Cornerstone of Empire in the Far East, Singapore stands ready to meet any enemy challenge from the Pacific
LONDON apart, Singapore is the most important spot in the British Empire today. Gibraltar and the Suez Canal even might be lost, and the Empire’s life-blood could still flow freely. Singapore lost to Japan, with the British fleet tied up in Europe, and the tremendous Empire routes through the Indian Ocean could be cut to ribbons. While its eighteen-inch guns stand in the midst of that gigantic triangle—Australia, India and South Africa—Singapore bars the Japanese fleet from the Indian Ocean. It is the very cornerstone of three quarters of the British Empire.
But before examining the big strategic function of this wealthy trading fortress, let us go there and see what manner of place it is that has been called upon to bear so heavy a load of responsibility—this tropical island of miniature, humpy hills, twenty-six miles long and fourteen wide, which is suspended from the very tip of the Malay Peninsula by a causeway only three quarters of a mile long and holds in its proud embrace a superb harbor of turquoise-green waters, and which has been in British hands for 120 years.
Singapore is dominated by Chinese wealth and a smell. Of its population of 700,000, the Chinese number 600,000, the rest being made up of some 75,000 Malays, 12.000 European civilians and a sprinkling of Americans, Indians and Jews, Japanese and Parsees, and those attracted by a port clearing more than 30,000.000 tons of ocean-going shipping a year. On its blazing pavements long silk gowns, sarongs and kimonos criss-cross with white ducks and khaki shorts, and red, green and white Indian turbans bob up and down between soft felt hats and the solid glittering gold turban of the solemn side-whiskered Parsee; yet the most conspicuous headgear is the heavy white topee of tourists fearing the fate of “mad dogs and Englishmen” in an almost hatless population. Like the night air of old, the sun is no longer regarded as poisonous in the tropics.
With so many Chinese in Singapore, it means that not only nine tenths of the wealth is in their able hands but that problems of internal security in a war against Japan are much simplified. Already for three and a half years the Chinese have been quietly cutting off the ears of compatriots caught trading with the Japanese.
The smell, like a drill, is a mixture of sewers and the durian fruit whose odor is unmentionable but whose flesh is divine. But only if you have a strong stomach and an epicure’s fortitude is durian for you—a cast-iron stomach. Singapore nourishes ferocious rain drops as well—you would swear someone upstairs was emptying a billion buckets—and the solid wall of water has a trick of cutting a razor-edged path down one half of the road. If you are on the dry side it sounds as if the other half is being beaten to death, while monkeys in the trees chatter and the ripenjng wet durian, freshened, makes a quickened fetid assault on your nostrils.
Yet to the romantic tourist it is not the Chinese millionaires sitting like graven images in their Rolls-Royces, nor
the smell, nor even its eighteen-inch guns and the pomp of Colonial government that dominates Singapore, but the shadow of the Sultan of Johore. whether from his state just across the causeway, or the Dorchester Hotel in London. A fabulous figure is the Sultan, and one of great import to Empire defense in this war.
In his younger days so turbulent were his visits from across the causeway that he was allowed only a twentyfour-hour stay once in a while by the Governor. Then the “independent” princeling began to contribute to Imperial defense by the million dollars, which saw no less a weapon built than a full battleship, the Malaya.
To London he has always gone for brides, and only six months ago he took his third, three weeks after his second had been killed in an air raid while shopping in Bond Street. An old man now, he pleaded loneliness—this blackout, these bombs day and night. He had been on the point of leaving London when the blitz began, but had then refused to budge. More contributions have come out of his large pockets since the building of the Malaya, and the Japanese have long since given up wooing him. It is no wonder that the once riotous playboy has since found favor in the Imperial eye—always quick to overlook a friend’s personal idiosyncrasies—and his story has been faithfully told here because not all have been fair to him. The bigger side of his life is so much more important than the smaller —he epitomizes Malayan loyalty. And in these days of fifth columnists, especially when relying on an Asiatic population in fighting Japan—which has spent millions of subversive dollars in Malaya—Singapore’s first line of defense is on the home front, and all is well there, thanks to the Chinese and the Sultan of Johore. And all is well in the other eight native States of Malaya, whose chiefs have been influenced not a little by the loyalty of this cantankerous man to the British Crown.
As to the social life of Singapore, it is little different
from that of any tropical garrison town which is also a world trading centre. The highest flight among the white population is made up of the top civil servants, the Navy, Army and Air Force, and officials of the banks and bigger firms. Then follow the poorer whites intermingling with the officers of the mercantile marine; lastly, the rank and file of the three services who enjoy servants. Almost every game is played except ice hockey, and race days give Singapore a slight fever, for many of the younger people are there to get rich quick, and many more might succeed if the chit system did not exist.
There is, of course, official mingling of the many races, otherwise the Chinese and Malays keep very much to themselves. The better-off Chinese have not only their own social and sports clubs but they also have their own Celestial social rhythm, originally transplanted from China but now much influenced by English ideas, especially among the younger generation. With few exceptions, the millionaires began life as coolies or sons of coolies. Until the China war, most of the second or third generation were prouder of their British citizenship than of their Chinese blood, many speaking English and Malay, but only a smattering of Chinese. English prestige is unquestioned in Singapore, though China’s marvellous fight against Japan has turned the eyes of the finer Chinese youths to the land of their ancestors, at last stimulated by China’s physical courage to dip into the glorious past achievements of their race. And that this stirring of native pride has required physical prowess to bring about is inevitable, for they had been through British schools. However, the contribution of Malayan Chinese to Chungking’s war chest has been on a grand scale.
Japanese forces are creeping up on this rich and easygoing island. What is the strategic situation — the geography and the armed strength available to both sides? The dangling goose’s head, which is Malaya, is 400 miles long and 150 wide, while the narrow neck from Siam is 600 miles long. A land attack must come down this long neck and then penetrate the 400 miles of hills and jungle of the goose’s head whose communications have been purposely left poor; or it could land on selected points of the goose’s head washed by the South China Sea.
The first is quite out of the question, for the goose’s neck is only fifty miles wide most of its length of 600 miles—wild country totally lacking in communications. The second, though almost as difficult, offers the only hope of successful invasion to the Japanese army, so it will be dealt with after all the correlating factors have been examined.
But could Singapore not be captured by a direct sea attack? Impossible. Surrounded by hundreds of square miles of minefields, it is also bustling with guns, from eighteen-inch down. It also has an air force of the latest machines which can always outnumber any the Japanese can bring to bear at one time for an attack; and remember, Japan, with only a second-class scientific, engineering and industrial potential, can only produce second-class planes —in terms of British, German or United States production. See the difficulties even U. S. industry has had in catching up with
the machines experience has hammered out for Britain.
Then, Malaya has a garrison—which the press already talks of as over 40,000, British Tommies, Australians and Sikhs, armed with the latest weapons—which can be heavily reinforced in both men and material from Australia and India, both bristling with trained men and humming with war industry today, so long as Singapore stands, barring the Japanese navy from these lines of supply.
Let us now look into the problems the Japanese Commander-in-Chief must solve. Would he need 100,000 or 200,000 men? My personal opinion is that half a million men could not take Singapore, even if such a number could be transported and maintained. Yet more important than what he would need, how many men can Japan spare today for her cherished southern drive?
Before the China War she claimed that she could put 4,000,000 men into army uniform as wrell as provide the 340.000 required for her navy and air force. On paper it sounded reasonable, for their are some 75,000.000 Japanese in the world, but in reality she can turn no more than 3,000,000 men into soldiers. Because of the needs of her huge armament industry, hard-pressed export trade and large mercantile marine, of agriculture and her fishing industry now driven hard to stop the growing gap between home production and consumption of food; as well as the needs of an expanding navy and air force which demand a steady increase to the several hundred - thousands of able - bodied workers employed in shipyards, engineering and repair shops.
The China War has already killed off
1.200.000 soldiers; 1,000.000 are caught in the Dragon’s embrace; 400,000 must watch the Russian Bear in Manchuria and garrison the two hostile colonies of Korea and Formosa; then, as a general reserve must be kept in Japan ready to be thrown into China or Manchuria and to suppress any internal revolt, and this reserve cannot be less than 300,000. By scraping and pinching Japan may produce a total force of
200.000 men for the southern drive.
Japan is 3,000 miles from Singapore.
Having to meet the requirements of her China war and her export trade, how much shipping can she collect for this southern
drive? Not more than to transport and maintain 100,000 men, allowing for losses, which must be heavy from the nature of the operation. Of course, half the transIx>rtation difficulty has been solved because the striking force has already been taken to Hainan and Indo-China, and to Formosa, half-way to Indo-China, which is acting as their immediate reserve and supply base.
But Hainan is 1,200 miles, and even Saigon is 600 miles, from Singapore. So we come to the crux of a landing—the ability of the Japanese fleet not only to protect the transports of this attacking force but also to maintain its lines of supplies from Japan, for there can be no question of just a landing and a quick kill. Any landing on the goose’s head will indeed have a tough job ahead of it—and the nearer to Singapore the tougher— fighting its way against terrific natural and constructed defenses manned by an army equipped with far better weapons and always able to bring superior forces to bear against the points of invasion.
But we haven’t even got as far as a landing. That striking force has still be to transported some six or eight hundred miles. Britain, of course, cannot send out a fleet large enough to fight a fleet action with the Japanese Navy of eleven capital ships, eleven aircraft carriers, forty cruisers, 111 destroyers, and fifty-nine submarines. Only the United States Navy can tackle this force, with its fifteen capital ships, six aircraft carriers, thirtyfive cruisers, 222 destroyers and ninetyfive submarines. To both navies should be added about ten per cent of new tonnage commissioned since these official figures were given out.
But will the U. S. fleet be there? It
must, for over the issue of Singapore the United States and the British Empire stand or fall together. As Britain is the United States’ first line of defense in the Atlantic—no matter what isolationists may say—so Malaya and China are her first line of defense in the Pacific. Not only is the prestige of the white man and future trade involved, but the U. S. gets three indispensable strategic materials from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies —which would also fall if Singapore falls— rubber, tin and quinine. The Philippines also would fall, and the untold wealth that pivots on Singapore could make Japan impregnable inside of a generation, and that, with her passionate faith in piracy, would mean a grave menace to California -—the place above all others on earth she would like to seize. It is far better to hit the head that might now stick out toward Singapore.
There would be no doubt whatever which fleet would lie at the bottom of the ocean after an action between the United States and Japanese fleets. Apart from that advantage of four capital ships, ship for ship the U. S. Navy is superior to the Japanese Navy. In appreciation of cherry blossoms on a paper windowpane, a Japanese sailor leaves a gob gaping, but in knowledge of machinery and elemental y mathematics, American education puts the gob far ahead of the Japanese sailor. His was a wheelbarrow civilization until only sixty years ago. and even then it had been borrowed lock, stock and “barrow” from China. The Japanese have never invented anything of any consequence, and a modern fleet action requires not only mathematics of the most intricate kind but instantaneous mechanical resourcefulness when things go wrong.
But, most important of all, when Mr. Roosevelt first became president he ruthlessly overhauled his greatest love, and for the last five or six years the United States Navy has become a highly efficient and disciplined force, its ships wellarmored and its gunnery deadly.
Still, a fleet is more delicate than a baby. Without docking and repair facilities it almost stands still. Here is where Singapore comes in. It has two docks which can take the biggest warships yet built and has vast engineering shops and stores. Besides, at Soebabaja and Batavia, in Java, the naval facilities are considerable, while at Cavite, in impregnable Manila Bay, the Americans themselves have a great naval station.
And what are the docking and repair facilities open to the Japanese in the South Pacific? Only a small submarine base on Hainan and any they might seize in Indo-China, which, even if unsabotaged, are extremely inadequate, for the French have been neglecting their defenses for many years.
So what does all this talk of an immediate Japanese attack on Singapore come to? More Japanese bluff. The military factors today are too vastly against success. Her movements in the South Pacific are only to be ready for the turn of events in Europe. She must await not only the fall of Britain but also the withdrawal of the U. S. Pacific fleet to the Atlantic. She is waiting on the Greek Calends. But if she wishes to attack before, she is welcome.
In the final analysis, like Italy, Japan is only a jackal in wolf’s clothing. Like Italy’s against Egypt, her first stroke against Singapore failing—as it will—she would be brought to her knees in six months; yet while Italy has Germany to bolster her war economy, Japan’s would collapse, cut off from the American and British supplies which have built her up, without which she would have collapsed even against China long ago. Of the twenty-seven or so essential raw materials required for war, Japan possesses only three. A poor man may win some hands at poker against two rich men, but what is the tale at the end of the session?