A brief history of Singapore and Malaya

When I was putting together the book Pounding Along to Singapore, a history of the 2/20 Battalion AIF, there was initially a chapter covering the history of Singapore and Malaya. Eventually I cut it from the book as I felt it was not really relevant in the context of the history of the 2/20 Battalion, or even the ‘flow’ of the soldiers’ stories… they were there to protect the colony, theirs not to reason why…

However this look at the history of Singapore and Malaya may give us some clues as to why they were so important to the British Commonwealth in the 20th century.

The Island of Singapore is at the southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula, located with the Indian Ocean to its west and the South China Sea to its east. It was an excellent position for maritime trade. As far back as the 16th Century Portuguese ships noted Indian, Cambodian, Chinese and Siamese vessels were all trading there. It was back in 1511 that Europe’s first modern colony in Asia had been created on Singapore Island as a replenishing base for the Portuguese expeditions. The British first realised the wealth of the prizes to be found in the Orient when the Portuguese ship Madre de Deus had been captured on a homeward bound trip from India in 1592.[1] There developed an all out race for the Orient’s wealth and the Dutch East Indies Company, the English East Indies Company, the French and the Portuguese were all involved.  The Dutch dispelled the Portuguese from Mallacca, on the mainland, in 1641. They ruled the peninsula until Napoleon invaded Holland and the Dutch then ceded Malaya to the British in 1815 in an uneasy alliance.[2]

At this time the British were looking for a good trade route to the South East Asian markets but trade had so far been dominated by the Dutch. Up to then the only British outpost in the Far East had been at Bencoolen, a port on Sumatra with no significant trade routes flowing past.

The Dutch then handed trading rights to the British East India Company to use the port of Malacca, 300 miles south of Penang on the west coast of Malaya. The British were determined to stay in the area.

On 29th January 1819 the newly-appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, dropped anchor off Singapore. As a 14 year old he had Joined the East India Company as a clerk in 1795, he travelled to Malay and learned the language, at just 30years old he had been made Governor of Java [3]and now returned from leave to a posting in Bencoolen. He had been assigned an additional task. His mission was to explore the possibility of establishing another trading settlement around the tip of the Malayan peninsula without offending the incumbent Dutch. He managed to do the former, but, understandably, not the latter.

The resident Malayan aristocrat gave Raffles permission to establish his trading facility, and Raffles and his garrison set up camp. The Dutch were not impressed, so, leaving his small force of troops and their cannons behind, Raffles sailed to Penang for Company reinforcements. Despite a half-hearted blockade of the Island by the Dutch, the British prevailed and the Singapore trading facility was established under the British flag.

Trade was slow to develop in Singapore as the new ‘branch office’ was mismanaged by the East India Company’s superiors who were based in India. The Company had lost its monopoly on the China trade. The new ports located at Hong Kong and in the French and Dutch colonies were all more in favour with shipping merchants and traders.

In 1831 the Australian whaler “Lady Rowena” put into Hokkaido, Japan, for repairs. Captain Bourn Russell was unaware that since 1600 the Japanese had a self imposed exile from the rest of the world; the people were under pain of death to assist foreigners and any foreign ship was to be destroyed and the crew killed; no one was to enter or leave the country. Russell managed to escape with his ship and wrote a letter of protest to the Emperor.[4]

However in 1854 the Japanese ended these two centuries of self imposed exile when the US naval commander Matthew Perry had arrived with his well armed ships and ‘persuaded’ the Japanese to give his country trading rights. In return the Japanese were to be given western technology… the sleeping dog was awakened. [5]

In 1869 the Suez Canal opened. The new steam-powered ships were able to do the Asia run more quickly than the old clipper ships and Malaya was better able to sell its tin and tea to Europe. Trade was able to expand. Penang and Singapore became prosperous financial centres. [6]

By 1877 Malaya had imported rubber tree seeds from Brazil via Kew Gardens in London. They were first grown in the Singapore Botanical Gardens laid out by Raffles. Rubber trees grew well in the country and produced a commodity in high demand for the voracious needs of the rapidly developing motor car industry.

By now the whole of the Malayan peninsula was under British control with many ‘ex-patriots’ supervising the tin mines and managing the rubber plantations. A garrison of soldiers was posted to protect the colony.

Many Chinese migrants moved into the country to provide the much-needed labour for the mines, plantations and the rail transport system. Malaya became a multicultural population with two million Malays, almost as many Chinese and one million Indians and Tamils.[7] However Malayan society could be seen as pluralist in that they had different ethnic groups living side by side but not really intermingling.[8] There were also Armenians, Javanese and Burmese and an increasing number of Japanese were beginning to arrive, mostly fishermen or to run small businesses. Soon a Japanese Consul General was appointed by Tokyo.

Politics in Europe affected South East Asia. In 1902 the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed. The British hoped that by combining with the Japanese ally in the East it would allow them to keep their fleet in home waters to counteract the expanding German fleet of dreadnoughts.

In 1904 the Japanese government was in expansionist mode. With no formal declaration of war, the Japanese attacked the Russian ships berthed at base in Port Arthur, to the west of Korea and leased from China. In 1905 the Russians were defeated by a Japanese attack in the Straits between Korea and Japan. Eight warships were lost; it was the first time an Asian power armed with modern weapons had defeated a power from Europe.

The outbreak of World War in 1914 saw the British Navy concentrating on European and northern waters in battles against the Germans.  The Australians, Japanese and Indians helped the British by dealing with any aggression by German colonies and German ships sailing in Asian waters. The Japanese helped to escort Australian troops to Gallipoli. [9]

In February 1915 the Crown Colony of Singapore was down to only a skeleton of troops as most had been sent to the fighting in Europe. Those remaining were gunners of the Royal Garrison Artillery and the 5th Native Light Infantry, an Indian army regiment. They were young, Muslim, and led by an unpopular colonel who was not respected by his officers. Their role was to guard the German Prisoners of War in Tanglin. Some of the captured German sailors made sure the young Indians knew that the German Kaiser had signed an alliance with the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

On 15th February 1915 the Indian regiment was told they would be leaving the island for an unknown destination. It did not take long for the rumours to circulate that the young Muslim soldiers would be shipped to Turkey to fight against their fellow Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. Although the rumour was incorrect (they were in fact destined for Hong Kong) half the regiment mutinied.

They liberated the POW camp, killed several local militia, and started on a killing spree which caused the death of about thirty Europeans. Amid fears for the future of British rule in the colony, the Governor, Sir Arthur Young, sent wireless messages for help to all the Allied ships in the region. Response came from a French warship, a Russian salvage vessel and two Japanese cruisers which all came to the aid of the depleted garrison and the few sailors from HMS Cadmus which was in port.[10]

The Japanese ships sent landing parties ashore. They took an additional 180 rifles with them for the four hundred special constables who had been sworn-in. Half of these constables were Japanese citizens living in Singapore under their own Japanese command. They helped round up the mutineers. [11]  In Japan the role of their navy and civilians in putting down the mutiny was exaggerated with the roles of the French and Russian being downplayed.

The British were pleased that their power had prevailed, albeit by proxy, with the assistance of the Japanese. However by the end of the Great War the British realised that the Japanese were, in fact, a far greater threat to their South East Asian empire than the previously feared Russians.

At the Treaty of Versailles talks in 1919 the Japanese were open in their request for more space for their increasing population and their need for colonies rich in raw materials to help develop their manufacturing industries. They also wanted the Western nations to recognise their racial equality. [12] In fact the Japanese considered themselves to be a superior race, as they were of ‘divine origin’, and it rankled with them that Western Nations refused to recognise their claims.[13] The Japanese were very angry with this snub from the West and they conceived the idea of the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere which would remove the European colonists and allow the Asian countries to pursue their own destiny.[14]

The British ended the Anglo Japanese Alliance much to the displeasure of the Japanese who by now had 30,000 acres of rubber under cultivation in Malaya and so had a vested interest in the future of the country. They considered themselves ‘discarded like a used pair of sandals.’[15]

In 1920 the Imperial Japanese Navy sought British help with the development of military aircraft and surprisingly under the circumstances, the British agreed, instructing the Japanese in basic flying, deck landings, engine maintenance and armaments. They even allowed British firms to tender their most modern equipment and the Japanese firms procured patent rights to produce the equipment in Japan. [16]

The British Admiralty decided they should provide a secure strategic base southward of Hong Kong to cover the routes to Australia and the East Indies. In 1925 Winston Churchill, newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, opposed the navy budget for Singapore, holding the view that the Japanese would never risk an Asian war with Britain unless most of the Royal Navy was engaged elsewhere. This was thought to be highly unlikely considering the disastrous economic and humanitarian effects of the recently-ended Great War on all European countries. The Government of the day overrode Churchill’s objections and in 1926 agreed to build a large navy base on Singapore Island.[17]

By 1927 the Malayan colony was sending half its rubber to the United States of America as the fledgling automotive industry expanded exponentially. Tin mining was also vital to the export economy and Singapore’s Keppel Harbour had three miles of wharves and warehouses (known locally as ‘go-downs’).  The peninsula was rich; one of the few British Colonies which did not require subsidy by the Mother Country.[18] Malaya was the ‘Dollar Arsenal’ of the Empire. [19]

In 1933 the local Malay Regiment was formed to help defend the country. Up to then Malays had been recruited as police but the people were unfamiliar with the concept of having to defend their own country. There had never been an occupying army or military governor, there had only been a couple of hundred police. This changed with the formation of the Malay Regiment who initially trained at Port Dickson then moved to Singapore for advanced training.[20]

In 1937 the Japanese, again in militaristic and expansion mode, invaded China. At this stage the British Naval Base at Singapore, protected by heavy fortifications, was close to being completed. On 15th February 1938 the King George VI’s Graving Dock on Singapore Island was declared open. The ceremony was attended by some members of the Malay Regiment. [21] The new naval base soon dubbed, wrongly as events were to prove, ‘Fortress Singapore’.

The Base had cost sixty million pounds but provided 22 square miles of deep sea anchorage, huge fuel tanks and a large floating dock. Onshore accommodation was built for 2000 sailors and officers. There were palatial messes, churches and seventeen football pitches. Tanglin hospital was considered too small so a new hospital was built at Alexandra. The welfare of the servicemen was foremost and the Manchester Regiment, arriving in October 1938, were most impressed with their new billets.[22]

The requirement was that the Army provide a garrison capable of holding the base for three to four months until a British Naval Task Force could sail to the rescue from Europe. An underground bunker designed to withstand direct bomb hits was constructed at Fort Canning to house a command post. [23]

The naval base was protected by 29 artillery pieces. There were five 15 inch guns; three were located at the Johore Battery which had the ability to swivel the full 360°, the other two were at Buona Vista battery and were the only two guns able to turn just 180°.[24]

There were six 9.2 inch guns and eighteen 6 inch guns, all capable of moving through the full 360° so all could fire in any direction. It was realised that threats had to be addressed from both land and sea.

British thinking was that if the Japanese, or any other aggressor, were to attack it would be most likely overland, from assaults emanating from northern landings on the Thai border area, or northern Malaya.[25] Transport south would be via the trunk roads conveniently constructed to transport tin and rubber to the port. Malaya had about 7,000 km of metalled road, among the best in the world. There were 1,600 km of rail line linking Malaya and Thailand. There would be little hindrance to any Japanese advance if they decided to invade.[26]

The strategists knew the whole Malayan Peninsula would need to be held in times of war, the Johore Straits would be no barrier. [27]

In November 1935 a new army hierarchy arrived to take up their postings in Singapore. Major General Sir William George Shedden Dobbie was the new army commander, and his second in command was Colonel Arthur Percival, a gallant and decorated soldier who had been awarded two Distinguished Service Orders and a Military Cross in the Great War.[28]

Percival was disappointed in the local civilians’ attitude to the military.  They didn’t believe war was likely so they thought the fortifications were unnecessary. Even though they recognised that Japan was in military mode they didn’t think Europe would go to war again and so resented any military interference with their business and parties. There were the inevitable clashes of interest when construction of a fortress was proposed on top of a rich and prosperous commercial centre.[29]

In 1937 Japan did go to war with China. In December they perpetuated the horrors of what came to be known as the ‘Rape of Nanking’. Percival, with his professional soldier’s eye, noted that they had excellent landing craft suitable for shallow water such as was found in the Straits of Johore between Singapore and the mainland.[30]

Around this time Percival sailed home from his two-year Singapore posting, leaving behind an excellent summary of tactics the Japanese were likely to use, especially their probable arrival at the ‘back door’ via Thailand. He made suggestions for the appropriate steps to be taken to prepare for defence including many more infantry and aircraft along the Malayan coast. When Percival left, the Senior Naval officer of the day said Percival’s assessment was too pessimistic and did not hand it on to the Singapore Defence Committee.[31]

Dobbie recognised the need to defend the whole peninsula and he also recognised that, contrary to accepted thought, the monsoon season would not be a barrier to Japanese landings on the coast. Dobbie asked for more troops and light tanks to be deployed to Malaya.[32]

None of the reinforcements that Dobbie and Percival had called for had arrived by 1938. However a year later, in 1939, defence had at least been strengthened to nine infantry battalions and one hundred aircraft, although no front line fighter planes were deployed.

Dobbie left his Singapore posting in August 1939. His replacement, Major General Lionel Bond, disagreed with the priority set by the Navy and Air Force commanders for the use of his troops. Bond thought the only thing that mattered was to defend Singapore and the naval base; Babbington of the RAF thought that the whole of Malaya should remain under British rule and therefore the army should be deployed to defend the new northern airfields which had been constructed.

More troops arrived at this time, the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and more Indian Battalions. [33]

Reports then emerged of fighting between Japan and Russia over a disputed area of Manchuria, with skirmishes which escalated into full scale war. The Russians inflicted defeat on the Japanese but not before some 18,000 troops had lost their lives.[34] The Japanese troops had gained valuable fighting experience.

By the time Britain was again at war with Germany, in September 1939, the majority of building in Malaya had been for commercial reasons. There were no military constructions. Dobbie and Percival’s detailed plans had gone unheeded.

In August 1940 the British Chiefs of Staff reviewed the position for the Far East. They concluded they would have to defend the whole peninsula, not just Singapore Island; the British Fleet would be tied up fighting in Europe; without a fleet they would have to rely on air-power until sufficient land forces could be deployed. They considered that three hundred and thirty six  first line aircraft were needed for this defence; Malay Command had just eighty four. [35]

The British navy was fully occupied in European waters. There were some Allied ships in South East Asia; the Dutch had three cruisers, five destroyers and a dozen submarines.

The French also had some war ships but they remained loyal to the appeasing Vichy Government not the ‘Free French’ of de Gaulle based in Britain. So, for political reasons, the French ships were unavailable to the Allies. The Japanese then took over the airfields and ports in the French Colonies of Indo-China after July 1941. [36]  The British colonies in South East Asia became even more vulnerable.

The Australians sent three RAAF squadrons to Malaya but their aircraft were Hudson bombers and Wirraways, planes never intended for use as fighters. In addition Brewster Buffaloes were  to arrive from March 1941, but these ‘flying barrels’ were also to prove no match for the excellent Japanese Zero fighters which had been developed by 1940. [37]

In September 1940 Germany, Italy and Japan signed an alliance, the Tripartite Pact. The three countries were then subject to more crippling trade sanctions by the British and Americans, which seriously affected their economies, their food supply and their ability to import raw materials.

Around this time HMS Illustrious transported twenty Swordfish biplanes into the Mediterranean Sea and launched a successful night attack on the Italian Fleet berthed in Taranto.

This was the first time a modern navy had been dealt a devastating blow from the air. The tactic was duly noted by the Japanese who later combined it with their policy of attacking before declaring war, to have such devastating effect on Pearl Harbour just over a year later.[39]

By October the British Chiefs of Staff raised the figure of required front line aircraft for Malaya from three hundred and thirty six to five hundred and eighty two.[40]

In November 1940 Air Chief Marshall Brooke-Popham was made Commander-in-Chief of all land and air forces in South East Asia. This reflected a growing conviction that it would take the Royal Navy at least six months to spare enough ships to relieve Malaya if the Japanese attacked.[41]

By December 1940 the ships of the Italian Mediterranean fleet had been reduced in number, so there was a suggestion that more British warships could be freed up for the Far East. British leader Churchill accepted Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ offer of a brigade group for Malaya as a stop-gap until May 1941. It would then be replaced by an Indian Brigade and the AIF would be sent on to Egypt.

Churchill assured Menzies that the Allies would sacrifice the Mediterranean to help their ‘kith and kin’ if Australia was potentially in danger of being invaded by the Japanese. However Churchill never actually believed that Australia would be so seriously threatened.[42]

But Kallang, on Singapore Island, had a new grass airstrip, one of the best in the world, for the expanding airline industry. Imperial Airways flew flying boats into Keppel Harbour. Travel and trade were expanding. Australia was now within easy reach of Japanese aircraft.

Menzies fulfilled his offer of men and in February 1941 six thousand Australian Imperial Force troops arrived on the Queen Mary which had been converted from luxury liner to troop ship the year before in the Singapore Naval Base, well away from prying German eyes.[43]

The AIF troops were the 22nd  Brigade, part of the 8th Division and one of four volunteer divisions of the AIF (the other three divisions were fighting in the Middle East). They were under the command of Major General Gordon Bennett who had written publicly about the failures of the Permanent Staff Corp of the Australian Army. This had led to a feud with Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, the overall commander of the Australian Imperial Forces and Bennett was only grudgingly given his commission[44]. Such ill feeling in the command was not a good omen.

Blamey and Bennett had both served with distinction in the First World War. Blamey was born in Wagga Wagga and had been a member of the 2nd Battalion AIF. He was mentioned in dispatches seven times and awarded the DSO and French Croix de Guerre. Bennett was with the 6th Bn AIF and had also been mentioned in dispatches and also awarded the DSO. He lived in the Sydney suburb of Cremorne Point. [45]

Commander in Chief Brooke-Popham was also dealing with feuds between his army and air force commanders so both were replaced. On 15th May 1941 Lieutenant General Arthur Percival returned to Singapore as the new Army Commander and Air Vice-Marshall Pulford became new air force commander.  Fortunately the two ‘new boys’ became friends, shared accommodation and started a new mood of cooperation. [46]

By early 1941 Australian troop strength matched that of the British garrison. Indian troops numbered more than both their allies put together. [47] The strength of the air force in Malaya was one hundred and fifty eight planes (including twenty four obsolete Wildebeestes); the commanders knew they needed five hundred and eighty two aircraft.[48]

There were a total of thirty two Allied battalions to defend Malaya; G.O.C. Lieut.-General Percival knew he needed forty eight. He also needed light tanks; when the invasion began there was not one single Allied tank. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had to use Rolls Royce armoured cars dating from the First World War; they faced two hundred and thirty Japanese tanks.[49]

With such inadequate equipment, no tanks, no air support and insufficient troops it was going to be a difficult, if not impossible, battle for the Allies.

[1] Miller, Russell, The Seafarers- The East Indiamen, Time-Life, Amsterdam, 1980,  p 8.

[2] Frei, Henry, Malaya in World War II, < http://www.kasei.ac.jp/library/kiyou/2001/3.FREI.pdf >

[3] Miller, Russell, The Seafarers- The East Indiamen, p.152

[4] Forbes, Cameron, Hellfire, Sydney, Macmillan, 2005, p. 18.

[5] Smith, Colin, Singapore Burning, London, Penguin, 2005, p. 7.

[6] Frei, Malaya in World War II, < http://www.kasei.ac.jp/library/kiyou/2001/3.FREI.pdf >

[7] Frei, Malaya in World War II, < http://www.kasei.ac.jp/library/kiyou/2001/3.FREI.pdf >

[9] Forbes, Hellfire, p. 16.

[10] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 8-9.

[11] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 10.

[12] Forbes, Hellfire, p. 20-24.

[13] Forbes, Hellfire, p. 18.

[14] Forbes, Hellfire, p. 23, 42.

[15] Smith, Singapore Burning, p.11.

[16] Forbes, Hellfire, p. 122-3.

[17] Smith, Singapore Burning, p.12-13.

[18] Malaysian Guide, Changi to Hellfire Tour, February 2007, personal communication.

[19] Ong, Chit Chung,  Operation Matador, Singapore, Eastern Universities Press, 2003, p. 61.

[20] Hoon, Lim Choo, The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisited,  <http://www.mindef.gov.sg/safti/pointer/back/journals/2002/Vol28_1/1.htm >

[21] Hoon, The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisited,  <http://www.mindef.gov.sg/safti/pointer/back/journals/2002/Vol28_1/1.htm >

[22] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 20.

[23] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 21-2.

[24] Ong, Operation Matador, p.25.

[25] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 23.

[26] Ong, Operation Matador, p. 61.

[27] Ong, Operation Matador, p. 26.

[28] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 23.

[29] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 26.

[30] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 27.

[31] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 28.

[32] Ong, Operation Matador, p. 64-7.

[33] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 29.

[34] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 32.

[35] Singapore Defences Memorandum by Lieut.-General Sir Henry Pownall <http://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/WW2/Malaya_and_Singapore/html/body_singapore_defences.htm >

[36] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 39-43, 55.

[37] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 38.

[38] ATA Ferry Pilot’s Notes used by F/O Ron Ford, in the possession of the author. These notes were all the pilots were given before flying the different aircraft. Ron Ford flew over 60 different types of aircraft from small single engined to large four engined bombers.

[39] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 47.

[40] Singapore Defences Memorandum by Lieut.-General Sir Henry Pownall <http://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/WW2/Malaya_and_Singapore/html/body_singapore_defences.htm >

[41] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 49.

[42] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 53.

[43] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 49.

[44] Legg, Frank, The Gordon Bennett Story, Sydney, Angus and Robertson 1965, p.156-9.

[45] Johns, Fred, Who’s Who in the Commonwealth of Australia – 1922, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1922  p.21, 26.

[46] Smith, Singapore Burning, p 73-76.

[47] Smith, Singapore Burning, p. 55.

[48] Singapore Defences Memorandum by Lieut.-General Sir Henry Pownall

< http://www.britain-at-ar.org.uk/WW2/Malaya_and_Singapore/html/body_singapore_defences.htm  >

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