For the British there was a very real military legacy from the Malayan campaign. Defeat led to the creation of specialist warfare schools, and within a remarkably short space of time the British became remarkably good jungle soldiers and the value of the tank in tropical climates had been amply proven. Both of these factors were crucial aspects of the campaign to liberate Burma from Japanese occupation. In turn, long-range jungle operations led to great strides in the development of techniques for re-supply by air.

The political legacy of the fall of Singapore in 1942 can be read in a number of ways. For the British and Singaporeans alike it was the beginning of the end for a colonial relationship that had its origins in the trading adventures of the East India Company more than a century before. There is a very positive social, cultural and commercial legacy which continues to this day. There is probably no other former British colony where British visitors are more welcome than they are in Singapore. Restoration of British rule in 1945 was a relatively easy process, but the Japanese invasion and occupation had encouraged the view that Malaya, Singapore and all the other European colonies should start to decide their own destiny. The occupation had been brutal in the extreme. Estimates vary, but perhaps a quarter, possibly even one-third of Singapore’s population lost their lives under the Japanese. If the British could guarantee security there was a lot to be said for independence. In 1948 a new conflict – known as the Malayan Emergency – broke out between the British authorities and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). By the time the Emergency was over, Malaysia and Singapore had achieved independence, but not through the activities of the MCP, who had been beaten so comprehensively that Britain was able to deliver a degree of autonomy to Singapore in 1955 and independence for Malaya in 1957. The MCP had been established before the war, but had always been essentially a Chinese organisation. Malays and Indians – or Europeans for that matter – were not formally excluded, but were not particularly welcome in its ranks.

The Japanese threat to British rule in the Far East was largely, but not totally, ignored in the period before the invasion. In August 1941 the ‘Oriental Mission’ of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) tried to start a department in Singapore with a view to recruiting and training a resistance force in the event of a Japanese invasion, but were prevented from making any progress – partly because few people believed that Japan was a threat at all, but largely through the obstruction of Sir Shenton Thomas, the Governor of the Straits Settlements. As the campaign came to a close the MCP became the foundation of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). Largely Chinese and communist, the MPAJA was the main body of armed resistance to the occupation and had some contact with British missions mounted by Force 136, the operational cover name for the SOE. The line between the MPAJA and the various bandit groups that had existed before the war was often hazy, but operations were mounted, sabotage was carried out, Japanese soldiers were killed and the MPAJA gained some credibility.

When the Emergency started in 1948 the MCP took their arms out of storage, erected camps in inaccessible jungle and mountain areas and started a ‘war of independence’, adopting the title of the ‘Malayan People’s Liberation Army’ (MPLA). Under the command of Chin Peng – a former leader of the MPAJA who had been decorated by the British for his actions against the Japanese – the MPLA grew to a strength of about 13,000 at its peak, but never seriously threatened British rule. As it became increasingly clear that the British had no intention of retaining a permanent hold over Malaya, it became harder for the MPLA to gather recruits or supplies and by 1955 the British government was able to offer an amnesty to MPLA members.

During the occupation years, the Japanese had adopted a ‘divide and rule’ policy, which encouraged racial tensions which would continue to trouble Malaysia intermittently for decades. Tension had already existed between the Chinese immigrants and the indigenous population. The Chinese had largely come to Malaya to work either in tin or in business or the professions and were seen as profiting at the expense of the Malays. A similar tension existed between Malays, the Chinese and the Indian community, most of whom had come to Malaya to work in British concerns or in the police force or army.

In every sense, the victory of the Japanese Empire in Malaya and the fall of Singapore was an immense blow to the credibility and prestige of the British government. At the most immediate level, the arms, doctrine and leadership of the British Army – and therefore of the Commonwealth forces – had proved unequal to the task of seriously impeding, let alone repelling, an invasion by a force of significantly smaller numbers equipped with materiel that was far from being ‘state of the art’ by the standards of 1941–42. The loss of manpower and materiel was immense: a total of 80,000 men had been taken prisoner; the Japanese had captured hundreds of guns, thousands of vehicles, tens of thousands of small arms and massive quantities of ammunition and other supplies. They had also captured the great Singapore naval base, which had cost many millions of pounds to build but had made no real contribution to the defence of the empire. The base was of precious little value unless there was a powerful fleet for it to support, but that fleet had failed to materialise due to the extensive demands on the Royal Navy in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the defence of home waters.

Once Singapore fell there was no realistic prospect of containing the Japanese advance in the Dutch East Indies, which had been invaded on 10 January 1942, so the defeat of the British had a detrimental effect on the credibility of the Netherlands as a colonial power. In contrast to Malaya, the Japanese were, initially, widely welcomed by the local population. The claim that Japan was liberating Asia from the European colonialists initially found more fertile ground in the Dutch East Indies than anywhere else, but soon wore very thin. The Japanese did, however, rely heavily on local administrators who took the place of the Dutch civilians who had been sent to internment camps. Under the Japanese, local leaders who gained the approval of the occupation government were able to build relationships with the people and thus develop a political community that was opposed to the restoration of Dutch rule. Additionally, the Japanese provided arms and training for locally recruited men, so when the war ended in August 1945 there was a well-developed independence movement that could not only declare its independence from the Netherlands, but had an armed force to back up its position. The result was a struggle between the nationalists eager to achieve independence and the Dutch government who were equally eager to retain control over the valuable rubber and oil industries. The war continued for more than four years, but the result was never really in doubt. Even before the Japanese invasion it was clear to many that the age of European colonial rule in South Asia was not going to last forever. However, the campaign of 1941–42 certainly accelerated the process by demonstrating that the British, the Dutch and the French in Indo-China were not invincible and that colonial rule was, therefore, not inevitable.

Once the mineral and produce wealth of South Asia was in Japanese hands, oil, tin, rubber and foodstuffs could be channelled into the imperial war effort. More than that, Japan’s military and industrial resources could be focused on the pursuit of campaigns in other theatres. Men, tanks and aircraft could be transferred to the war against the British and the Chinese in Burma – with the prospect that it might be possible to make an incursion into India which could destabilise British rule. Assets could be transferred to the Pacific campaign against the Americans and to press the war in China. The southern front might in due course be extended to Australia and, though the prospect of actually conquering Australia might be beyond practical expectations, it would not be impossible for the Japanese high command to think that they might be able to force Australia to seek terms. That in turn would have implications for the British war effort in the desert, as well as removing the Royal Australian Navy from an active role in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific.

Defeat at Singapore was a blow to the prestige of Churchill’s government at home as well, and not just among those with relatives and friends – civil as well as military – who had now become prisoners. Had the British populace been aware of the conditions that the prisoners would suffer, the situation would have been that much worse. Singapore was only one of a number of disasters: the fall of Hong Kong, the retreat through Burma and the mixed fortunes of war in North Africa had been preceded by a veritable litany of failure in France, Flanders and Norway. The matter of Singapore was made worse by the fact that the government – and the military – had been so eager to portray the Far East imperial possessions as secure and Singapore itself as impregnable.

The shock was felt throughout British society, but it had an effect on the general prestige of the British Empire right around the world, in the United States, Canada and – for obvious reasons – in Australia. In occupied Europe it helped to make the prospect of an eventual triumph over the Nazis seem much less likely.

Most importantly, the defeat of British arms spelt the beginning of the end for the security of British rule in South Asia and, indeed, anywhere else. In the past it had seemed that a benefit of British rule was military protection and the British had now failed utterly to live up to their obligations. Certainly, the British had a vast range of commitments elsewhere, but that was of little comfort to people who now faced indefinite occupation by Japan.

Failure in Singapore cast a very long shadow. Twenty years later, when the threat came from Indonesia rather than Japan, Singaporeans might have asked, ‘What will you British do if the Indonesians invade? Will you run away again … like when the Japanese came?’ This was not altogether a fair assessment, but it was understandable.

The wider point of course is that since Britain had proved incapable of defending her eastern possessions, those possessions would, eventually, have to defend themselves, which would render an imperial relationship unsustainable and independence inevitable. Britain’s withdrawal from empire did not follow a particularly rational path. Notionally, the retention of the Singapore naval base, several RAF and army establishments and even the construction of the new Royal Marines barracks at Nee Soon as late as the 1960s were functions of the need to preserve the trade routes of the empire and Commonwealth, and to maintain the prestige of Britain as a world-class power. Neither policy really made much sense. Britain could not possibly sustain the level of spending required to keep abreast of conventional military advances, support establishments around the world and develop a nuclear capacity. When the wartime legacy of National Service came to an end, voluntary enlistment could not provide the necessary manpower to maintain a large field army in Germany in addition to commitments in Asia, Africa and South America. The political picture was changing as well. At the end of the Second World War Britain had decided not to become part of the movement toward the economic integration that would eventually become the European Union, but was clearly headed that way by the 1960s.

As British interests became more closely aligned with mainland Europe, Singapore and Malaya became more focused on the fast-developing Asian and Australian markets, but had a difficult relationship. In 1963 Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Brunei and Sarawak united into a federal state to be known as Malaysia. The marriage was not a happy one. The central government adopted policies of affirmative action to improve the standing of the Malay population, which – rightly or wrongly – were seen as discriminating against Chinese and Indian citizens. By 1965 disagreements between the federal government and the state government in Singapore had become so marked that the Malaysian parliament voted unanimously to expel Singapore from Malaysia. Although the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, had been a strong advocate of the union with Malaya, by 1965 he too had become convinced that the experiment was failing and on 9 August Singapore became an independent republic. The situation was not propitious since Malaysia, and now the new republic of Singapore, were engaged in the ‘Confrontation’ with Indonesia, a conflict which has received little attention from historians. The Indonesian government had not been strongly opposed to the creation of Malaysia, but had changed its position on the grounds that it was no more than a political front to disguise continuing British control in South Asia.

Indonesia had recently gained control of the former Netherlands colony of West Papua and it is possible that President Sukarno hoped to acquire Sarawak, Sabah and even Singapore by force of arms. Although he was well aware of the extent of British military assets in the region, Sukarno was not convinced that the British government would be prepared to wage a war to protect Malaysia or Singapore, and may have believed that the experience of 1941–42 indicated that they could not do so successfully. What he may not have seen is that the experience had helped to encourage the people of Malaya and Singapore to reject colonialism from any source whatsoever.

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