Singapore capitalises on surrender of 1942

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The Independent Online
Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding (GOC), Malaya, leans over the bunker conference table and takes in the news. Singapore's reservoirs have fallen into the hands of the Japanese, his men are running out of food, morale is plummeting, and the enemy is drawing closer. "Are we to go down in history as the first British force this century to surrender, gentlemen?" he asks his generals. They reluctantly signify their assent. "Well, may God have mercy on all of us."

Percival looks queasy, not only because he is about to authorise the surrender of Singapore, the Gibraltar of the East,to the Imperial Army. For the GOC, like most of the people in this bunker, is made of rubber - a talking, moving, animatronic dummy.

The moment Churchill called "the largest capitulation in British history" has become entertainment. After two years' restoration, Percival's headquarters, known as the Battle Box, open this morning as a hi-tech heritage site. Virtual-reality goggles show scenes of life as it would have been on 15 February 1942; Singaporeans dressed as Tommies guide visitors around the snack bar and souvenir shop. The first tourists this morning will pay 8 Singapore dollars (pounds 3.50) each. And, apart from its commercial possibilities, the Battle Box also has a decidedly political message.

At the official opening on Saturday, 55 years to the minute after Percival's fateful decision, Ong Chit Chung, a historian and MP, said: "The ...sun set on the British Empire. We depended on the British to defend us against the invading Japanese but the British gave priority to the war effort in Europe. The lesson is that if we are not prepared ... to defend ourselves, all our national efforts in building up the country we call our own will come to nought."

The timing of all this is piquant. In 19 weeks, Britain relinquishes control of another Asian city-state, when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule.

Last week the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, reassured Dr Ong's compatriots that, whatever the parallels with 1942, no British sun will be allowed to set on 30 June. "I want . . . to emphasise," he told a meeting the Singaporean Institute of Policy Studies, "that ... our interest and commitment both to Hong Kong and to Asia will remain of the highest priority."

Economically, Mr Rifkind had a good deal of evidence to back up his point. Britain is Singapore's fourth-largest foreign investor, and in the region as a whole it attracts more business than any other country in Europe. But, apart from balance- sheets, the British government has other, less easily definable ambitions: to maintain a political and even military influence in the region.

It is no coincidence that, weeks before Hong Kong's reversion, British forces will put on one of their biggest international parades, in the form of Ocean Wave, a naval deployment which will make a six-month swing through Asia.

But in these areas, far more than in trade, British ambitions are thrown into perspective by US hegemony. Nowhere is its position as the single remaining superpower more crucial and obvious than in the Asia-Pacific region: 100,000 troops, including the Seventh Fleet, are based in Asia.

Alongside such a force, Britain's military pirouettes are little more than a sideshow.

And, for all its attempts to keep up a presence in Asia, few Asians seem to be interested. For over a year Britain has been discreetly pressing for membership of the Asean Regional Forum, a multi-lateral security conference, which includes Japan, the US, and China.

Understandably, British views appear a little irrelevant to some of these governments and, so far, the approach has been gently rebuffed.