Since today is Total Defence Day for Singapore, I thought I would write the following piece against using the Fall of Singapore to justify our national defence.
In Singapore there is a very strong national narrative about how the British “failed” to protect Singapore during WWII from the Japanese because they were alien foreigners to Singapore and diverted most of their resources to defending Britain itself.
However the real question is whether or not Singapore by itself could actually muster the resources to successfully resist the Japanese and the answer is that that has to be very unlikely. The narrative assumes that the British took resources out of Singapore to defend itself, which resources if left behind in Singapore could successfully resist the Japanese. But I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that this is pretty much a fantasy scenario. The British and the Americans were the best bet against the Japanese and without them no national force could possibly resist them e.g. China.
This was something brought to mind by a friend who was arguing for why the British were justified in losing the colonies in order to protect themselves. He used the analogy of how the Britain itself was the brain of the British Empire and the colonies were the various appendages. If you lose your appendage that would be a humiliating thing, but if you lose your head you are pretty much dead. Therefore the common narrative in fact absurdly assumes that it is all right if Britain itself falls as long as the colonies were defended. But that’s absolute nonsense. If Britain itself falls it is more or less game over for everyone else. The Germans and the Italians could pretty much overrun the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and eventually reach India and the colonies. My friend also helpfully pointed out that very few nations were capable of building capital ships and even the dominion nations had to contract Britain to build them.
One might even say that despite the fact that the British obviously prioritised their national existence before the defence of their colonies, they did fight valiantly and did their best to defend the colonies with whatever resources they could spare, and one might be tempted to say that this is a lot more than any local force could have done. As my friend puts it:
The British could defend Singapore from Japan and had detailed plans on how to do it. And then WWII in Europe broke out. The United Kingdom did everything it could to help Singapore, probably more than it should have done, given that it was engaged at the time in the supreme existential crisis of its history. Britain sent men and tanks and planes to Egypt and to Malaya at a time when Germany was poised to launch an invasion of the British Isles and when the Luftwaffe was bombing British cities day and night and when U-Boats were mercilessly sinking British merchantmen carrying the necessaries for British life.
So it’s no surprise that under these conditions the British failed to in addition protect a city on the other side of the world from yet another major military power hitherto uncommitted. The real surprise is that the British were able to muster any sort of defence at all.
When one side is relegated to passive defence due to a position of weakness there must always be initial forfeits. But where does one draw the line, then? Would the people of Picardy and Champagne declare that the French Government is incapable of defending them because the Germans temporarily overran the regions in WWI? Would the people of Maryland and Pennsylvania declare that the United States Government is an unreliable protector because the Confederates occupied their states at times? Defence takes on a much wider definition than direct local defence preventing the immediate occupation of positions on the receiving end of the strategic frontier. As I said in a post some time ago the defence of weak neutral states like Belgium and Switzerland ultimately relies on the balance of power and the redemption of their territory by greater guaranteeing states. A state like Belgium or Malaya could be overrun by the initial impetus of an aggressor’s assault, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being defended or that their protectors have abandoned them. It’s just that sometimes defence requires a little bit of depth and those on the front lines have to unfortunately absorb some of the enemy’s shock. England at no point abandoned Singapore and had every intention, publicly and repeatedly expressed, of redeeming it and every other position lost to Japan, and to prosecute the war against Japan until the latter’s unconditional surrender so as to neutralise Japan’s threat in the future.