The Fall of Singapore: Britain’s ‘Worst Disaster’ and a Cowardly Australian

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of Singapore, when a rampant Imperial Japanese Army routed an overwhelmed British Commonwealth force to create what Winston Churchill called ‘the worst disaster’ in British military history.

Japanese troops celebrate during the Battle of Singapore
Japanese troops celebrate during the Battle of Singapore

If further proof was needed at the time that Britain’s halcyon days of colonial predominance were at an end, then General Yamashita’s swift advance through the Straits Settlements offered just that.

Much attention in the years after the ‘Fall’ of Singapore has been given to the inept leadership of Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, whose humiliating surrender was famously captured by photographers astonished to find the British Empire at its lowest ebb.

Flag in hand, Percival leads to pathetic surrender march
Flag in hand, Percival leads the pathetic surrender procession

No doubt Percival’s leadership was appalling and his troops clearly did not have the stomach for a fight to the death against the Japanese. Perhaps if they had known the contempt with which the Japanese viewed white-flag wavers they may have thought twice, though few could have imagined the atrocities of the PoW camps.

Put simply, the British forces in Malaya and Singapore lacked the same degree of self-sacrifice that the Japanese troops possessed, probably because of the draconian state in which they lived and the potentially fatal repercussions of defeat encompassed by such a system.

Yet could Churchill really have expected the British troops to fight to the bitter end when he refused to show reciprocal endeavour? By this point, the Battle of Britain had long been won and the Luftwaffe were barely troubling British skies (the exception being that year’s ‘Baedeker Blitz’). Hundreds of fighter aircraft sat idly on British runways yet Churchill refused to relocate them in a bid to save his Far Eastern colonies.

What is more, the performance of the Australian contingent in the Singapore debacle leaves a lot to be desired. It is crucial to note that the majority of the Australian soldiers had received almost no training whatsoever; indeed, many of them had arrived in Singapore never having wielded a rifle in anger.

The grunts are not to blame but their superiors are a different prospect altogether. None of the senior officers ventured up to the front line during the battle and the Australian commander, Major General Gordon Bennett, committed one of the grossest dereliction of duties ever encountered on the battlefield.

Bennett (r) with Chinese General Shang Chen at a rubber plantation in Malaya. Chen was impressed by the Empire's preparations for defending Southeast Asia
Bennett (r) with Chinese General Shang Chen at a rubber plantation in Malaya. Chen was impressed by the Empire’s preparations for defending Southeast Asia

With the Japanese troops advancing, and his inexperienced men being cut to shreds, Bennett inexplicably abandoned ship and fled to Australia. At least Percival stuck it out to see the surrender.

Bennett would never hold high command again but, amazingly, he was never tried for his desertion in Singapore when by all rights he should have faced the firing squad. Despite this notoriously dastardly deed, few in Britain have heard of Bennett and he is not decried in the same way that Percival and Governor Shenton Thomas are for their performances in Singapore.

So this anniversary is not generally one to remember fondly for the British, even if in hindsight it served as a prophetic warning as to what would soon become of the Empire.

Perhaps then it is worth remembering that not every regiment is worthy of condemnation. The Royal Malay Regiment and the Loyals bravely defended the Pasir Panjang Ridge, an area of high ground overlooking the sea, against formidable odds.

NCOs of the Royal Malay Regiment c. 1941
NCOs of the Royal Malay Regiment c. 1941

Had their bravery been replicated across the Commonwealth, then this week would undoubtedly be one to recall each year with a fondness usually reserved for the military successes of the past.

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Singapore the World’s Most Expensive City: half-a-century of staggering development

Singapore has replaced Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city according to a cost of living survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It caps a remarkable transformation for the Southeast Asian city-state, from impoverished British colony to one of the world’s most prestigious resides.

Singapore is the epitome of a modern city of success
Singapore is the epitome of a modern city of success

In February 1942, the Japanese Army captured Singapore, marking one of the lowest points for Britain during the Second World War. When the occupation ended in September 1945, and the British returned, Singapore constituted a largely-rural collection of islands, agriculture dominating over other forms of commerce.

Rather than the sprawling mega-city of today, Singapore was made-up of a series of kampongs, small hamlets and villages of wooden huts surrounding a plot of land usually reserved for subsistence farming.

geylang-serai-malay-kampong-1960

In June 1948, the Malayan Emergency began when British colonial forces attempted to stop a guerrilla insurgency carried out by the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malaysian Communist Party, which had support in Singapore.

During the 1950s, Singapore agitated for greater self-governance, led by the energetic and inspirational Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP). Awarded self-governance in 1959, Singapore unilaterally declared independence in August 1963 with the intention of joining the newly-constituted state of Malaysia which had developed out of the Federation of Malaya. Union with Malaysia did not work out, however, and in August 1965 Singapore separated from its neighbour, being admitted into the United Nations (UN) a month later.

The constant political jostling and appeal for indigenous rights after WWII prevented a serious economic overhaul in Singapore which, with a fairly well-educated and industrious Chinese-majority population, had the potential for significant growth.

In the midst of the independence campaign, however, Lee Kuan Yew endorsed an important plan for economic development. In 1961, Dutchman Albert Winsemius visited the country as part of a UN Technical Assistance programme. As Lee notes in his memoirs, Singapore was still in its infancy at the time:

We were then heavily dependent on trade, especially entrepot transactions…Things were so bad that when a local manufacturer planned to expand his cotton-spinning textile mill to include weaving and finishing, it was big news because it would increase the labour force by 300. We were desperate for jobs. Tourism was then an infant industry, as most tourists visited developed countries. (Lee Kuan Kew, 2000, p.180)

Winsemius suggested a plan for industrialisation, which was launched immediately. After going it alone in 1965, Singapore embarked on decades of unprecedented growth, creating a skilled industrial base that relied on market expertise rather than cheap labour and low-end products; a regional financial centre was established and a number of multinational corporations were attracted to headquarter in Singapore; agriculture was gradually eradicated as free land was gobbled up for commercial enterprises and high-rise residences. The export-driven economy, coupled with the need to import virtually all raw materials, also helped Singapore develop one of the world’s largest cargo ports.

Singapore exploited its geographical location to become a crucial cargo port in the region
Singapore exploited its geographical location to become a crucial cargo port in the region

All this from a country reliant on rudimentary cotton mills back in the early 1960s. Of course, high living costs are not necessarily a good thing but, given that Singapore has the third-largest per capita GDP in the world, its citizens can afford the high prices. Quality of life has improved almost incomparably since the dying days of British colonialism.

Without a visionary leader such as Lee Kuan Yew, a convenient geostrategic location, and the timely arrival of a pragmatic Dutch industrialist, Singapore’s position in the world today would almost certainly be less significant.

Source

Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story (2000)