What Singapore Teaches U.S.


Seventy years ago, on February 15, 1942, Lt. Gen. A.E. Percival, head of the United Kingdom’s Malaya Command, surrendered Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army. The defeat of the so-called “Gibraltar of the East” was an even bigger shock to the British than Pearl Harbor was to the Americans just two months previously. Singapore was the cornerstone of the British Empire in Asia and its surrender, the largest in British history, marked the effective end of Britain’s colonial era there. The fall of Singapore still holds some lessons, even in a time of peace, and should serve as a cautionary tale for any power, such as the United States, playing a dominant role so far from home.

The first lesson is that a rising regional power will seek to displace an external status quo power. While intra-regional competition among established and new powers is common (as witnessed by centuries of European history), the position of a foreign status quo power in any given region is particularly vulnerable. It was relatively easy for the British to rule various divided territories in Asia since the East India Company first set up shop in Madras in 1639 and began spreading eastward. But the emergence of a cohesive, ambitious, and aggressive imperial Japan ultimately set up a clash between a Britain seeking to preserve its exposed position and a Japan bent on rewriting the regional security order. In fact, the British failure to renew its alliance with Tokyo in 1921 helped speed Japanese expansion in Asia, by ending cooperation between the two and removing restraints on Japanese ambitions. Ultimately, American sanctions on Tokyo threatened to derail its military strength, and Japan’s leaders decided to gamble on attacking all Western powers in Asia in a bid to secure vital raw materials and destroy European colonial holdings.

The second lesson is that miscalculating an adversary’s operational intentions (or misreading his doctrine) can lead to early and insurmountable reverses. Japan’s surprise attack on Singapore and its unorthodox strategy was crucial in knocking the British off balance and preventing them from effectively regrouping, even though they outnumbered the Japanese forces they faced. The British had long assumed that any Japanese attack, if it came, would be from the sea, and Singapore’s great guns were all emplaced facing out over the water. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who would be executed for war crimes in 1946, devised a brilliant plan to neutralize Singapore by capturing British Malaya first, then invading the island fortress from the north. He launched his invasion on December 8, 1941 and his force of approximately 30,000 combat troops took just two months to reduce the peninsula, before advancing on Singapore in a pincer movement. Fighting in Singapore itself lasted just a week before the smaller Japanese force captured over 80,000 British, Australian, Indian, and Malayan troops.

The third lesson is that tyranny of distance helped doom the British. For generations, Singapore was assumed to be impregnable, the very symbol of British might overseas. Yet, as Percival knew all too well, it was also isolated, undersupplied, and unprepared for war. The British were simply too far from home to be able to effectively resupply the island in the short crisis before collapse. The Japanese dominated the air, and had been bombing the island since December, with only token British resistance. The Royal Navy was driven from the seas around Singapore when HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk off Malaya just two days after Pearl Harbor. The British had difficulty maintaining communications with their regional commands on the island. The Japanese attacked the island’s water stations, and it was this, along with dwindling food supplies, that finally forced Percival to heed the entreaties of his subordinate commanders and surrender. The war in Asia would rage for three more years, and the British would play only a marginal role in defeating Japan.

Mark Thomason
February 20, 2013 at 01:48

The US is far closer, three weeks you say vs two months for Britain in 1942.  

More important, the world is not convulsed in a larger and all consuming war on the other side of the world at the same time.  A key factor in the Japanese attack thinking in October-December was that Germany was defeating Russia.  At the time of Pearl Harbor, Germany was still advancing and almost at Moscow.  The great Russian winter and the unexpected Russian reserves had not yet appeared, and even Stalin was panicked and evacuating Moscow.  Britain was not merely distant, it was entirely pre-occupied.  

Critically, Japan's economy was entirely divorced from the West by 1941, both by Japanese design and by Western sanctions, both ten years in the making.  That was the China war from 1932.  By contrast, China today is entirely tied in to the West for raw materials and markets and the very structure of its economic activity.  

Sanctions and its isolation due to its war in China forced Japan into war.  By contrast, relations with the outside world would shatter China's economy in any attempt at going to war today.  

We should worry if China sets out on a decade long quest to isolate its economy from the rest of the world, as North Korea does today and Japan, Germany, and Italy did in the 30s.


Stefan Stackhouse
February 20, 2013 at 01:01

The real lesson is that what might have made sense in one century may no longer make sense a century later, and a failure to accept and adjust to that changed reality can be perilous in the extreme.

A globe-spanning empire with far-flung outposts, all tied together by a large navy of surface ships, worked very well for the British in the 19th century, when they were the world's leading industrial power and could leverage the import of raw materials into higher-value manufactured products better than anyone else. By the 20th century, quite a few important countries were catching up and wanted their own "place in the sun", and Britain no longer had the competitive advantage that it used to. Yet it still had those far flung commitments, now more of a liability than an asset. When the inevitable conflict came, Britain simply didn't have the military assets necessary to hold everything, and the empire started to crumple. The truth is that they were lucky to hold out and survive on even the home islands, it was by no means a certain outcome. After the war, they really had no choice but to disengage, withdraw, and redeploy around a considerably shrunken defensive perimeter that was more in keeping with their relatively diminished capacity.

What about the US? At the end of WWII we were at the height of our power, alone on top of the world, and circled the globe with our military. Almost immediately the Soviets started to challenge us, and after a couple of decades much of the rest of the deveveloped world had recovered, and a couple of decades after that we started seeing "the rise of the rest" in earnest. The Soviet challenge has shrunk to little more than occasional Russian crankiness, but China seems to some extent to be picking up where the USSR left off. Our reality today is that our far-flung, globe-circling quasi-"empire" is now starting to look more like a liability than an asset. It burdens us with a lot of expensive commitments that we can't really afford, it exposes us to a lot of vulnerability, and it seems to be making us far more enemies than friends. We just assume that in spite of all this, we can just keep it up forever. We probably can't. Sooner or later, someone – maybe China, but that isn't absolutely inevitable – will realize that a concentration of limited forces at a vulnerable, stretched thin point can achieve more than most people would expect, and have far more significant consequences than would be thought from the event seen in isolation.

What we CAN do is to defend ourselves. The US is in an extremely fortuitous geopolitical position, being bordered by neighbors that do not present a serious threat, and thus effectively being surrounded by oceans and separated by huge distances from any real threats. We also have the land area, resources, and population to assure that we will always be one of the world's leading nations, regardless of what happens with the rise of the rest. It is quite feasible for the US to have sufficient naval and air forces to secure substantial strategic depth off-shore, and combined with a survivable nuclear deterrent and some minimal anti-missile technology, we could very feasibly secure our territory to an extent that has never in history been matched by any other major power. We could do all of this in a sustainably affordable manner.

What is required to achieve this, however, is a deliberate strategic decision to abandon the neo-imperialist pretentions, and to stop trying to be the world's policeman. We would have to terminate our commitments on the Afro-Eurasian mainland (responsibly, I would hope) and disengage our forces there. We might also want to disengage from the Indian Ocean and turn the responsibility for maintaining maritime security there to the Indians, Australians, and maybe the South Africans; as Commonwealth members, these already share some common history and interests, and are as close as you are likely to find in that part of the world to natural allies. With these moves in place, the US could then redeploy behind a considerably more compact maritime defense perimeter. We might retain alliances with a few key island nations on the periphery of this defensive line: Britain, Iceland, Japan, Australia, NZ, and maybe a few of the other Pacific and Caribbean island nations. These are all defensible with the same navy and air force that we'll need for our own maritime defense strategy, and help us to maintain the strategic depth that we need. With this strategy fully implemented, we will find that while we still need a navy nearly as large as we have now, we can make some small cutbacks in the air force (especially in the tactical air wings) and very large ones in the army and marines. If we stop pretending to be a Eurasian land power, then we simply don't need large land forces. I am guessing that we could eventually cut our national security budget by upwards of 50%, which is bringing it back into a sustainably affordable range.

If we do this, I am guessing that China might still not like the fact that we continue to have a presence in the western Pacific at all. I'm guessing that it is unlikely that they would risk an all-out war to dislodge us, especially if our forces were more concentrated along that line than they are now. China is the major Eurasian land power that we're not, and their natural grand strategy should dictate that any expansionary ambitions they might ever have should be to their north and west. That is where they would find the underpopulated, resource rich territory that they crave. If I were Russian or Mongol or Khazak, I'd be shaking in my boots. Today the Chinese are pretending to be good friends, but geography is what it is.


Khalid Arab
February 21, 2012 at 22:45

The blog seems to be an American anti-China propaganda broadsheet written by full-time writers like nirvana, girish, John X, Louis Iv, Ling Viet, DownRedChina,… etc…

These internet terrorists and fanatics are paid to do what they do in preparation for a justification for America to attack China. It is so obvious. Their constant harping on “CCP” is but a campaign to destroy the good name of Chinese leaders first before they can justify an attack.

Dogs and curs. Why do the Diplomat encourage such provocative and instigative campaigns by not minimising them?

America – liar and manipulator of the world. A thousand curses upon you and your progenies, great satan!

February 21, 2012 at 20:43

Et tu Brutus.

I must accept being slandered with my right of rebuttal removed.

February 21, 2012 at 20:32

Oh by the way, if Taiwan is part of China then CCP is not the Government of Chinese people, but rather a political party that leads one section of them.

The other Chinese people have chosen thier parties which doesn’t appear to be the case for those living on the ‘mainland’.

February 21, 2012 at 20:28

Wow, now I am a fanatic. It seems that universal truth still applies that one mans _________ is another mans __________.

If you know that the Pentagon is hiring then ask them to send me a message or maybe you can ask PLA General Staff Headquarters to send me an application form considering you think my presentation of facts is up for sale.

I focus on one issue and that is Chinas growing militarization and expansion in the South China Sea as that has the greatest chance of impacting my country in the future. If my harping on about that issue makes me a fanatic then so be it.

Though as some one who has an Arabic name and comments suspciously like a 50 center, I would be curious if it takes one to know one?

February 21, 2012 at 09:27

It goes without saying that Singapore ruling english educated elites trust US as their own family.
And those ruling elite spent their life time fightingb the Chinese Communists.

Louis IV
February 21, 2012 at 03:57

Anyone has seen a Chinese’s Arab faking on the loose? He’s even faked his last name as Arab to fool people.

China is a country with an expansionist ambition (like Tibet, evil intention on the SCS, ECS, etc). CCP is a communist regime which is not only bad to its own people, but, very nasty its neighbours, and a cheater to other World trading partners (like currency manipulation, IP theft, making lots of fake products, own an infamous Huawei company who’s acting as PLA’s International spy organiztion front end, etc.)

Khalid Arab
February 20, 2012 at 21:33

Nirvana also seems to have a fetish with the CCP of China. Is he the same person as DownRedChina and John X? These fanatics do nothing but mindless attacks on the Chinese. Dogs! Even I, as an Arab is shocked by such extremist. Unless of course, they are Pentagon recruits to do exactly just that. With the ultimate aim to topple the government of China through unrest. “CCP” being their code word for attacking China and stirring up the readers against the government of China.

February 20, 2012 at 17:13

Rat is a lion in rat hole. No country can fight a war far away from home and win the war. The battles were won on surprise element and superiority of arms. Japan started losing after pearl harbor, Germany after Russian attack, USA has no victory in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.

British was the only exception in India because British made it clear and conducted themselves as a locals in India. When Canadians / Australians needed passport to visit Britain, Britain allowed both British Indians and Indians in princely states to visit Britain with no passport or VISA.

India was not colonial to British like Saudi or arabs to USA to day. There was no apartheid , but cultural differences were respected. When Hindus said beef fat could not used to lubricate guns, British banned use of beef fat. many instances can be given of British accommodation. British officers were not afraid Indians carrying a loaded gun , Can USA and China trust trust other nationals.

A world power will need lot of compromises to be accepted / loved as world power neither USA nor China has the quality.

USA can never win a war far from home that too against China.

February 20, 2012 at 04:38

The point is not about weather china willl invade america or not.
The point is as much as zhongguo doesn’t have reason to being aggressive against american influence in the Asia, nothing will stop china from trying to eliminate american influence in the region like i was for japan in 1940s.
the article is all about American should prepare.

Of course, the article is self-contradict. after all like the article mentions, the vary reason of america’s fear of rising china is not only surge of china power but also america’s facing bankruptcy which willl underprepare america to prepare rising china.
so, david yu don’t give american people your piece of shit.
americans are not as stupid as you wan them to be.
of course, they are more stupid than I think, though…

with threat of bankcruptcy, only solution for america to balance against rising china is pull out from Korea, japan and let them defend themselves, even if they become nuclear power.

after all, America can save tones of money by let Korea and japan defend themselve and if Korea and japan become nuclear power, they can defend themselve against rising china without american force.
Will it reducing american influence? Yes, but it wil become impregnable fence against china.
consider it as sacrifice mov

February 20, 2012 at 01:48

@Robert Turnbull,
No it is not. Google “China’s road to the Korean War” by Chen Jian

February 20, 2012 at 00:17

Show us some evidence to support your claim. If Singapore doesn’t trust the U.S. then why doesn’t it invite China to station some navy vessels in its port? China is building naval facilities in Pakistan. Wouldn’t it have a presence in Singapore if it could???

February 20, 2012 at 00:16

John Chan, China changed the border lines to steal lands from Vietnam, like the beautiful waterfall of Bang Gioc (google on the name). China attempted to colonize Vietnam many times and got pushed back during the thouusands years of Vietnan’s history. In 1979, China attempted to invade VN, the Chinese was brutally rape and killing local women and children (go to current BBC Vietnamese language website for info).

Historical evidence to the UN that Vietnamese have lived and worked in both Paracel and Spratly since the 16th century, but China’s greeds and its expansionist abitionS will never leave VN, or the Philipines, or Singapore,
or Malaysia alone, given an opportunity for land/sea grab presenting. On the Nanjin event, the Japanese also know fully well what China would do to Japan’s women, if Japan falled into the Chinese hand. That is why Japan is starting moving out all the advanced manufaturing base from China.

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