1945-75 Decline of British Influence
The abrupt end of World War II took the British by surprise. Although the Colonial Office had decided on the formation of a Malayan Union, which would include all the Malay states, Penang, and Malacca, no detailed plans had been worked out for the administration of Singapore, which was to be kept separate and serve as the headquarters of the British governor general for Southeast Asia. Many former colonial officials and businessmen opposed the separation of Singapore from peninsular Malaya, arguing that the two were economically interdependent and to exclude Singapore would "cut the heart out of Malaya." The Colonial Office maintained that the separation did not preclude union at some future date, but that union should not be forced on "communities with such widely different interests." In September 1945, Singapore became the headquarters for the British Military Administration (BMA) under Mountbatten. Although Singaporeans were relieved and happy at the arrival of the Commonwealth troops, their first-hand witnessing of the defeat of the British by an Asian power had changed forever the perspective from which they viewed their colonial overlords.
British military influence in Singapore was reestablished at the end of World War II and declined at a slower pace than London's political influence. Singapore was made the headquarters for British forces stationed in the East Asia. The local population's resentment of British rule was tempered by the magnitude of the social and economic problems remaining after the Japanese occupation. Britain's military expenditures provided jobs and promoted support for its political objectives in the region.
The British returned to find their colonies in sad shape. Food and medical supplies were dangerously low, partly because shipping was in total disarray. Allied bombing had taken its toll on Singapore's harbor facilities, and numerous wrecks blocked the harbor. Electricity, gas, water, and telephone services were in serious disrepair. Severe overcrowding had resulted in thousands of squatters living in shanties, and the death rate was twice the prewar level. Gambling and prostitution, both legalized under the Japanese, flourished, and for many opium or alcohol served as an escape from a bleak existence.
The military administration was far from a panacea for all Singapore's ills. The BMA had its share of corrupt officials who helped the collaborators and profiteers of the Japanese occupation to continue to prosper. As a result of the inefficiency and mismanagement of the rice distribution, the BMA was cynically known as the "Black Market Administration." However, by April 1946, when military rule was ended, the BMA had managed to restore gas, water, and electric services to above their prewar capacity. The port was returned to civilian control, and seven private industrial, transportation, and mining companies were given priority in importing badly needed supplies and materials. Japanese prisoners were used to repair docks and airfields. The schools were reopened, and by March 62,000 children were enrolled. By late 1946, Raffles College and the King Edward Medical College both had reopened.
Food shortages were the most persistent problem; the weekly per capita rice ration fell to an all-time low in May 1947, and other foods were in short supply and expensive. Malnutrition and disease spawned outbreaks of crime and violence. Communist-led strikes caused long work stoppages in public transport, public services, at the docks, and at many private firms. The strikers were largely successful in gaining the higher wages needed by the workers to meet rising food prices.
By late 1947, the economy had began to recover as a result of a growing worldwide demand for tin and rubber. The following year, Singapore's rubber production reached an all-time high, and abundant harvests in neighboring rice-producing countries ended the most serious food shortages. By 1949 trade, productivity, and social services had been restored to their prewar levels. In that year a five-year social welfare plan was adopted, under which benefits were paid to the aged, unfit, blind, crippled, and to widows with dependent children. Also in 1949, a ten-year plan was launched to expand hospital facilities and other health services. By 1951 demand for tin and rubber for the war in Korea had brought economic boom to Singapore.
From 1948 to 1960, Malaya and Singapore were under emergency rule as a result of the threat posed by the Communist Party of Malaya. Throughout this period, the majority of Singapore's political and business leaders were strong supporters of the British military presence. As Singapore moved from being a crown colony, to becoming a state in the Federation of Malaysia, and finally to independence in 1965, the British armed forces continued to be viewed as the protector of Singapore's democratic system of government and an integral part of the island's economy.
By 1962 the British were questioning the strategic necessity and political wisdom of stationing forces in Singapore and Malaya. At that time London was spending about US$450 million annually to maintain four infantry battalions, several squadrons of fighter aircraft, and the largest British naval base outside the British Isles, even though Southeast Asia accounted for less than 5 percent of Britain's foreign commerce.
In January 1968, the British government informed Prime Minister Lee that all British forces would be withdrawn from the country within three years. By then Singapore already had begun to organize its army and to plan for the establishment of an air force and navy. The British left behind a large military infrastructure and trained personnel of the newly formed Air Defence and Maritime commands. London formally ended all responsibility for Singapore's defense in 1972 when it turned over control of the Bukit Gombak radar station to Singapore.
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