Nov 16, 2019
On a downcast Saturday afternoon, my girlfriend and I decided to pay the nearby Old Ford Factory a visit. Tucked away in an enclave just beside a sprawling nature reserve, the war archive was probably a place you would have visited if you were a student in Singapore embarking on a mandatory World War II pilgrimage decreed by the local education system. To be fair, it is one of the most important historical landmarks in our history. It is where our British colonisers, led then by Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, surrendered unconditionally to Lieutenant-General Yamashita Tomoyuki on 15 February 1942 after Japan’s successful campaign of Singapore, thereby sealing our fate for the next three years. Yet, the story doesn’t end within our shores. The Battle of Singapore could well reveal a familiar story of colonial neglect that has persisted throughout the course of history.
We got bloody lost in our own neighbourhood trying to find the Old Ford Factory; clearly, navigation wasn’t our strongest suit. But, some backtracking later and we caught the enormous sign right by the entrance, clear as day and reminiscent of the typical American billboards and signs catering to potential customers far, far away. Hardly surprising, given how it’s Ford Motor. The Old Ford Factory was the automaker’s first assembly and construction plant in Southeast Asia, but its ill-fated stint lasted barely a year before Japanese forces came pounding at our shore-lined proverbial doors.
As the factory came into view, we were greeted with a refurbished gallery, a pleasant irony of old relics kept neatly on display within a sparkling new building. Our initial plan was to comb the gallery ourselves, but as luck would have it, a guided tour was just about to begin, comprising a group of about 15, mostly inquisitive tourists and the odd few locals. We added to the latter and tagged along behind. The tour was led by what we reckoned was a historian, and, based on his depth of knowledge and charismatic demeanour, a happily retired lecturer.
Our tour was surprisingly meticulous; we stopped at almost every exhibition to listen, in great detail, what went on in each point during the Battle of Singapore. The gallery’s deliberately dim setting, coupled with audio clips of news and stories echoing throughout, made for a poignant place of reflection. It was easy to fall into a place of melancholy; any account of brutality and bloodshed usually has that effect. That day, however, I felt more than just pensive. I felt annoyed; angry, even. Besides relearning the horrors our forefathers had to endure, our tour also exposed the many failings of the British Empire that we were under, which was ironic considering 2019 was the year we celebrated the Bicentennial.
It was probably a testament to the quality of the guide that we found ourselves fixated onto his stories instead of breaking off from the group to survey the exhibitions on our own. Besides, most war exhibitions in Singapore display similar items — old uniforms, letters, photographs, documents, and other paraphernalia associated with the time. What I didn’t expect was to hear stories about the mismanagement of the war on our end that we assumed weren’t politically correct enough to be openly made available. While there were already several well-documented examples, such as the vast inferiority of the Allied forces in terms of equipment and their horrible field intelligence, the rot seemed to lie even deeper than I’d thought.
Tengah Air Base
Prior to the Japanese forces’ first air raid of Singapore, there was a protocol amongst the strategic bases around the country, that all lights be turned off at night to prevent the Japanese from spotting and destroying key military installations. The story went that on that fateful night, the British guard responsible for the lights at Tengah Air Base had gone out and forgotten to turn them off, essentially giving the Japanese a big, fat target, and unsurprisingly, it was the first installation to be bombed in the Battle of Singapore.
Non-Existent Intelligence & White Pride
The numerous blunders that ultimately led to the Allied surrender, even when viewed on hindsight, were mainly brought about by a mix of arrogance by underestimating the Japanese forces and some abysmal intelligence work.
Labelling the Japanese forces as “little Japs”, it was unsurprising that the Allied troops didn’t take them seriously. There was also a preconceived notion that Singapore was an impregnable fortress, a claim frivolously backed by the reputation of the British Empire and its Royal Navy, neither of which did anything tangible to safeguard Singapore. The Japanese, although fewer in numbers, were battle-hardened from their recent campaigns, and being constantly outnumbered had made them craftier and more resilient. On the flip side, the Allied forces stationed in Singapore were mostly rookies, but somehow found the time to value their social welfare in the face of a potential battle by making merry at social establishments.
Allied intelligence also misreported the strength of the Japanese aircraft, believing them to be old and outdated. As it turned out, it was the Allied aircraft that were severely outmatched by the former, and what of the famed naval forces? We only had two, and both were predictably sunk by Japanese torpedoes because the Allied air force was already decimated by then.
Still, we had a formidable fort to count on; that was our claim to fame. However, it was built facing the south in anticipation of the Japanese invasion by sea. Following the same narrative, poor intelligence yet again meant that the Japanese actually invaded from the north. Fortunately, the artillery guns could be rotated, but were instead unwittingly used against the retreating Allied troops who were mistaken for Japanese forces.
The biggest blunder of all, was perhaps the surrender itself. Unbeknownst to the Allied forces, the Japanese army was also reaching its limits, with supply running out and stamina wearing thin. General Yamashita called a bluff and issued an ultimatum of surrender to the Allied forces. He was later reported to have reflected on that bluff, stating that had General Percival not agreed to surrender, he would probably have called off the campaign, as his troops no longer had the supplies to continue fighting. However, just as the Allied forces had been constantly let down by poor intelligence, they were once again fooled into thinking that the Japanese had much more in their reserves and they eventually surrendered on 15 February 1942.
I found myself wrenched back into the real world. Boy, those stories really take you into another place in time. Just a year before, I was helping my former workplace prepare for the Bicentennial celebrations.
Wait. Why were we even celebrating it again? Something something Sir Stamford Raffles something something helped modernise a sleepy fishing village into the glistening metropolis that we are today.
But, beyond Singapore, there seems to be a consistent pattern throughout history of European powers seizing land from indigenous communities for resources and the furtherance of their kingdoms. Many ended badly, for the indigenous people, not the hostile occupants, of course; they got what they wanted — the Spanish conquistadors in their colonisation of the Americas in the 16th century; the British occupancy of Australia, in which Aboriginal tribes were slaughtered and imprisoned on Rottnest Island, a sacred place for them, now a vacation hotspot for locals; and of course, the founding of the United States of America on the blood of many a slain Native. While the same tragic end didn’t seem to repeat itself in Singapore, the indigenous Malays here were wildly misconstrued by the British occupants during the colonial days as extremely lazy, probably due to their refusal to be subjected to colonial rule — the same pride that other indigenous communities around the world would naturally have.
This is perhaps best exemplified in the Battle of Singapore itself, as some of the fiercest resistances against the advancing Japanese soldiers were put up by the Malay forces; Lt Adnan’s last stand being the most famous of them all. That was certainly not the hallmark of a lazy person. Defending Singapore was the responsibility of the British Empire, yet it failed miserably, simply because it only valued its colonies for what they could provide; we were theirs to milk, nothing more.
With the anti-white rhetoric seemingly gaining huge traction over the past few years, it is easy to hop onto the bandwagon, yet, in truth, I would not consider myself one. However, I do feel that the perceived white supremacy mentality might have stemmed from the old European obsession with forcefully claiming land from powers they deemed weaker than theirs, all whilst believing that their race and culture are superior to others. Translation: your civilisation sucks and we want you to adapt ours because we’re better.
It does explain why the European world gasps in horror whenever a foreign nation rises to power without subscribing to their style of governance — think USSR, China, and the Middle East. Under the pretext of “human rights violations”, sanctions are quickly put in place in an attempt to hinder their growth.
The truth is, the only reason these self-righteous nations appear cleaner is because they have the Western media on their side. But, even that facade is quickly fading.
It is unfortunate that well-meaning white people are tainted with the same brush, and now have to overcompensate to show the rest of the world that they do respect other cultures, but, if history is anything to go by, this is a long time coming. And, based on widely reported incidents like Logan Paul’s antics in Japan, redemption is a longer road ahead.
What happened in Singapore only represents a tiny fragment of a larger narrative; a part of a collective experience that continues to resonate across communities around the world. Until the hierarchy of coloniser and colonised is acknowledged and removed, the rhetoric of an equal society remains but a politically charged pipe dream.
Australia — Aboriginal rights are still very much up in the air, and are only slowly and reluctantly given over the past few years
USA — Native American rights have been dramatically scaled back to prioritise industrial installations like gas pipelines
Singapore — The narrative of the lazy Malay continues to be perpetuated today, causing them to be viewed unfavourably in the eyes of local society