The Malayan defence of Singapore

The 9th Military History Carnival is up, over at the Official Osprey Publishing Blog. This month, the post I found the most interesting is at Citizen Historian, about the part played by the Malayan Regiment in the Battle of Pasir Panjang, 13 February 1942. I certainly didn't know that Malayans had been involved; it changes the story, somewhat, from the usual 'imperial battleground' narrative to one where the locals were not just bystanders in the great events happening all around them. I would like to know something about motivations though -- why did Malayan men join up, what (or who) did they believe they were fighting for?

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10 thoughts on “The Malayan defence of Singapore

  1. Alan Allport

    IIRC Bayly and Harper's Forgotten Armies talks about this. There was a lot of politics to whom could serve in the colonial militia, up-and-coming Malays seeing it as a vehicle to equality of citizenship.

  2. Chris Williams

    I don't know the answer to this question, but I know a man who does.

    "Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall? (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, paperback 2005)."

    There's another, equally interesting story about the Chinese who were also raised to defend Singapore. Lots of politics of memory involved, 'n all.

    PS - did you hear any of the argument between Max Hastings and the RSL about his latest book? It made the media in the UK: was there an impact in Oz?

  3. Post author

    Thanks! I've had a comment by email pointing me to this article, which suggests an important initial reason for joining up was simply the certainty of a good meal. To me, that wouldn't explain why they kept fighting when the British were clearly about to get kicked out of SE Asia, but by then they may well just have been fighting for the men beside them, or because of the Malayan equivalent of 'we're 'ere because we're 'ere because we're 'ere because we're 'ere' ...


    Yes, that did play in the news here for a day or so. It was all very dispassionate analysis, under headlines along the lines of 'Pommy historian calls our diggers cowards!' It disappeared after that; though I see there's an opinion piece in today's Canberra Times linking Hastings' account with Rudd's decision to withdraw our combat troops from Iraq. I'd like to see what some real historians think of it all, I don't know enough to really judge. The only comment I've seen was by Karl James of the AWM: 'There were some who were exhausted after years of fighting, but there was nothing like Hastings is suggesting'.

  4. Chris Williams

    We got it as 'Pommy historian calls Ockers cowards, but it was MacArthur's fault really'. Which probably convinced the tens of thousands of us who know the first thing about the Pacific War*.

    As for the reality, it would probably be easy to check out if the JAG records exist. Just graph the morale-related incidents. I have another mate who's very good at this sort of thing:

    Oram, G., 'Pious Perjury: Discipline and Morale in the British Force in Italy, 1917-1918' in War in History, Vol. 9, No. 4, 412-430 (2002)
    DOI: 10.1191/0968344502wh261oa

    *Which is: "The real enemy is the Navy / Army". Works for both main players.

  5. Post author

    LOL, do youse still call us ockers over there? Fair crack o' the whip!

    As an Australian I 'know' that MacArthur hated our soldiers, which is precisely why I don't trust myself to make any pronouncements on a subject which I don't know a lot about. But I will say that, on a purely anecdotal basis, I've noted before how my own family members in both AIFs seem to have had a problem with discipline (I think it's either two or three courts martial so far!), especially when at a loose end for various reasons. I could well understand soldiers feeling fed up, and acting on it, when being sent on what they might have seen as dead-end, pointless mopping up operations. As you say, it's something you could analyse statistically, and I'm sure Australians wouldn't be the only ones with this sort of behaviour ...

  6. Chris Williams

    Yr average Brit wouldn't call ozzies ockers, but for reasons of blind Pommy prejudice I thought that the RSL head honcho probably fitted that bill.

    It wasn't just Australians who tended to mutiny towards the end of world wars - Canadians in the UK also did so in 1918/19. As did UK soldiers. Although it was civvies who burned down the town hall in Luton because they weren't invited to the victory banquet.

    There was less of it about in the UK 1944/5, so far as I know - perhaps because there was still a war on for the crucial first few months of relative peace in Europe.

  7. Alan Allport

    There was less of it about in the UK 1944/5, so far as I know - perhaps because there was still a war on for the crucial first few months of relative peace in Europe.

    Ooh, it would take a book to respond properly to that - the book I'm writing, in fact.

    To return to the original question, the War Office compiled a series of detailed monthly morale reports. Surely the Australians did something similar? That would help to shed some light on the matter.

  8. Alan Allport

    Well, to give a somewhat less cryptic (and more useful) short answer: there was more trouble than you might think. The RAF 'demob strikes' are known by some, but there was also a spate of disciplinary problems throughout the Middle and Far East - protests at slow repatriation, irksome spit-and-polish, and poor conditions. Soldiers refused to board filthy troopships, and riots broke out at several detention camps, including the Aldershot glasshouse. In one notorious case an entire battalion of paratroopers stationed in Malaya was court-martialled for refusing to obey orders. If the demobilization process hadn't been speeded up at the end of 1945 then the Forces could have been looking at a real crisis. Oh, and the Canadians, true to their barbarous traditions (:-)) of the previous war, rioted in Aldershot.

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