Singapore Burning, by Colin Smith

When the empire's sun set
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Yet, as Colin Smith describes in Singapore Burning, it was all over in six weeks, thanks to incompetent decisions by politicians and diplomats who underestimated the Japanese enemy and preferred caution, so as not to alarm the public or interrupt trade. Elite civilians encouraged complacency. These businessmen, wonderfully resurrected by JG Farrell in his novel The Singapore Grip, believed Singapore was a fortress - even though they hated paying taxes for it. Add strategic misjudgments at headquarters and tactical errors by field officers, inadequately-trained troops led by newly-commissioned officers, and mulishly obstinate inter-service rivalry, and the result was colossal, collective failure.

Japanese troops landed in Kota Baharu in Malaya several hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Other columns marched into Malaya through what is now Thailand. The navy sent the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse to repel the attackers; the Japanese bombarded them with sustained precision, sinking the ships. The Japanese rushed to Penang, forcing its abandonment, and their advance continued, despite the sporadic heroism of several units. On 15 February 1942, General Percival surrendered to General Yamashita at the Ford factory in Singapore.

Smith approaches the subject with the eye of a military historian, interested in traditions, weapons and tactics. He has exhaustively read memoirs, interviewed survivors, and written an excellent, meticulous account of the defeat. The book is filled with exceptionally interesting facts. Yet the result is a curiously dour rendering.

Singapore's fall was a human drama, and that dimension is missing. There are few Chinese, Indian or Malay voices, so the book is unable to make the transition from military-speak to the way those momentous decisions affected people.

Was Singapore appropriate for a naval base? Its location was strategic but, crowded with civilians, it could never be a cantonment town. Once bombs fell, the panic would disrupt all military movement, and the toll would be horrific. How long could an island about the size of Wight, surrounded with mangrove swamps, with no adequate fields of fire and only a narrow channel separating it from the mainland, hold?

Mariner Peter Elphick recalls Lord Wavell warning Churchill about the "false picture of an island fortress". Indeed, within a week of the invasion, senior generals told Churchill that Singapore was now as good as lost.

Many in Asia believe Churchill was willing to sacrifice a bit of the continent and expose America's vulnerable flank in the Pacific, so that the Americans would come on board. That view gained credibility because Britain ignored tell-tale evidence of growing Japanese business interests in Malaya. The British also ignored links between Indian activists and Japanese sympathisers. The Chinese were eager to work with the British - many Straits Chinese were funding resistance to the Japanese invasion of China - but the British seemed preoccupied.

This disregard, intentional or incompetent, enrages Singaporeans even today. Its Chinese population suffered the most under occupation (many Europeans had evacuated). The scars the war left shaped the thinking of Singapore's post-independence leadership through the doctrine of "total defence", with significant political implications.

A Singapore parliamentarian, Ong Chit Chung, has blamed Churchill for not launching Operation Matador, which would have probably delayed, if not crippled, Japanese advance by occupying parts of Siam to prevent Japan using it as a launch-pad. But a diplomat warned against it, and Brooke-Popham, who commanded the island's defences, concurred.

Smith writes about this wider drama, but all too briefly, as his primary interest is on the battlefields. He devotes too little space to the pro-Japanese Indian National Army, calling them turncoats. But it was more complicated: there was genuine nationalism at work.

The nonchalance with which a British officer turned over thousands of Indian troops to the Japanese at Farrer Park makes one wonder who was abdicating tradition: the colonial masters, or their subjects? That - like Chinese resistance and Force 136 of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Association, the bravery of allied prisoners, and the cruelties inflicted upon Chinese civilians - happened after the war. Smith would probably judge it as beyond the scope of a military history. But the story was not over - not until August 1945.

Salil Tripathi was a Singapore correspondent for 'Far Eastern Economic Review'. He is completing a novel set there