British Empire Article

by David Brent
(Asst Superintendent of Police, Malaya 1952-58)
The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond
Sir Stamford Raffles
There seems to be a need to provide some very brief insights into the genesis of the State of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP Singapore Government.

Going back to the origin of this world famous location it needs to be emphasized that the very original, visionary founder was Sir Stamford Raffles who, at a stage of historic European warfare, world turmoil and aggressive trading between European nations at the beginning of the 19th Century, saw the strategic importance of a desolate swamp-infested island with a few fishing villages at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. He very astutely organized the possession by Britain even before the English Parliament knew that it possessed a new territory, Singa-pura, hence named Singapore. The only negative aspect was the unforgivably shabby and destructive treatment of Raffles by the English Parliament and officials of the East India Company which hastened his untimely death. Not a good reflection of British political behaviour. 'Pity he was lost to his country at so early an age' wrote, former colleague and friend, Captain Thomas Travers. 'Much was expected of him.'

Reflecting Travers's and other's opinions at the time, author, Maurice Collis records 'Death had carried him away on the threshold of yet greater achievements. But what more was there to do? What could he do to surpass what he had done? He had opened the door, he had pointed to the path, he had provided the idea, he had performed the act. Singapore stood. What else was necessary? Born a giant, it was strong enough to come along by itself. So powerful were the dynamic forces which it unleashed that, had Raffles lived, he could have done little more than watch it grow at its own astounding pace. The stage was set for Europe's decisive incursion into East Asia. Old Asia was to disappear, a new Asia to be born, the Asia of the modern world. Such were the forces which Raffles set in motion by founding Singapore.'

The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond
Singapore Harbour
The next necessary point to make is that, notwithstanding the clouded genesis of Singapore, the British administered the colony with efficiency, fairness and justice, a point which was not lost on the impoverished and hard-pressed Chinese in south-east China who flocked to Singapore, a haven of security and justice, in order to build prosperity, future stability and happiness for themselves and their families.

Singapore's successful progress into the modern age was marred only by the attack and occupation by the Japanese during World War two, a disaster due largely to the failure of the USA to accurately read the times immediately following the outbreak of World War Two in Europe and to analyze and swiftly interpret the events in the Pacific in the months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and Malaya. If there had been an alert, war-ready America with its massive resources at full wartime production the Japanese would never have dared to attack and the horrors of the Pacific War would not have occurred. A point which Mr Lee Kuan Yew studiously avoids in any of his critiques, concentrating on the failures of the British.

The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond
Japanese Surrender
Following the surrender of the Japanese and the very welcome return of the British administration to Singapore the colony resumed its former important role in Asia and continued to become a highly successful metropolis and a vital commercial hub with its excellent harbour and flourishing entrepot trade. Its largely Chinese community was hard working and productive and with the combined excellence of the British contribution and the industry of the Chinese community, Singapore continued on its very successful path into the early fifties. The main danger was communism, inspired by ethnic links and the path to power in China by Mao Zedong

With the independence of India, Ceylon and Burma in 1947-48 following the unexpected earlier defeat of the British by an Asian military force in World War Two, the prestige of Britain as a mighty global power had suffered to some extent and not unnaturally this aroused expectations of freedom from colonialism in the near future. At some later point Mr Lee Kuan Yew even expressed his view that he would rather be ruled by the Communists than by the British. However, consideration of this draws one to the conclusion that Mr Lee was really typically 'grandstanding' because, as he would have fully known, if the communists took over as they did elsewhere in Asia, Mr Lee and his family would very likely have been classified as bourgeois intellectuals, their property confiscated and all dispatched to a re-education location on some remote commune. All this aside, the timing for Mr Lee couldn't have been better. Singapore was like a ripe plum ready for the picking. Global events were in turmoil with the spectre of international communism fostered by the USSR. India, Ceylon, Burma and by 1957, Malaya had achieved independence. British and Commonwealth forces had for many years been combating the Communist Party of Malaya in the major shooting war of the Malayan Emergency. China was big in the news with the powerful Mao Zedong holding the Chinese population in his big fist. Communism in Asia was regarded as a major threat to Asian nations and globally. Here in Singapore Mr Lee and his fellow political partners were comfortably planning their moves in the safety of well-protected, well-administered Singapore City with its smooth-running metropolis, cinemas, restaurants, night clubs, hotels, sporting events, and plenty of air-conditioning! Life was good compared to the dangerous hellhole of the Malayan jungles as targets of the communist guerillas or Mr Lee's and partners' original homeland of China, suffering horribly from starvation and deprivation under the rigid thrall of Mao Zedong. In truth, it could be said that relatively, this point in time in comfortable, safe Singapore life was really a privileged existence and opportunity for Mr Lee and his political partners.
The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond
Singapore in 1950s

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had by this stage in the early fifties acquired valuable skills and experience. He had observed the horror of the Japanese occupation. He had acquired a law degree at Cambridge. He was shrewd, tenacious, extremely intelligent and he had an urgency no doubt spurred on by personal resentment at imagined or actual occasional slights by British 'whites' during his life in Singapore and the UK. All this was nevertheless balanced by his high regard for the basics of British standards of behaviour, law, order and justice he had generally observed in the UK and Singapore. Perhaps he felt he saw both the good and the bad?

In his book, The Singapore Story, Mr Lee covers the time between his return to Singapore from the UK in 1950 and the hurly-burly of Singapore life, work and politics up to 1959 very well. And aside from an imaginative obsession with perceived British 'whites' negative behaviour during the Japanese attack on Singapore in 1941, the flow of events provides interesting insights into internal Singapore politics at the time. Some of Mr Lee's negative observations of some PAP politicians and his good relationship with Singapore Governor, Sir William Goode, reveal a forthright and honest account of events. Notably, that among PAP politicians there were racist 'anti-white' views and actions, especially by former City Mayor, Mr Ong Eng Guan, of which Mr Lee greatly disapproved. So it would certainly appear that Mr Lee, while prepared to 'niggle' about some of the British in various ways, did not overtly condone racist based behaviour by PAP politicians [or any government officers] or ever openly indulge in such behaviour himself. This is not to say such behaviour did not occur as Mr Lee reveals and as this author personally experienced in Singapore in 1958-59.

The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond
Lee Kuan Yew
Some might say of Mr Lee Kuan Yew that he lacked a certain charm and warmth. If he were asked to comment on this I'm sure his answer would be that he was elected to serve the people as an excellent political leader and statesman, not a warm and charming politician. He certainly succeeded in his objective. Really only once was there a serious, major lack of judgment and failure. Some introduction to this occasion may be helpful.

A very common mistake made by outsiders to the region and the newly arrived was that the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore were "all the same". Aside from the very simple divisions of dialect and clan - Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, Hylam and others, the general mind-set of the Singapore Chinese was different to that of the Malayan Chinese. A larger proportion were more chauvinistic, related more to homeland China, were more insular and inward-looking, were more resentful of 'whites' and their lifestyles, were more resentful of the British, and in general drew sustenance and assurance from the dominance of the Chinese racial composition in Singapore and its general commercial success. Whereas the Chinese in Malaya were more integrated with other races and had a less intense attitude towards their 'Chineseness', racial origins and China. They were more inclined to be philosophical about co-residence as a minority group with the Malays and other groups. And certainly more appreciative of British rule, justice and a fair-minded administration; this aside from the opposed radical views of the Communist Party of Malaya and its mainly Chinese supporters of communism.

Was this a major contributing factor to Mr Lee's one fatal error which changed the course of history in the region, just as other notable politicians elsewhere in history also made fatal errors? In the UK alone - Churchill and Gallipoli, Anthony Eden and the "Suez Crisis" and Maggie Thatcher and the "Poll Tax". The latter both lost their leadership and exited politics as a result. Churchill rose again like a Phoenix and Lee can take some comfort from this comparison.

In trying to read between the lines one gets the impression that in the early years Lee Kuan Yew was forced by circumstances to maintain a too intensely focused view of Singapore society and its problems with perhaps not enough of a regional view and comprehension of unfolding events in Malaya both economically, politically and socially. However, in fairness, the political infighting with Singapore communists in the community and in the PAP was very intense and perhaps illustrates that Mr Lee's biggest problem was not with the British but with the Chinese communists in Singapore. Furthermore, he was immersed in the 'Chineseness' of the Singapore community.

The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond
Singapore Causeway
There seems to have been little regard or comprehension for what it meant to live and work in the hinterlands of Malaya in the far reaches of Pahang, Johore, Trengganu, Kelantan and other states during the Emergency under the dangerous conditions and sometimes horrific circumstances when the CPM terrorists attacked murdered and destroyed. In effect, Lee Kuan Yew was a product of city dwelling and easy, short communications and travel within the safe bounds of a small, efficient and convenient island. No long rivers requiring days of travel, no dirt tracks surrounded by dense jungle and potential ambush positions, no remote towns and villages without electricity. None of the uncertainty of survival and the feeling of deep isolation from the outside world which seemed a million miles away, uncaring, disinterested and alien.

This then, essentially, could have contributed to Lee Kuan Yew's lack of full comprehension of what it meant to live in a multi-cultured, large, primary producing, rural populated, heavily-jungled country compared to a very small island-city off the coast at the bottom of Peninsula Malaya. At the very heart of Lee's psychological make-up perhaps there was an imbedded lack of sufficient understanding of all this and together with this, out-of-touch with the deep human emotional motivations of the Malays in Malaya, and a confusion of this vital, proud mind-set with the different mind-set of the educated Singapore Malays conditioned by their local circumstances, their minority presence and the inevitability of their need to survive in a Chinese populated island city-state. They were poles apart from the Malays in Malayan society with their sultans, their adat [culture], istiadat [ceremonies & protocols] and more relaxed attitudes and a feeling of absolute ownership of their country. Added to this since WW2 was the effect of the Emergency and the fear of communism in Malaya and its association with China and the Chinese race and the dangers of communism in Chinese dominated Singapore.

Against all this was the successful record of Lee Kuan Yew, a proud gifted and shrewd Hakka Chinese, who against enormous odds, had outwitted the communists in Singapore and overcome multiple problems in Singapore's society. He had led the PAP to victory in the 1959 elections and his political power was in the ascendancy.

The regional political situation in the early sixties was volatile. Communism was still a major problem, a belligerent Indonesia was a danger, defence was a concern for the UK, Singapore and Malaya. The concept of a new Malaysia was being considered. The overall climate of power politics was over-heated and stressful for governments.

Set against this background and buoyed with his success with Singapore's inclusion in the new Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew mistakenly and impatiently decided to extend his political power from Singapore to the newly-formed Malaysia and through the PAP to infiltrate the Chinese communities and also the Malay communities in Peninsula Malaya and the Borneo states and to consolidate himself as a supremo in the new Malaysia.

Impatience and injudicious comments added to Mr Lee's lack of understanding of the underlying Malayan racial and political ethos and together with his frontal attack for a rapid result, were all his undoing. Had he carefully assessed the political climate and the personalities of the individual politicians concerned the story could have been different. But the softly-softly approach was not Lee's style. He preferred going for the jugular for what he felt, based upon his view of 'meritocracy', was just and right and proper and ended up getting badly burnt. Finally Singapore was ejected from Malaysia by Tungku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak [both of whom I had met and knew Tun Razak well from my time in Pahang 1952 to 1954. His son, Mohammed Najib, later became Prime Minister for Malaysia.]

Lee Kuan Yew's Tears
Idealism, supreme overconfidence, bad underestimation of the resolute Malayans, his personal style and his impatience were his downfall. Lee's appearance on television in tears over the rejection by Malaysia was not sorrow for Singapore but pure and simple overwhelming grief and shame at his very personal and public humiliation and loss of 'face.' He had taken a gamble and misjudged. He had grossly overestimated his power and influence and lost. While Lee had found dealing with the 'pussycat' British an absolute pushover in his pursuit of self government and power [in spite of consistently ongoing Singapore Government 'blurb' on how tough it was] he found the severe slap in the face by the Malayans a complete and unexpected shock. It stopped him short in his tracks. However, Lee learned from his mistake and his determination, tenacity, personal skills and leadership qualities pulled him through and enabled him to take centre-stage once again and lead Singapore in the following decades to a period of enormous prosperity and success. Singaporeans have much to thank Lee Kuan Yew for, a statesman of great experience, stature and vision. He confirmed and contributed to the brilliant future for Singapore foreseen and predicted by visionary, Sir Stamford Raffles.

However, timing was again overwhelmingly in Lee's favour. After World War Two overseas investment in Singapore and Malaysia had been discouraged by the ongoing dangers of aggressive militant communism during the worrying period of the 'Cold War'. After victory against communism in Malaya and also in due course in Singapore the gates swung wide open for both Malaya and Singapore to attract international investment and the records show that was exactly what happened. Naturally Lee and his colleagues would like to claim all the credit for economic success. But the highly successful role of the Malayan, British and Commonwealth forces in defeating the communists played a pivotal role in the region's future success and prosperity. A vital factor too often forgotten and particularly highlighted by the tragic following history of events in Vietnam.

In addition, the parallel fortunes of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong have some significance. A massive success story after World War Two it exemplified the powerful combination of excellent British administration and the hard working Chinese population which flocked to Kong Kong [rather than life in China under Mao] to build prosperity and happiness with the assurance of sound administration, law and order, justice and freedom.

The great success stories of Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong have all resulted in prosperity with talented local governance following the valuable foundations laid by the British - sound administration, law and order, justice and freedom and survival against communism - which attracted so many Chinese over many decades to build their future fortunes.

British Colony Map
1965 Map of Singapore and Southern Malaya
Colony Profile
The Author
[David Brent was an assistant superintendent in the para-military Malayan Police Force. He served as a police commander of several large districts in the hinterlands of Malaya and was also an intelligence specialist during the Malayan Emergency. He participated in the BBC 2004 TV documentary, Empire Warriors: 'The Intelligence War', with views and recollection of the Emergency and also contributed to several publications on Malaya and the Emergency.]
Also by the Author
Encounters In Malayan Police Work
Malayan Emergency
Malayan Tales
Malaya - A Magical Experience
Colonialism and Empires: A natural evolution of civilizations


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