Singapore: An American Problem





WHERE the Pacific meets the Indian Ocean, the world’s most powerful naval base guards the white man’s stake in the Far East. Will American ships be called upon to defend it? Imperial Singapore bristles with fortifications; it has the guns, the docks, the planes, the men needed to keep an enemy at a respectful distance. But it has no ships. Britain can spare no battleships for use east of Suez, and the cruisers, destroyers, and submarines of her Asiatic fleet, based at Hongkong, are nothing much to crow about. The United States, on the other hand, maintains a formidable battle fleet in Pacific waters but lacks adequate Far Eastern bases to operate from. This is why a British-American agreement, covering the use of the Singapore base by American ships, sounds like a reasonable giveand-take proposition. It makes sense.

The Singapore fortress was built, with a capital outlay of roughly $80,000,000, to serve as a concentration point for a gigantic fighting fleet. A look at the map shows that the place was well chosen. The tropical island of Singapore dominates the nine-mile-wide entrance into the Indian Ocean where Britain’s vast and practically defenseless Indian Empire beckons — Asia’s most tempting prize. It lies, moreover, in the hub of a huge circle which embraces the Netherlands Indies, French Indo-China, British Hongkong, and the rich Malay States. Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines lie within the range of Singapore, and even the eastern coast of Africa and the western coast of Canada could benefit from its strength. Three quarters of the land territory of the British Empire is grouped around Singapore.

There was only one potential enemy in the minds of the honorable M. P.’s who passed the Singapore bill in 1923: Japan. And the effort of making the fortress impregnable gathered momentum with the growing strength and aggressiveness of the Japanese Empire. True, the islands of Japan are some three thousand miles removed from the base. But Japan’s navy is rampant in the China Seas, and Japan’s armed forces have crept alarmingly nearer in the last three years. Hainan, the strategic island off the coast of South China, is in Japanese hands. Indo-China, at this writing, is rolling into Japan’s broad lap; and the southern tip of that French colony, with the fortified port of Saigon, hangs over Singapore’s head at a distance of only five hundred miles. Japan, seen from the palm-studded beaches of Singapore, is not a mirage, but a reality.

Copyright 1941, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserted.

It was to defend the white man’s colonies from the hungry Japanese that the Singapore fortress was voted into existence; it is for this purpose that it may be used in the near future. Japan’s armies are mired in China; they have won all the battles, but victory is not in sight. Even if victory were complete, however, China could yield no riches. Thus, while Japan’s army is striving for a face-saving compromise in the dusty plains of China, Japan’s navy is getting up steam. It is waiting for the signal to lift the anchor chains and to steam down into warm equatorial waters, where islands rich in oil, rubber, tin, and ores invite conquest.

We do not know where the Japanese will be going next. It depends on what is happening over London, in the Balkans, in the deserts of Africa. It depends, too, on the immediate future of Singapore. For while Japan’s keen and ambitious admirals are waiting for their European partners to give them the green light, Singapore is the only place where a red light could stop them.

It is no secret that a southward expedition aimed at the Netherlands Indies has long been mapped in every detail by the admiralty in Tokyo. These wealthy islands, scattered through a space almost as large as the territory of the United States and inhabited by 65,000,000 brown people, are the most precious of the floating prizes of this war. They have everything the Japanese haven’t got — rubber, iron, tin, some gold, almost all the world’s quinine, most of its kapok and pepper, and the largest oil fields in the Far East. These raw materials would pump new blood into Japan’s industries. They would, through sale abroad, pump new gold into her nearly empty coffers. And the vast population of the archipelago would constitute a safe and valuable market for products made in Japan.

Can the Indies be defended? The islands are well fortified, and the local Dutch administration has done a splendid job of building up a large army of bright and loyal Eurasians. Naval forces of considerable strength are based in Soerabaya and other ports, and the Dutch air force, made up of fast and expensive American planes, is said to be in top shape. But whether these efforts will suffice to keep an approaching enemy away from the islands’ shores appears doubtful. The defense problems of the archipelago are strangely similar to Norway’s. There is an immense coast line which affords innumerable points where a landing could be made. There are bays and inlets which open up patches of valuable territory inaccessible from the rest of the colony. The vital port of Balikpapan on the island of Borneo, for example, where the oil pipes meet the sea, is surrounded by impenetrable jungle which insulates it from the remainder of Borneo. It could be invaded by relatively small units of an enemy fleet; and after a surprise landing it would take a colossal effort to dislodge such enemy forces.

Military observers doubt whether Japan could spare enough ships for such an expedition; they also doubt whether an expedition could get that far without being spied, and bombed or torpedoed out of existence. But, at least for argument’s sake, it could be assumed that a totalitarian nation can always spare enough of anything if its leaders mean business; besides, an expedition aiming at the local occupation of one or two strategic ports (not of the entire archipelago) would not have to be large. The Germans did not use large armadas to steam up the Norwegian fjords. As for the discovery of a southward move in time to stop it, it must be said that those are tricky waters, that the expedition would not have to come all the way from Japan, but from some advance base such as Hainan or Indo-China, and that a lot of open water would have to be surveyed day and night to achieve the purpose.

This is where Singapore comes in. Ships can carry men and equipment from Singapore to Batavia in ten hours. Planes can get there in less than two.

The protection of the Netherlands Indies was a part of the Singapore scheme even before the islands were orphaned by the German occupation of their mother country. Britain’s economic stake in the archipelago is considerable. Through the partly British-owned Royal Dutch Shell combine, Britain has a hand in the exploitation of the islands’ oil resources; the British investment amounts to over $130,000,000. Britain’s share in the colony’s trade and shipping is heavy. Apart from such economic interests, however, British statesmen knew that they could not afford to let the islands fall into the hands of an enemy; they could not afford to have the Empire’s communications with Australia severed at will, and to face the muzzles of enemy guns across the street from Singapore. Today, Britain’s interest in defending the Dutch islands is even greater.

The United States has solemnly affirmed, through the Secretary of State, her vital interest in the preservation of the status quo in the Netherlands Indies. A look at our import statistics shows that we depend heavily on the islands’ rubber. Along with the tin produced in near-by British Malaya, we need it for the smooth execution of our armament program. To help in the islands’ defense, however, American forces might have to be based in Singapore rather than rely upon the existing American facilities in the Philippines.

Battleships want to have their bellies scraped at least twice a year. There is no dry dock in the Philippines where battleships or large cruisers could put in for such essential repairing and overhauling jobs. The nearest dry dock is in Singapore. It was erected there to save British ships the trip to Malta, six thousand miles away. A huge floating dock, which can handle ships larger than any units in existence, was towed all the way down to Singapore from England. Thus, two of the world’s largest capital ships can be refurbished simultaneously at Singapore. With not a single ship of the line stationed there, the base is like a chicken farm without chickens.

There is another ironical aspect to this situation: even to defend the Philippines, a fleet might have to be based in Singapore rather than in Manila Bay. Despite General MacArthur’s efforts to build up a native army in the islands, which would be able to take over when the Stars and Stripes are hauled down in 1946, Philippine defenses remain pathetically inadequate. The islands lie directly in the path of a Japanese thrust to the south, and their northern outposts are almost in sight of Japanese Formosa. A Japanese landing could be effected without much ado along any of thousands of points of the unguarded coast line: chromite, iron, copper, and gold would be the booty.

This, again, is where Singapore comes in. Advocates of an American ‘visit’ to Singapore suggest that our ships, with the facilities and resources of the British base at their disposal, might issue from that port unhampered by Japanese torpedoes, bombs, and mines. They might steam up some fifteen hundred miles to intercept a Japanese expedition and to give battle victoriously. Such an event, however, is apt to remain hypothetical. The mere stationing of large American forces at Singapore is likely to deter the Japanese from an armed venture to the south. It was this thought that prompted Japan’s Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, to register his profound concern when plans for BritishAmerican coöperation at Singapore were first mentioned in the press.


As long as Singapore is a naval base without a navy, the visitor who firsts sets foot there does not feel that he is entering the arena of tomorrow’s war. The city, which was a jungle-surrounded fishing village when Sir Stamford Raffles acquired it for the East India Company in 1819, is one of the world’s largest commercial ports. The first impression is one of peace rather than of armed preparedness. Thanks to its position on the main thoroughfare between the West and the East, Singapore enjoys the monopoly of Europe’s trade with East Asia; some $750,000,000 worth of commerce moves through its harbor every year. Some two hundred and fifty steamers are tied up along its piers every day. They have to put in here on their way out to China, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. In times of peace, Singapore was the great commercial clearinghouse for all of southeast Asia. Today, with many of the China ports paralyzed by the SinoJapanese war, it has taken over much of the China trade. Incoming cargo is transshipped here for the precarious voyage over the Burma Road, and Singapore harbor is humming with activity.

Behind the bustling waterfront there is a hot tropical city, with all the color and the excitement and the strange contrasts of the Orient. In the windows of Western stores the luxuries of five continents are arranged in dazzling displays. Shiny black automobiles carry colonial officers, white business men, and an occasional Chinese millionaire. They are easily outdistanced by alert rickshaws (rickshaws for two!) and the bearded Sikh policeman will stop both rickshaws and automobiles to clear the path for a trackless trolley. The town’s white rulers congregate for whiskey and soda which they call stengah — the Malay word for ‘half’ — in the lobby of one of the cosmopolitan hotels, or in their club. They spend the evening in an air-conditioned theatre and they may take a drive along the beaches where the dark surf reflects a silvery moon, or across the causeway to the sultanate of Johore, before retiring to their bungalows. Coconut and rubber plantations surround the city.

According to our geography books, the Malay Peninsula is inhabited by Malays. In this city of Singapore you won’t see many of them. Those brown, gracious, slow-moving, and lazy people, Mohammedans by religion, still prefer the leisure of the jungle. Most of Singapore’s 700,000 people are Chinese immigrants, alert, hard-headed, businesslike fellows, and good and orderly citizens, whether they are rickshaw coolies or wealthy merchants. The colony’s richest man is a Chinese who is said to have made his fortune with a gambling concession. It is the Chinese element that gives Singapore its peculiar color. Chinatown, with its picturesque signs, abacuses, noodles, lacquered chickens, and long chopsticks, extends over most of the city.

The Japanese have filtered in more recently. There are, by now, several thousand of them, and they have given the British administrators the ‘yellow fever.’ They form a closely knit group which shows a remarkable esprit de corps and whose activities are difficult to check. Many of them are traders — Japanese cotton goods in the Singapore market sent shivers down the spines of Lancashire merchants years ago. More recently the anti-Japanese boycott of the local Chinese community has squeezed some of those Japanese out of business. But Japanese fishermen still roam Singapore waters doing more business than any other group, although some of those fishing licenses have recently been revoked. There are Japanese barbers, shopkeepers, and the representatives of large Japanese merchant houses and shipping lines. There is a Japanese golf course, and a large luxurious Japanese Association building. Whether all this adds up to a Japanese fifth column is difficult to say.

Some twelve miles away from Singapore city, the ‘fortress’ lies hidden in the thick jungle. Ammunition dumps, repair shops, and the two huge docks form the naval base at Seletar, on the northern shore of Singapore Island. There, reclaimed from swamps and jungle, are the sites of the RAF air base, oil stores that can keep an entire fleet afloat for half a year, and the most powerful radio station in the Orient. The base is protected by eighteen-inch guns, the largest coastal batteries in the world, which are placed at Changi. There are colossal searchlights, antiaircraft guns, and steel nets for protection against submarines.

Singapore’s preparations for ‘the day’ revolve, however, around the island’s air force. It consists largely of Lockheed bombers which were ordered in the United States before the war began. They were shipped to Australia early in 1940 and were taken to Singapore by members of the Australian air force who are now stationed at Sembawang, outside Singapore city. These planes, flying in formations of five, are constantly on patrol over the fortress, often flying out over the ocean for a distance of five hundred miles. Singapore’s fighting man power is being augmented rapidly. On the ground, there are three battalions of British infantry and a large number of troops from British India, including an Indian anti-aircraft regiment. An army of seven thousand technicians and mechanics stand with screw drivers handy.

It is evident from all this that the Singapore scheme was conceived from the viewpoint of defense, not attack. An approaching enemy would think twice before tackling the ‘Gibraltar of the East.’ Singapore’s big guns, firing over a distance of twenty-five miles, are likely to keep the Japanese at more than arm’s length. The only possible danger, then, that remains is the danger that the architects of the Maginot Line inexcusably ignored: aggressors are curious people; they do not like to attack fortifications known to be impregnable. They’d much rather take a detour.

Singapore is out on a limb. The limb is the long and slightly crooked Malay Peninsula on whose southern tip Singapore lies. In its northern reaches, the limb is alarmingly thin. Some five hundred miles above the fortress, only the narrow isthmus of Kra separates the Pacific from the Indian Ocean. Cut the limb at this point, and Singapore will be left without life. As it happens, the Isthmus of Kra belongs to Siam, a colorful, Oriental jungle kingdom, the only independent nation in southeastern Asia. For years the British rulers of Singapore have cast a worried eye on their neighbor to the north. Siam, which is now Thailand, might well turn into another Belgium in the event of an AngloJapanese clash.


Few of us have been aware of the very realistic war which has been raging for months along the jungle-overgrown border between Thailand and French IndoChina. As soon as Japanese troops filtered into that French colony from the north and east, the well-trained armies of Thailand attacked it from the west. The details of this war are not known — chiefly because of a scarcity of war correspondents in that insignificant corner of the world. But it can be surmised that Thailand’s action was welcomed by Japan, which for a good many years has played the rôle of Thailand’s protector. Japanese influence in Bangkok has grown stronger of late, and there is little doubt that Thailand’s place in greater East Asia has already been specified. Japan at present contemplates raising the legation at Bangkok to embassy status, and, with Japanese troops all over neighboring Indo-China, Thailand may well be expected to ‘look up to Japan as an elder brother.’

Singapore is within easy bombing distance of a base which the Japanese might like to establish in the green jungles of Thailand. But a far more formidable danger lurks behind Thailand’s friendship with Japan. The Isthmus of Kra, at its narrowest point, is only twenty-five miles wide. The range of mountains running the length of the Isthmus is interrupted by a valley here, and the alluvial soil and the equal water level of both oceans would make the construction of a shipping canal possible. For several years rumors have asserted that such a canal would be built by Thailand with Japanese financial and technical aid. Thus far, no steam shovel has scratched the Isthmus. But Singapore merchants look up north with apprehension: a shipping canal at Kra would deprive them of their monopoly, as it would cut the trade route between Europe and the Orient by three days. And the military wonder what good their eighteen-inch guns would be if another gate opened into the Indian Ocean.

As long as the British Empire stands, the Kra canal is not likely to be built. Its western entrance would lie in the shadow of British guns mounted on the southern tip of Burma. Besides, Britain still holds the purse strings in Siam; practically all of Thailand’s public debt is made up of sterling loans, floated in the London market, and most of Thailand’s securities are deposited in London banks. A British financial adviser draws up the Thailand budget, and a large proportion of Thailand’s public utilities and private industries is British-owned. Sir Josiah Crosby, Britain’s envoy in Bangkok, is said to have offered Thailand a loan of $20,000,000 together with a promise to help her recover her lost territories from French Indo-China. As long as larger issues are in the balance, little Thailand might like to wait and see, profiting from the wooing of both London and Tokyo. If she should jump to Tokyo’s side of the fence, revisions of the Singapore scheme will become necessary.

These are the stakes. As the defense of France was based upon the Maginot Line, so the defense of the colonial empires of eastern Asia is based upon Singapore. The British Government, in the teeth of a strong parliamentary opposition which refused to support this ‘colossal folly,’ poured its millions into Singapore to stop the march of Japan. At the time the Singapore scheme was born, nearly two decades ago, such a plan appeared quite realistic. Japan was in the process of modernizing her army and navy, her industries were making rapid strides, her markets were expanding, her power was growing fast. It seemed appropriate to build a naval base to check that power. Europe was at peace, and Britain could afford to envisage a clash between herself and Japan which would involve no other nations. Then, as Nazi Germany rose in Europe, the chances of such an isolated conflict in the East became less likely.

Until the outbreak of the European war, Britain was ready to station a fullfledged battle fleet, including four or five of her largest units, at Singapore. This is no longer possible. Will the American Navy fill the gap? The risk of such a venture is terrific. With every day, as Japan creeps closer to the equator, the narrow waters around Singapore become more perilous. Japanese airplanes and submarines stationed at advance bases are likely to hamper the operation of large cruisers and battleships. Battleships are expensive, and the hitting power of Japan should not be underrated. While it is still easy to get into Singapore, it may be difficult to get out of it.

Under the circumstances, it is quite likely that the Singapore fortress will remain intact. But is it not likely that the Japanese may turn it into a death trap? What is needed to fight Japan in Oriental waters is a complete navy, a complete army, and a complete air force. Nothing would be more welcome to Nazi agents, both in Tokyo and in the United States, than the diversion of such large forces, whether they be British or American, from the theatre of the European war.