodwill committees, 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. 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.
Various reasons have been cited for the riots. Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak blamed ethnic Indonesian and communist Chinese provocateurs.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and several foreign observers attributed the riots to agitation by Syed Jaafar Albar and other elements of the ultra-nationalist faction in the 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, a political philosophy different from UMNO's pro-Malay or Malay-dominance political philosophy.
A second race riot occurred just two months after the first, on 3 September. This time, a Malay trishaw-rider was found murdered in the Geylang neighbourhood. 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 eased after a few days. Nearly 500 people were arrested.
Both Malaysia and Singapore have attributed the September riots to Indonesian provocateurs and the Konfrontasi, in which 30 Indonesian paratroopers had landed in Labis, Johor on 2 September.
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 the UMNO-led Federal Government's decision to expel Singapore 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 37% of the population and ethnic Indians another 10% (census 1971).
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.
Even after Singapore's independence from Malaysia, racial tensions continued. Following an election five years later, on 13 May 1969, the Malaysia Racial Riots occurred, mainly in Kuala Lumpur.