Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Singapore Will Be Held"

I came upon a delightful Singapore museum blog today, called "Museum Roundtable." I found a link on the site also to the Singapore Archives website. A fair bit of interesting content on the site.

It's the beginning of February, which means the anniversary of the British surrender in Singapore is just around the corner - February 15th, 1941, for those who prefer precision. I was marvelling, though, at a newspaper article from the Sydney Morning Herald (stored in the Singapore Archives) on 8th February 1941. In it, General Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya (click the link for a goofy picture), despite the many reverses and disasters that befell his troops throughout the Malayan Peninsula, from Kota Bahru and Slim River to the fall of Johore, felt compelled to rally morale and say:"We intend to hold Singapore. There is no question of retreat. Everyone must realise that it is a common fight for military and civilians alike."

The article then goes on to talk about how British gunners in Rangoon shot down many Japanese planes - and thereby illustrating how the press was used as propaganda despite the rapid loss of Burma to the Japanese - the British High Command evacuated the city without considering a serious fight weeks later.

This part of the Singapore story being now increasingly distant history, there is no suspense in what happened next. I think the link to this picture says it all, taken 8 days after the article was written.

The extraordinary thing was that at the Battle Box, a heritage site on Fort Canning Hill built within the underground British bunker, I had a tour guide that told me with a straight face that if the British had only fought another 24 hours, that the Japanese would have been ready to surrender. Given the superior numerical advantage of men, equipment and organization on air, land and sea enjoyed by the Japanese, and the incredible demoralization of the British troops fighting the last of their 'last stands', I find that incredibly hard to believe, and a rather cynical thing for a tour guide to say.

What is true is that the British paid the price not only for underestimating the Japanese (because they wanted to, and because they had to, their paltry defences needed most at home), but also for not involving the local population and arming them at an earlier stage. I suppose the logic of empire meant that the British needed to keep up appearances and not give the excuse for more egalitarian treatment from local Chinese, Malays and Indians. But in retrospect, in Singapore as in Hong Kong, the tremendous loss of face involved in the fall of the two cities meant Britain lost a great deal more after the War.


Anonymous said...


While I am normally persuaded by your thesis that Brit colonials ignored the locals, to their detriment, I'm not so sure here. I don't pretend to know of military readiness and tactics, particularly of WWII. But I believe that the British defenders at Singapore outnumbered Japanese invaders (90,000 to 60,000). Problem was that the Japanese struck at key points on the Malay Peninsula, then marched down to Singapore, which was thought impossible at that time. And, to me the key, did it in 50 days or so.

The Japanese Imperial Army, at that time, was highly trained. I believe many of the Japanese troops invading Singapore had seen action in Manchuria. British troops defending Singapore were not, for the most part, 'blooded' (not that this would have made a difference in result).

Nonetheless, whatever experience the Brit troops had on arrival to Singapore, I doubt the situation would have been improved by bringing in locals. The Japanese conquered the Malay Peninsula and Singapore in fifty days. I don't believe one can train local fighters in fifty days. Imagine if the Brits had thrown inadequately-trained locals into the fight. The Brits would have been viewed (properly) as using locals as cannon fodder. Instead, they chose to fight (for a time), then surrender.

Food for thought.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Fred,

Thanks for your comment. I did not mean that the British should have sent waves of local Chinese ahead of them - rather, I was simply commenting that the refusal of the British to train a proper local regiment or five in Malaya until it was too late was a missed opportunity. When the Japanese swept into Kuala Lumpur, unopposed, I have no doubt that the many Chinese and some number of the Malays would have welcomed the opportunity to fight the Japanese.

The British did have good numbers on land initially before the invasion - but superiority was only on paper. By the time Singapore was attacked, the numbers were in Japan's favor, and many of the British units were a bad mixture of soldiers who had never seen combat, and ones who had been broken already in Malaya. The loss of naval or air superiority, and the lack of any chance of relief (as opposed to the Japanese) meant that the odds were heavily stacked against the men holding Singapore.

Ironically, the British depended on levies brought over from India for defense in Hong Kong and Singapore - some experienced, some green. The divide and rule tactic that worked so well in peacetime failed when the Indians simply did not have their own homelands at stake in the fight. As is well known, many were also sympathizers to Japanese cause, at least over the British.

My argument is simply that by not trusting the local populace with the defense of their own home (except for some volunteers, consisting mainly of Westerners and some Eurasians), the British did not utilize a factor that could have been in their favor, particularly after the atrocities of Nanking made most Chinese around the world loathe the Japanese.

Some discussion of this is in Colin Smith's recent book Singapore Burning. But you're right, involving them and handing them guns just weeks before the fighting started would have done no good to anyone.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you about the timing of training local battalions. The British certainly had sufficient time had they started such training in the mid-1930's. The Nanjing atrocity occured in 1937, if memory serves. If that wouldn't motivate local Chinese, nothing would. And there was ample evidence years before Pearl Harbor that the 'Mutual Co-Prosperity Sphere' was euphemism for invasion and occupation. Indeed, I believe that the British substantially increased Singapore fortifications in 1938 in response to just such a threat.

So the question is posed, why not marshall and train local forces? As you note, the British trained Indian forces on the sub-continent. Thus I'm not persuaded that it's purely a racial thing. Was there a fear that local Malay or Chinese wouldn't be loyal, and therefore arming them would be arming potential antagonists? Given the obvious Japanese intent (and capability) to expand its empire, and given the strategic location of Singapore, there was certainly a British self-interest in training the locals for the defense of Singapore. I remain mystified.

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Fred,

I think you bring up a very interesting issue, as to why the British trusted the Indians under arms, but did not trust the Chinese.

I think it comes down to this - Britain was, after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the undisputed ruler of all India. There were no alternative allegiances or power sources to which Indians could turn as a legitimate sovereign alternative.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, existed for all of its life in the shadow of a vast Chinese empire. While for much of Hong Kong's history China was weak, it was certainly a major defensive consideration for Hong Kong's small garrison. Also, given the perception that most Chinese in Hong Kong, and to a good extent in Singapore, were sojourners that would eventually make their way back to China, there was no sense that the Chinese would be loyal to the British crown. Many anti-Western riots in Hong Kong, particularly the one in 1925, served to underline the antagonistic 'us-vs-them' mentality held by many Chinese against the British. The British, for their part, tended therefore to regard the local population as being a much more suspect loyalty than their Indian policemen and soldiers. This, of course, was proven to be somewhat bad logic in the case of a non-Chinese attack.

Finally, the KMT throughout the 1930s had become increasingly vociferous about extraterritoriality and also the return of Hong Kong. From the beginning of the War, Chiang Kai-Shek in fact extracted a promise from Roosevelt that Hong Kong would be returned to Chinese sovereignty after the war.

So I suppose that the British had their reasons for not recruiting Chinese soldiers. As for Malay soldiers, I think it was partly also because of the complex sovereign system of the Federated and Unfederated Malay states. The Sultans of each Malay state remained the nominal ruler, while effective agency was passed to British administrators. However, I would have thought that to get the Malays to actually forego their oaths of loyalty to their sultans and to serve the British could be politically problematic.

So with the Chinese, it was as much a race as nationality issue in that Chinese were thought to have divided loyalties that could be at odds with British interests.

Thanks for your thoughts! I really enjoy conversations like these with thoughtful interlocutors.