Lessons for today from the fall of Singapore

Former prisoner of war during the Japanese Occupation in South East Asia, Fred Ryall, 81, visiting The Battle Box at Fort Canning as part of a pilgrimage to South-east Asia, in May 1998. PHOTO: ST FILE

Tomorrow, Feb 15, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

On Dec 5, 1941, as Japanese forces prepared to attack Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong and multiple targets in South-east Asia - including Singapore, Adolf Hitler's most talented Panzer commander, General Heinz Guderian, was forced to halt his assault on Moscow after his troops had come within 18km of the Kremlin. In the previous four months, Royal Navy convoys had evaded German naval patrols in treacherous Arctic waters to transport vital tanks and Hurricane Hawk aircraft to Murmansk and Archangel to help the Soviet Union resist the German onslaught.

Around the same time, General Erwin Rommel was forced to end his siege of Tobruk in Libya, where Australian, British, Indian, free Polish and New Zealand forces had held the strategically vital port for 241 days, blunting the Axis forces' first attempt to capture the Suez Canal and secure the route to the oilfields of Persia.

Prior to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, for the previous 12 months, the people and forces of the then British Commonwealth of Nations had stood alone in an existential struggle against the forces of Fascism in Europe.

The inevitable consequence was that the men and equipment, in particular air cover, needed for the defence of South-east Asia just were not available.

HMS The Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were defenceless against Japanese air attacks on Dec 10, 1941, off the east coast of Malaya. In all, 840 sailors were lost. On the peninsula, outdated Allied aircraft were no match for the superior number and quality of the Japanese. The Allies had not a single tank to confront the 200 or so Japanese tanks.

Hindsight enables us to understand that there were serious errors of leadership as the Japanese 25th Army attacked down the Malayan peninsula.

Japanese capabilities were arrogantly underestimated. Thousands of Allied troops, including many from Malaya and Singapore, were killed and injured in desperate defence. We should never forget their sacrifice. Winston Churchill considered the fall of Singapore to be the "worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history".

But of course, this disaster was most acutely experienced by the population of Singapore. They paid a grievous price.

So it is not surprising that one of the lessons that the late Lee Kuan Yew took from the fall of Singapore was that Singaporeans should never rely on any but themselves for their security. And that is why the Singapore Armed Forces are the best funded, best equipped, best trained and most professional forces in South-east Asia.

But what lesson does the fall of Singapore in 1942 hold for us 75 years later?

For me, the most important point we should understand today is the wider context. Why was it that the international order had so completely broken down that we were completely isolated? Clearly there is no single answer. Arguably, it depends on how far back into history you want to go.

But there are highly relevant factors from the years immediately preceding the war that should be a warning for us today.

Throughout the 1930s, there was the consistent failure on the part of the international community, as represented by the League of Nations, to resist forced annexations in China, in Abyssinia and in Czechoslovakia.

There was the unwillingness of the United States to support the international institutions it had been instrumental in creating at the end of World War I, in the mistaken belief that it could hold itself immune from events on the far side of the oceans.

There was the slavish pursuit of balanced budgets at precisely the wrong point in the economic cycle that left the growing numbers of unemployed in the industrialised economies with no hope, fuelling populism and extremism.

And there was the catastrophic lapse into protectionism and the erection of tariff barriers that lengthened and deepened the global economic slump.

These and other errors created the conditions for the collapse of international order.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the generation of political leaders who led the free world in the immediate post-war period was the construction of a rules-based international system out of the devastation of war. That system has not been perfect. It has not prevented conflicts. There have been too many appalling violations of the most basic human rights, most recently in Aleppo. It has not put an end to the business cycle.

But in the decades after World War II ended, the rules-based international system and the values on which it is built have been the foundation of a world in which free and independent peoples have been able to live and trade together, if not always in harmony, then at least on the basis of common understandings and norms. It has enabled more people than ever before in history to escape poverty and live in security.

Yes, the system should adapt as the world evolves. But in its fundamentals, it is surely worth preserving.

That is why the United Kingdom is so committed to and active in upholding our rules-based system. It is why we advocate international action when countries like North Korea violate United Nations resolutions on its nuclear and missile programmes. It is why we were instrumental in galvanising international action to tighten aviation security and tackle terrorist financing. It is why we have led international action to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and are now leading a campaign against modern slavery.

But if the international rules-based system is to survive, it requires all nations to defend its basic principles. It requires all of us to call those who violate those principles to account by word and deed rather than keep our heads down.

It requires governments to recommit to free trade and open markets while ensuring that those who suffer as a result of globalisation or technological innovation are helped to adapt as the world changes around them.

For if the international system is not based on rules, what then will it be based on?

  • The writer is the British High Commissioner to Singapore.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline Lessons for today from the fall of Singapore. Subscribe