“The Men Who Lost Singapore, 1938-1942” by Ronald McCrum

Lost Singapore

Ronald McCrum is a retired British army officer, and in his prologue he sets out his conviction that in previous accounts of the fall of Singapore too much blame has been attributed to the military and not enough to the “seriously flawed” civil administration.

 

The focus of this book is an examination of the behaviour of the civil authorities in this crisis. In retrospect, their behaviour was ranked as [sic] irresponsible and incompetent. Their failure… exposed a gross failure of duty to the people for whom they were responsible.

 

The following 240 pages detail enough facts to make a convincing case, though McCrum organises them less clearly than he might have. The argument runs as follows.

Malaya offered Britain three important resources: rubber, tin and a port which was the nexus of Southeast Asia’s communications and commerce. It had been recognized since at least 1937 that defending Singapore should involve defending the entire Malay Peninsula, but by the time of the Japanese invasion Britain was unable to do so. With the home island under siege, the military couldn’t spare the necessary men and equipment.

The Men Who Lost Singapore, 1938-1942, Ronald McCrum (NUS Press, February 2017)
The Men Who Lost Singapore, 1938-1942, Ronald McCrum (NUS Press, February 2017)

But McCrum emphasises an equally decisive consideration for the civilian administration: most of the peninsula was ruled by sultans assisted by resident British advisors, and most of those sultans were unwilling to have their sultanates militarized. So the army’s commanding general felt that “… his orders were to defend Singapore and did not permit him to concern himself with the peninsula.”

Without the peninsula Singapore might be defended as a besieged fortress, but the only point of that would be to deny Japan the use of the harbor. With hostile forces controlling Johor and Sumatra, the port would be useless. That combination of political and military considerations made British Malaya in fact indefensible.

Britain’s response was to emphasize stability and maximum rubber and tin output. Early in the war any need to defend Malaya seemed unlikely, as Germany, Italy and Japan were all fully occupied elsewhere. In the summer of 1941, Germany invaded Russia and Japan was sorely tempted to turn its attention northward to expand Manchukuo into the Russian Far East. But almost simultaneously occupied France opened Indochina to the Japanese, making striking north from there into Free China and perhaps eventually Burma an obvious temptation. McCrum apparently had less access to intelligence files than he would have preferred, but he reports that Bletchley Park had broken some important Japanese codes and Britain had concluded that Malaya was not on Japan’s immediate menu.

At the same time there were insufficient men and equipment to defend the entire peninsula. Open pit mines and a million rubber trees don’t lend themselves to a scorched earth defense. The decision was to say nothing, keep the civilians totally in the dark, maintain full production as long as possible; then if the Japanese did invade, mount a token defense with the forces available. That had the disadvantage that, figuratively speaking, the civilians awoke one morning and found themselves under the rule of the Japanese whom they had supposed were still 1000 miles away in Indochina. On the other hand, token defense must have saved many civilian lives and much destruction. The recriminations continue to this day.

 

McCrum’s attempts to explain all this would be more effective if he were better organized. He has clearly done plenty of research in the British government archives, but that has tempted him to lay out the story in chronological order rather than in terms of the issues and personalities involved. That leads to a lot of repetition, not helped by a sometimes-amusing lack of copy-editing. There’s a lot of who said what to whom, counterpoised disparaging comment about the officers and civilians in charge, and a very detailed chronology of the personnel changes among the military and civilian leaders.

McCrum’s central argument is that, “A large measure of responsibility… must rest with the authorities in London.” They saw other worldwide demands as more urgent and left Singapore in the hands of administrators and generals whom McCrum variously describes as ineffectual, indecisive, apathetic and out of their depth.

But all that is clearly summarized only in the final 20 pages of the concluding chapter. The chronological workup makes confusing and not very interesting reading as a result. Most readers may be tempted to ask, “Does it really matter after all these years?”


Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.