75 Years On: What We Learn from the Fall of Singapore

75 Years On: What We Learn from the Fall of Singapore

This arti­cle first appeared as “Churchill and the Fall of Sin­ga­pore” in The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor, 22 Feb­ru­ary 2017.

“There is no worse mis­take in pub­lic lead­er­ship than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away…peo­ple can face per­il or mis­for­tune with for­ti­tude and buoy­an­cy, but they bit­ter­ly resent being deceived or find­ing that those respon­si­ble for their affairs are them­selves dwelling in a fool’s par­adise.” —Win­ston S. Churchill, 1950

Lieu­tenant-Gen­er­al Arthur Ernest Per­ci­val, (right), led by a Japan­ese offi­cer, walks under a droop­ing Union Flag to nego­ti­ate the sur­ren­der of Sin­ga­pore, on 15 Feb­ru­ary 1942. (Wiki­me­dia)

On the last day of Jan­u­ary, 1942, the British blew up Singapore’s cen­tral cause­way to the main­land in a vain attempt to stop the onrush­ing Japan­ese. At near­by Raf­fles Col­lege, the Prin­ci­pal heard the bang. “What was that?” he asked a stu­dent, Lee Kuan Yew (lat­er Singapore’s first prime min­is­ter). “That,” Lee claimed to have replied, “was the end of the British Empire.”

It cer­tain­ly seemed so. Sev­en­ty-five years ago on Feb­ru­ary 15th, the sur­ren­der of 80,000 British to an small­er force of Japan­ese shocked the nation. The “impreg­nable fortress” had guns trained at the sea, but Japan had marched down the Malay Penin­su­la. Churchill—who had ques­tioned Singapore’s gun defens­es in the 1920s—called its sur­ren­der “the worst dis­as­ter and largest capit­u­la­tion in British history.”


What Singapore Teaches

Mod­ern lead­ers might con­sid­er the lessons offered by Churchill’s reac­tion to Sin­ga­pore. Unlike cer­tain recent assurances—the end of com­bat in Iraq, the draw-down in Afghanistan, the ISIS “JV team,” the out­come in Mosul—Churchill nev­er failed to admit how seri­ous things were.

“Tell the truth to the British peo­ple,” he exclaimed in 1932. “They may be a bit offend­ed at the moment, but if you have told them exact­ly what is going on, you have insured your­self against com­plaints and reproach­es which are very unpleas­ant when they come home on the mor­row of some dis­il­lu­sion.” Sin­ga­pore was indeed very bad; but there was a flip side.

Two cer­tain­ties, Churchill wrote, emerged from Japan’s Decem­ber 1941 attacks on Pearl Har­bor and British East Asia. First, “a mea­sure­less array of dis­as­ters approached us in the onslaught of Japan.” Sec­ond, with Amer­i­ca join­ing the Allies (“up to the neck and in to the death”) the Axis would inevitably be “ground to powder.”

With Amer­i­ca in the fight, Churchill con­tin­ued, Britons were free to think of some­thing beside sur­vival. Now every crit­ic, “friend­ly or malev­o­lent,” was “free to point out the many errors that had been made”—for war is, after all, “main­ly a cat­a­logue of blun­ders.” The com­bi­na­tion of Allied doubts, the media’s “well-informed and air­i­ly detached crit­i­cism” and the “shrewd and con­stant gird­ing” of politi­cians gave him the sense “of an embar­rassed, unhap­py, baf­fled pub­lic opin­ion, albeit superficial….”

“Embar­rassed, unhap­py and baf­fled, albeit super­fi­cial” is an apt descrip­tion of today’s pub­lic mood as well. Mod­ern threats, for­tu­nate­ly, are less fright­en­ing than those of 1942. But Churchill offers two sim­ple strate­gies that today’s lead­ers might con­sid­er: Tell the truth, and cede no authority.


Tell the Truth

On 15 Feb­ru­ary 1942, Churchill broad­cast “in the dark­est terms…of a heavy and far-reach­ing mil­i­tary defeat….Other dan­gers gath­er about us out there, and none of the dan­gers which we have hith­er­to suc­cess­ful­ly with­stood at home and in the East are in any way diminished.”

Blunt­ly he described “the grav­i­ty and effi­cien­cy of the Japan­ese war machine. Whether in the air or upon the sea, or man to man on land, they have already proved them­selves to be for­mi­da­ble, dead­ly, and, I am sor­ry to say, bar­barous antagonists.

“You know that I have nev­er proph­e­sied to you or promised smooth and easy things…many mis­for­tunes, severe tor­tur­ing loss­es, remorse­less and gnaw­ing anx­i­eties lie before us.” This was a moment for the nation to show its qual­i­ty and genius—to “draw from the heart of mis­for­tune the vital impuls­es of victory…Let us move for­ward stead­fast­ly togeth­er into the storm and through the storm.”

Churchill was equal­ly frank with his allies. He shared the bad news with Roo­sevelt, who advised him to ignore “back-seat drivers.”

He wrote to Stal­in of the impli­ca­tions for Bur­ma, India, Aus­tralia and Rus­sia in Asia.


Cede No Authority

Hav­ing received the con­fi­dence of his peo­ple with his can­dor, Churchill called for a vote of con­fi­dence by Par­lia­ment. Few oth­er coun­tries, he said, “have insti­tu­tions strong enough to sus­tain such a thing while they are fight­ing for their lives.” In the Amer­i­can sys­tem Mr. Trump doesn’t have quite that option. But he might well appeal for pub­lic sup­port after some stark deci­sion of grave con­se­quence. (He may have to take one of those soon.)

Some par­lia­men­tary col­leagues had urged Churchill to appoint more man­agers, to be less per­son­al­ly involved in run­ning the war. He refused. If crit­ics believed the pub­lic inter­est required break­ing up the gov­ern­ment, so be it.

For him­self, he would “stand by my orig­i­nal pro­gramme, blood, toil, tears and sweat, which is all I have ever offered, to which I added, five months lat­er, ‘many short­com­ings, mis­takes and disappointments’…I offer no apolo­gies, I offer no excus­es, I make no promises…but at the same time I avow my con­fi­dence, nev­er stronger than at this moment, that we shall bring this con­flict to an end in a man­ner agree­able to the wel­fare of the world.”

Churchill won his vote of con­fi­dence, 464 to 1.


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