Memories of the Racial Riots


Singapore Memory Project
Mdm Salmah Bte Abdullah

Mdm Salmah, who is in her eighties had been through the 1964 racial riots. She related her experiences in a mixture of English, Malay and Hokkien. Madam Salmah showed amazing zeal and enthusiasm to narrate her story during the interview. Her accounts include her experiences as one of the on-lookers during the Prophet Muhammad’s procession and life during the curfew period. It sheds some light on lives of the civilians and the problems they encounter during that period of time. She also shared with me her personal reactions and feelings towards the riots and the reactions of the neighbours and friends. She claimed that the current generations are very much oblivious to the challenges that Singapore had to go through during our pre-independence period. Life was hard then and tensions were fraying every single day.

When the riot happened, local people, not only the Chinese and Malays, got panic and began to look for a safe place to hide. The situation went out of control and many people were injured, so, the government decided to impose a curfew a few days after the riot. It was from dawn till dusk and nobody was allowed to go out during those period of time. Work had to cease for days and people were terrified to even leave their homes. According to Mdm Salmah, she said that her friends and neighbours were worried, as they were afraid that they might be attacked by the other race. However they need not search for a refuge, because the whole street was all Chinese occupants. During the riot, residents living along that street took turns to patrol and looked out for any troublemakers. Her neighbours were very cooperative and helped each other during that difficult time.

Her story had certainly heightened my awareness of the severity of the 1964 racial riots and subsequently tightened my understanding on the birth of Racial Harmony day in Singapore.

Singapore’s road to independence is not a smooth one. We should never take the success of present Singapore for granted especially people like us, who have not been though any riots and instabilities. The annual Racial Harmony Day is a reminder to the young generations that race is always a sensitive issue in Singapore. A wrong gesture or speech may lead to a serious matter like the racial riot in 1964, which caused innocent deaths and injuries. Hence we must always bear in mind that living in harmony in a multi cultural country like Singapore is a gift and should not be neglected and taken upon lightly. 

(Interviewed and written by Jennifer Teo Kai Ling for the Singapore Memory Project's 'KopiTimes' Campaign)