Singapore – an Empire’s Jewel Lost Part II



FE 352 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Palmer (Lt) Category photographs Crown Copyright Expired - Public Domain Men of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders training with a Lanchester six-wheeled armoured car in the Malayan jungle, 13 November 1941.


The contrast between their leaders was equally marked. The brutal Yamashita enforced “discipline as rigorous as the autumn frost” and earned his title, the “Tiger of Malaya.” The British commanding officer, General Arthur Percival, never got a proper grip on his subordinates, who knew him as the “Rabbit” of Singapore. Actually his buck teeth, his receding chin, his apologetic little moustache and his high, nervous laugh belied his character, for Percival was both clever and brave. But unlike the tough, bulky Yamashita, who believed that Japanese who traced their descent from gods must defeat Europeans who traced their descent from monkeys, he was also painfully shy and woefully irresolute. His calls for popular resistance were more of an embarrassment than an inspiration. Lacking personality, conviction and dynamism himself, he failed to galvanise Singapore. He could not control refractory generals under him such as the Australian Gordon Bennett, who was said to have a chip on each shoulder. He did nothing about bundles of pamphlets on anti-tank defence that were found lying unopened in a cupboard at his headquarters, Fort Canning, nicknamed “Confusion Castle.” He opposed the training of Malays and Chinese for guerrilla operations because “a scheme which admitted the possibility of enemy penetration would have a disastrous psychological effect on the Oriental mind.” Indeed, he shared the standard British view that Malays possessed no “martial qualities” and Tamils did not “make soldiers.” As the Japanese seized Penang and Kuala Lumpur, he did not impose an efficient scorched-earth policy to deny them supplies—communicating by telephone, he even suffered the indignity of being cut off by the operator when his three minutes were up. At first Percival refused to establish fixed defences on the north shore of Singapore island because it would be bad for civilian morale. Then he announced that it would be done, revealing his secrets, in Churchill’s angry opinion, like a convert at a Buchmanite revival.

Still horrified by the discovery that Singapore was not the fortress that he had imagined, the Prime Minister urged Percival to mobilise its population and fight to the finish. But, as Yamashita prepared his final assault, the island remained in a state of fantasy and apathy. Cinemas were crowded, bands played on club lawns and dancing continued at Raffles Hotel. Censors forbade journalists to use the word “siege.” When a colonel arrived at the Base Ordnance Depot to collect barbed wire he found that it had shut for a half-holiday. When a major tried to turn the Singapore Golf Club into a strong point its secretary said that a special committee meeting would have to be convened. When an architect in the Public Works Department used bricks from a colleague’s patio to construct an air-raid shelter, he “caused a most acrimonious altercation.” When the civil defence authority began to dig slit trenches as protection against the heavy bombing, the government objected that they would become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Some Australian troops refused to dig trenches themselves because “it was too bloody hot.”

It was decreed that labourers going to work in danger areas could receive no extra payment because this would lead to inflation. So Tamils needed to build coastal redoubts went on scything grass verges inland. British units crying out for detailed maps of Singapore Island at last received them, only to find that they were maps of the Isle of Wight. There were real concerns about a local fifth column. Some doubted the loyalty of the Sultan of Johore, who had been banned from entering Singapore where he caused trouble over his favourite hostess, a Filipino called Anita, in the dance hall at the “Happy World” fairground. One serviceman “definitely saw lights at night from the Sultan’s property…which could have guided enemy aircraft.” Equally sinister in the eyes of the authorities was the fact that the Sultan had given Lady Diana Cooper a parrot that spoke only Japanese. All told, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, last hereditary white Rajah of Sarawak, was surely right to stigmatise Singapore officials as “lah-di-dah old-school-tie incompetents.” Still more striking was the comment of a schoolboy at Raffles College when the Johore causeway, connecting the island to the mainland, was loudly (but not completely) demolished. When the headmaster asked what the explosion was, Lee Kuan Yew, the future Prime Minister of Singapore, replied: “That is the end of the British Empire.”

As it happened, Percival so bungled his dispositions that he handed victory to the Japanese on a plate. Having dispersed his troops round the shore, he placed the weakest formations in the north-west, where the Johore Strait narrowed to a thousand yards and the landings duly took place. He kept no central reserve to counter-attack. He deployed no military police to round up deserters, stragglers and looters—when the Singapore Club’s whisky was poured away to deny it to the enemy, Australian soldiers were seen “with their faces deep down in the open monsoon drain scooping up as much Scotch as they could.” Percival also instructed his artillery to fire only twenty shells a day in order to conserve supplies for a long struggle. It turned out to be a brief encounter. As demolition teams set fire to the naval base, filling the sky with a pall of oily smoke, the Japanese used terror to create panic. They mounted a murderous attack on a military hospital, even bayoneting a patient on the operating table, and cut the city from its reservoirs. Europeans made frantic efforts to escape from the shattered harbour, often shoving Asians off the boats. Echoing Churchill, who exhorted officers to die with their troops for the honour of the British Empire, Percival declared: “It will be a lasting disgrace if we are defeated by an army of clever gangsters many times inferior in numbers to our men.” Had he employed all the resources of Singapore, Percival might have lived up to these sentiments, for the Japanese were dangerously short of ammunition. But on 15 February 1942 he surrendered. George Washington caught 7,200 combatants in his mousetrap at Yorktown; Yamashita’s juggernaut secured more than 130,000 in Singapore. Churchill, who had given his reluctant consent, famously wrote that this was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” He regarded it as particularly disgraceful when contrasted with the sustained American resistance to Japanese forces at Bataan in the Philippines (though here, too, defenders outnumbered attackers). Subhas Chandra Bose, who would recruit prisoners taken during the Malayan debacle into the Indian National Army, described Singapore as “the graveyard of the British Empire.”

In military terms, as Churchill had always said, the acquisition of America as an ally more than compensated for the depredations of Nippon as an enemy. Moreover, so barbarous was its occupation of Malaya that Britain’s imperial system seemed refined by comparison. The first major crime that the Japanese committed was “Operation Clean-up,” the “purification by elimination” (sook ching) of some 25,000 Chinese. Their treatment of white captives was also notoriously cruel and they made special efforts to humiliate Britons before their former subjects. They forced emaciated men to sweep the streets in front of newsreel cameras and displayed naked women in shop windows. Such indignities did more to discredit their authors than their victims. Furthermore, Japan’s ruthless exploitation of Malaya’s resources undermined all propaganda about the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Characteristically, the Emperor Hirohito’s New Order paid for rubber and tin in worthless scrip, known from its central motif as “banana money.” In Syonan (“Light of the South”), as the Japanese rechristened Singapore, they also threatened to behead anyone who misspelled the Emperor’s name. For these and other reasons, people in Malaya (especially the Chinese) welcomed back the old colonial order in 1945 with “wholehearted and unstinted joy.”

Yet nothing could be the same again. After the loss of Z Force, the British had tried to hold the Singapore naval base largely for reasons of imperial pride. So its loss was primarily a loss of face, a terrible blow to their prestige. White superiority had been the basis of their rule and Yamashita smashed it in a campaign lasting a mere seventy days. The one Japanese slogan that continued to resonate after the atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “Asia for the Asiatics.” In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, who became Prime Minister of independent Singapore in 1959, “When the war came to an end in 1945, there was never a chance of the old type of British colonial system ever being recreated. The scales had fallen from our eyes and we saw for ourselves that the local people could run the country.” The shock of Singapore’s fall was felt well beyond the Orient. It even reverberated in the remote recesses of the North-West Frontier, where Pathans expressed “disdain that so grave a reverse should have been suffered at the hands of such foes.”

At home intellectuals now blamed themselves for having “undermined confidence” in the Empire by deriding the principles of force on which it was built, just as the philosophes had sapped the ancien régime before the French Revolution. In The Times Margery Perham called for an urgent adjustment of colonial administrations, especially in the field of race relations: Britons were “earning the reproach, while we blamed Hitler for his policy of Herrenvolk, that we were denying full equality within the Empire.” Australians felt betrayed by the mother country and, as their Prime Minister John Curtin famously declared, they now looked for protection to the United States “free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.” Two days after Singapore fell, Henry Luce published his article “The American Century” in Life magazine, which stated that the United States must occupy the place once filled by great powers such as the Roman and British Empires. But America would reign benevolently, providing aid, culture, technology, democracy and peace. Critics dismissed this as “Luce Thinking,” messianic froth about a new world order that might well be worse than the old. But whether high-minded or woolly-minded, Luce was influential in forming opinion. He helped to define America’s future role at the very moment when Britain seemed poised to lose its Empire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *