Maurice Baker’s close friendship with M’sia PM Tun Razak built early S’pore-M’sia relations

They'd known each other since their days as college students.

By Tanya Ong | July 12, 2017

Maurice Baker was one of Singapore’s first-generation diplomats. He died yesterday (July 11) at 97.

As a diplomat, Baker served two stints as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia. The first was from 1969 to 1971 and the second from 1980 to 1988. It was his first stint that was perhaps the most critical of the the two.

In 1969, four years after Singapore had separated from Malaysia, Baker was appointed as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia. He had the difficult task of building up relations between Singapore and Malaysia, at a time when both countries were still strained by the separation in 1965.

Fortunately for Baker, however, he had close personal ties with Tun Razak, who was then the deputy prime minister of Malaysia.

Baker met Tun Razak during their days in Raffles College (forerunner of the National University of Singapore), and their friendship grew during their time in London as students and activists advocating the independence of Malaya and Singapore from the British.

In his role as High Commissioner to Malaysia, Baker renewed his old friendship with Tun Razak, which proved to be significant in building Singapore-Malaysia relations in the late 1960s.

Post-independent Singapore faced many problems with their larger northern neighbour in the early years. In his book The Accidental Diplomat, Baker noted:

“The shock of the unexpected expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965 had bred great bitterness in the Singapore leaders. They had worked hard and long to convince the people of Singapore of the need for a merger with Malaysia and had repeatedly asserted that the island had not much of a future apart from Malaysia. The Malaysian leaders and especially Tunku Abdul Rahman, the prime minister, were bitter too with the ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ concept preached by Lee Kuan Yew which stated that the other races had as much right to be in Malaysia as the Malays. Malaysian leaders had to adjust to the idea of a sovereign state of Singapore not inferior to Malaysia. It is likely that the Malaysians believed in what the Singapore leaders had often said – that the city state could not survive economically without Malaysia. They were therefore tempted to impose tariffs on Singapore products. Singapore retaliated in kind. Among my first duties was to try and resolve the ‘chicken and pineapple’ skirmish between the two countries.”

Such were the tensions between Singapore and Malaysia that made it a monumental challenge for relations between both countries to be built.

Nonetheless, through tactful discussions and gatherings, and his friendship with Tun Razak, Baker managed to reduce tensions and helped both sides to arrive at diplomatic solutions during a period fraught with political tensions.

One year after Baker’s appointment as High Commissioner, Tun Razak rose to become the second prime minister of Malaysia in 1970, and their friendship further helped to improve relations. 

During Tun Razak’s birthday broadcast to the nation in 1970, he named his three closest friends from his college and London days as Taib Haji Andak, Fred Arulanandom and Maurice Baker.

In his book, Baker described the effect of the broadcast:

“This broadcast by the Prime Minister made me the envy of my colleagues in the diplomatic corps and gave me great encouragement in the difficult task I faced attempting to improve relations between the two countries mutually suspicious of each other and ready to interpret every move as hostile.”

The Accidental Diplomat published by World Scientific Publishing Company is available at bookstores. More details about the book is available here.  

Top photo from a page in The Accidental Diplomat by World Scientific Publishing Company.

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1819 is a labour of love by where we tell stories from Singapore’s history, heritage & culture. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

About Tanya Ong

Tanya is a keen bean who strives to put the “art” in “articulate”. She also knows pi to the 35th decimal place for absolutely no reason at all.

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