Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 38

Brian Farrell & Sandy Hunter (eds.), Sixty years on: the fall of Singapore revisited, Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, 2002, xvi + 359 pp., illustrations, maps, index, soft cover, rrp US$39 (approx A$81)

Reviewed by: BRETT LODGE, United Nations, Jerusalem

Discussion and dispute about the “Singapore strategy” has now been going on for more than 80 years. The bitterness of its legacy has been felt for more than half a century, and felt most keenly by those whose lot it was to have been on the losing side in 1942 when a British fleet failed to appear in the Far East and Singapore fell to a swift and determined Japanese army.

This book, a collection of papers given at a conference at Singapore University on the 60th anniversary of the defeat in Malaya (or the victory, depending on one’s point of view), considers the political, diplomatic, strategic and tactical aspects of the Singapore strategy and the Malayan campaign, as well as touching on the cultural and historiographical.

The book is divided into two broad sections: pre-war problems and the campaign itself. The area covered by the first category has been ploughed over many times: the Singapore strategy was born of British reluctance to accept second-power status after the First World War. It survived for a generation on a diet of wishful thinking, naïveté, shady diplomacy and a fair dose of “cultural cringe”, as a quote in Peter Dennis’s chapter on Australia’s attitudes shows: the Australian Prime Minister, S. M. Bruce, said in 1923 that “while I am not quite clear as to how the protection of Singapore is to be assured, I am quite clear on this point, that apparently it can be done”. Few argued with “Home”. Voices raised against the strategy, such as those in the Australian army in the 1920s and 1930s, were ignored or punished.

Refreshing perspectives on the Singapore strategy are to be found in chapters dealing with the French and the Americans during the inter-war years (the French clearly saw a disaster in the making; the significance of the British plan in the minds of the Americans is still open to speculation). The other chapters in the first section also touch on interesting areas. The British underestimated Japanese air power while overestimating the RAF in the wake of the Battle of Britain: a combination of intelligence failures, over-confidence and racism.

An area often glossed over in studies of military campaigns receives attention in the book: civilians. The evacuation plans for civilians in Malaya were in a parlous state owing to lack of imagination, complacency and incompetence. Kent Fedorowich’s chapter also highlights the tensions between the civil and military leaders in Singapore and the post-war recriminations, which rivalled the military for bitterness. More on the role of civilians during the campaign, especially on Singapore Island, would have been welcome (a paper on this was presented at the conference, but did not make it into the book).

The essence of the British attitude to Singapore and the Far East dominions between the wars is to be found in the chapter on Churchill by Raymond Callahan, who rightly points out that “[t]here was always a large element of fantasy about the ‘Singapore strategy’, [sic] for it assumed that Japan would be accommodating enough to mount its challenge at a moment when the U.K. was free to respond. Of course, the reverse was most likely to be true ...” When war came Churchill remained focussed on his vital ground, the UK and the Mediterranean, hoping that the bluff of the Singapore strategy would deter the Japanese and calm the dominions, who were providing much-needed troops for the campaign in North Africa. If the Japanese did enter the war, Churchill counted on the Americans, not a British fleet, to counter them. The turning point came, of course, in 1941. Brian Farrell’s summation of that year, which divides the two parts of the book, is admirably succinct.

The chapters in the second part of the book covering the Malayan campaign itself deal more with the human dimension of the Singapore strategy: biographical studies of the commanders (Yamashita and Percival), the plight of prisoners of war, an enlightening view from “the other side” (accounts by, and reminiscences of, Japanese soldiers, many of whom expressed regret), and the role of the poorly-prepared Indian army contingent (a large proportion of which opted to join the Japanese-controlled Indian National Army after surrendering). All of these add colour and depth to the Singapore story, and point to other areas of research which could be undertaken.

The first attempts to put down on paper the history of the campaign by captured Australians are recounted and analysed by Peter Stanley. The rivalries and recriminations were profound and carried over into the preparation of the Australian official history, which caused the historians to be concerned about legal action by individuals involved in the fighting. Although the histories were far from bland chronicles, inevitably much had to be left unexplored, awaiting a new generation of historians. It was little different in Britain. As Callahan points out, not until the 1970s did Churchill’s carefully-crafted version of events, which hitherto had dominated the story of Singapore, come under closer, more critical, scrutiny as archival records became available. (Apparently this issue was also dealt with by Peter Elphick in a paper he gave to the conference, although in the book it appears only in the form of a tantalising abstract entitled “The cover-ups: dirty laundry of the Malayan campaign”, which refers to the closure and “weeding” of official records and the censoring of official histories.)

The book is well-produced, although there are a couple of minor but persistent editorial errors which could have been avoided (for example, Pearl Harbor is a proper noun and should not be “Pearl Harbour”, and quotation marks are frequently misplaced when used in conjunction with a comma or full-stop). Though distracting, these are small points which do little to mar a useful and wide-ranging work. Sandy Hunter’s observation in the closing chapter that the fall of Singapore is possibly an “over-debated tragedy” is apt. A great deal of ink has been spilt on the subject, no doubt, but we have not quite closed the book on the Singapore strategy and its consequences. There are associated areas which may yet be explored and this book has done much to shed light on the more dimly-perceived aspects of a crushing British defeat, a stunning Japanese victory and a milestone in the history of Singapore.