Defence and decolonisation in South-East Asia: Australia’s policy towards Britian’s end of empire

The following paper was presented by Dr Andrea Benvenuti at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 17 November 2009.

Before I begin this presentation, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the National Archives for funding my research and for making this project possible. Please also allow me to thank National Archives staff for their efficiency and friendliness when dealing with my several requests throughout the years. I have now been here so many times since my first visit in 2001 when I was a PhD student based in the United Kingdom. I have always been impressed with the support given by the National Archives to researchers. For me it is a great pleasure to be here today and to be able to talk to you about one aspect of my research project.

Allow me to start by quoting Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India between 1947 and 1964. In January 1949, when addressing a group of Asian leaders, Nehru told them that Asia ‘was living in a revolutionary age of transition’. This was a sharp and, indeed, accurate piece of political analysis.

Allow me to elaborate on this point. The havoc created by World War II, and the political and economic turmoil that followed it, had unsettled the European colonial order in many parts of the world. Following the end of the war, nationalist movements began springing up – or gathered momentum – in different parts of Asia: British India, the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), Burma and French Indochina (Vietnam), for instance. The partition of British India in 1947 – and the creation of two populous independent Asian states – had a great symbolic and political significance. It signalled that the age of imperialism appeared to be nearing its end. Weakened economically and militarily by the war, Europe’s colonial powers found it increasingly hard to maintain a tight grip on their colonial possessions. Their role as colonial masters was increasingly being questioned. In brief, Europe’s colonial empires were surviving on borrowed time. That is why, I believe, Nehru was right in talking about an age of revolution.

As Europe’s empires began to crumble, Australia was confronted with challenges it had never experienced before. The rapid contraction of European power in Asia was no ordinary event. It was a momentous political shift. The political map of Asia was suddenly being redrawn, new political allegiances were being forged, and new states with an original and distinctive voice emerged on the world scene. But as decolonisation began to gather momentum, the Cold War extended to Asia. For Australia, the intersection between these two major historical developments – decolonisation and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective blocs – complicated an already difficult challenge. The problem was twofold: not only was there a strong concern in Canberra that the disappearance of Europe’s power from the Asian landscape might create a political and strategic vacuum, which would be exploited by the two communist powers (China and the Soviet Union); there was also alarm that the new and weak postcolonial states might fall prey to communism and succumb to its blandishments. If this happened, the danger was that Australia would be confronted with a hostile neighbourhood.

It was in this context of communist penetration and political change that in the early 1950s Singapore became a source of growing concern to Sir Robert Menzies and the Liberal–Country Party coalition government. In Singapore, Cold War concerns and pressures for independence overlapped dangerously. In this presentation, I will focus on the Menzies government’s policy on greater self-government for Singapore between 1955 and 1956. The uncertain political future of Singapore had significant implications for Western and Australian defence interests in the region. Singapore was seen as one of the most awkward foreign policy issues faced by the Menzies government in the mid to late 1950s, and it is no surprise that it gravely troubled ministers in Canberra.

But what was so important about Singapore? What was the significance of Singapore for Australia? In the 1950s Singapore was still under British rule. The Crown colony of Singapore was Britain’s largest military establishment east of Suez and the linchpin of the British security system in the Far East. The Singapore base helped realise Britain’s world role in the 1950s. The retention of the Singapore base was considered in Canberra as crucial to securing a continuing British presence in an area of growing strategic interest to Australia. Increasingly concerned about communist penetration and subversion in South-East Asia, but lacking the military and economic capabilities to discharge an autonomous defence role there, the Menzies government relied significantly on a close military partnership with Britain to give substance to its anti-communist strategy. In this context, it is worth bearing in mind that throughout the 1950s the United States was extremely reluctant to deploy forces on the mainland of South-East Asia. Hence, Britain was an indispensable ally in South-East Asia, and Singapore was at the core of the Australian–British defence strategy in the region.

But there was a problem. In the mid-1950s Britain’s hold on Singapore appeared increasingly precarious as political turbulence gripped the island. In 1955, Churchill’s conservative administration cautiously sought to encourage greater political participation and introduced a new constitution. Drafted by a multi-racial commission under the chairmanship of a retired British diplomat, Sir George Rendel, the new constitution allowed for limited internal self-rule. In British eyes, it was expected to be the first step in a relatively drawn-out process towards independence. British colonial policy in Singapore was consistent with London’s broader political aims. The view in London was that the rise of nationalist sentiment across its vast empire would make it ultimately impossible for Britain to remain an imperial power forever. Hence, Britain should try to lead its dependencies to self-government gradually. London assumed that British interests would be better served by independent (but friendly) nationalists than by prolonged and controversial formal rule.

However, in Singapore the British were not planning to go too fast. And, as it allowed greater political participation and internal autonomy, London counted on remaining in control of the pace of constitutional progress in Singapore. Singapore had an extremely important military function. The new constitution had therefore been tailored to favour the colony’s moderate forces, such as the Progressive Party. But the elections, held in April 1955, produced a surprising result. The Progressive Party was almost wiped out. This was a rude shock for the British. The easing of strict internal security regulations and the expansion of the electoral franchise produced a significant turn to the left, favouring those left-leaning political parties that demanded the rapid end of British colonial rule. All of a sudden, the future seemed to belong to left-leaning parties. This, in turn, would stir greater opposition to colonial rule and complicate London’s plans for a gradual transfer of power in Singapore. The winds of change were blowing strongly through Singapore and suddenly the pace of colonial change seemed to accelerate in the Lion’s city.

The elections were won by the Labour Front. This party was led by David Marshall, a successful criminal lawyer of Jewish–Iraqi background. It campaigned for moderate socialism and independence within the Commonwealth. The People’s Action Party also stood for immediate independence, possibly within the context of a united Malaya and Singapore. The People’s Action Party was an uneasy partnership between Chinese-speaking pro-communists and English-educated socialists. It had an influential and militant extreme left-wing faction, which had close ties with the Malayan Communist Party. The People’s Action Party was led by a brilliant 32-year-old lawyer who had been educated at the prestigious Raffles College in Singapore and had obtained a double first at Cambridge University. Lee was no communist, but he was convinced that, without the support of the party’s influential left-wing faction, the People’s Action Party could not aspire to become a successful mass movement. He was therefore prepared to ride the communist tiger, but at the time there were widespread concerns, in both London and Canberra, that the communist tiger might not be tamed and it would eventually gobble up Lee himself. He was involved in a very risky political game.

With the support of the Alliance, Marshall was able to form a government. Yet he headed a weak coalition, whose political future looked extremely uncertain and whose survival depended, to some extent, on British support and a divided opposition. The British did not particularly like Marshall. Of the People’s Action Party and Labour Front, the British preferred the latter. In an island where left-wing and communist militancy was on the rise, Marshall was the lesser evil. But the British remained concerned that new elections could pave the way for a pro-communist and People’s Action Party-led government. If this happened, Britain’s tenure on its military base in Singapore would be cut short. But Marshall was no easy customer. Relying on a shaky coalition and facing growing pressure from the People’s Action Party, he could not afford to be seen as a British stooge. Hence, he had no desire ‘to play the game’ according to British rules. He began to demand greater internal self-government and to argue that the Rendel Constitution be modified. In July he masterminded a constitutional crisis. In August 1955 the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, accepted some of Marshall’s demands and agreed to hold talks in London in 1956.

Marshall’s constitutional bickering was taking place amidst political unrest, strikes and riots inspired by the radical left within the People’s Action Party, the trade unions and the Chinese middle schools. Understandably, the political developments in Singapore gravely troubled policymakers in Canberra. From Singapore the Australian Commissioner, Sir Alan Watt, sent pessimistic cables on the political future of the Lion’s city. For Watt, Marshall was doomed as he had no power base. Making concession to him was risky because if he lost power, a more radical leader could take advantage of the concessions. As Watt put it to Richard Casey, the Australian Minister for External Affairs, in February 1956:

Is the British Government during the forthcoming Constitutional talks in London in April to yield to Mr. Marshall’s demands for substantial self-government in order to help keep him in office – only, perhaps, to find that within a few months of his return to Singapore, he is no longer in office but has been replaced by some leader and party far less satisfactory from a British point of view?

On the other hand, as Casey himself admitted, if Marshall’s demands were not met, Singapore could descend into chaos and the British authorities would have to suspend the constitution with no prospect of finding a credible and suitable alternative. This would be incredibly unpopular internationally, given the strong anti-colonial sentiment. The British military presence in Singapore could be in jeopardy and Australian regional defence posture in tatters. In this context it is worth remembering that in 1955 Australia had just dispatched its ground forces to Malaya as part of the newly established Commonwealth Strategic Reserve. So just as Australia was willing to play a greater role in South-East Asia, things were getting shakier in the region.

What could and should Australia do? Casey described the whole situation as ‘depressing’. Australia’s options were quite limited. Besides, London was responsible for the Crown colony of Singapore and the British colonial authorities in Singapore and their superiors at the Colonial Office were not always willing to receive unsolicited advice. Australia’s initial reaction was to advise extreme caution. In January 1956 Menzies wrote to Eden. In his letter to the British leader, Menzies expressed his concerns at British plans to grant independence to Malaya by 1959. In early 1956 the Eden government decided to grant Malaya independence. The Malayan leadership was anti-communist and they thought they could accommodate pressures for independence there. But Menzies wondered whether Singapore would soon follow a similar path. He strongly emphasised the importance of these two territories in British and Australian strategic calculations. Menzies did not say it openly, but it was clear that he feared an early British departure from South-East Asia.

With British–Singaporean constitutional talks due in late April 1956, the Menzies government carefully considered the Singapore problem. From Singapore Alan Watt told the DEA that the ideal solution would be a merger between Singapore and Malaya. This was not only what all political parties in Singapore seemed to want, but it also had the merit of anchoring Singapore to a postcolonial anti-communist state. Menzies and Casey concurred. But the problem was that a merger between Singapore and Malaya could only be a medium or long-term solution, not a short-term one. The Malayans were determined to secure their independence first. At this stage, Malaysian leader Tunku Abdul Rahman also saw the possible inclusion of a predominantly Chinese and increasingly radical Singapore as a terrible complication. With the merger between Singapore and Malaya to be ruled out in the short term, Australia’s best option appeared to be Marshall’s political survival. Thus, Australian policymakers were willing to consider some concessions to Marshall. Independence would have to be ruled out at this stage. Greater self-government, however, should be granted to Singapore provided that defence and external affairs remained, firmly, in British hands. As for internal security, this also should remain in British hands but greater Singaporean involvement should be sought. This was a gamble but as Casey told Cabinet in March:

There are formidable risks, which cannot be accurately assessed, in any line of action. I believe, however that there is probably rather less risk in going to the limit of reasonableness in meeting Marshall’s demands than in adopting a ‘tough’ policy.

While the Menzies government was working out its strategy, British ministers in London had reached a similar conclusion: no independence, but greater self-government with defence, external affairs and internal security in British hands. Were British concessions likely to please Marshall? Not quite. When Marshall and his all-party delegation met Lennox-Boyd in London in April 1956, the Singapore Chief Minister demanded much more than the British were willing to give: he flatly demanded Singapore’s independence within the Commonwealth even though he was prepared to hand back – on a temporary basis – the control of defence and foreign affairs to the British. He was also willing to let London retain the Governor’s reserve powers to suspend the constitution. Marshall was a realistic politician although, at times, he could be naïve. He knew that the British would go as far as giving Singapore independence straightaway. But Marshall was also aware that full and immediate independence would be dangerous, and he still needed a British presence in Singapore as insurance against the radical left taking over the colony’s administration.

The British were unimpressed. For them the problem was that if the radical left seized power democratically, it would be in control of internal security and immediately claw back foreign affairs and defence. In which case, to prevent Singapore from going communist, London would be left with no other option than to suspend the constitution. A British crackdown in Singapore would be deeply unpopular internationally.

Unsurprisingly, the constitutional talks in London failed. On his return to Singapore, Marshall resigned. No chaos or widespread unrest ensued. Lim Yew Hock, another Labour Front man, took over. His steady hand, and crackdown on left-wing extremists in 1956, would earn him important concessions from the British at a second constitutional conference in 1957. While by no means defeated, left-wing radicalism appeared at least temporarily under control.

The Menzies government supported Britain’s handling of the constitutional talks and made it clear that it did not regard the failure of these talks as ‘a permanent check to constitutional advances in Singapore’. But the government’s cautious approach to the Singapore question came in for some robust criticism from the Labor opposition. For Labor leader, Herbert Evatt, the Menzies government should not have supported what he described as a British ‘denial of the essential right of self-government’. Evatt would not be the only critic of Menzies and his allegedly unsympathetic attitude towards nationalist demands for greater self-government and independence. In recent years various academics have also been very critical of Menzies’ approach to decolonisation in South-East Asia. Gregory Pemberton has even described Menzies’ approach as bankrupt. The implication here is that Menzies’ alleged unsympathetic attitude towards nationalist demands complicated and retarded Australia’s engagement with Asia.

But while Menzies was certainly reluctant to force the pace of colonial change, especially when important Australian security interests were at stake, his government’s approach to decolonisation was not as negative as Pemberton contends. As far as Singapore was concerned, the Menzies government was not opposed, in principle, to the gradual transfer of power; it simply wanted to ensure that this process would not produce outcomes contrary to Australian security interests in the region. The threat of communist subversion was real enough in Singapore. On this point it is interesting to note that both conservative political forces, such as the Singapore Progressive Party, and moderate left-wing leaders, such as Labour Front’s David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock and the People’s Action Party’s Lee Kuan Yew, were aware of the communist danger. This is why most of Marshall’s ‘all-party’ delegation was willing to come to terms with the British and settle for Eden’s limited package of constitutional reform. This is also why Marshall’s demands for independence within the Commonwealth contemplated a certain degree of residual British involvement in Singaporean affairs, if only on a temporary basis. In addition, this is why Malayan leaders in Kuala Lumpur remained opposed to Singapore’s early independence. Finally, this is also why Menzies wanted to move gradually on the issue of constitutional progress in Singapore. Rather than ‘bankrupt’, his cautious approach to decolonisation in Singapore was sound, reasonable and in tune ‘with the realities on the ground’. The choice was between a rushed (and messy) transfer of power that would generate instability, and a more gradual pace of decolonisation that would lay the basis for the stability of the Malay archipelago. Menzies chose the second option. This was appreciated in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and did not undermine Australia’s engagement with South-East Asia.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017