Join the Navy and See Singapore

January 12, 1992|By ALBERT SEHLSTEDT Jr.

Of only passing notice during President Bush's much publicized search for amenable trading partners in the Far East was the announcement Jan. 4 that elements of the U.S. Navy expect to be moving into Singapore soon. History reminds us that some decisions, seemingly insignificant at the time, become enormously important in future years.

Whether that will be the case in this instance is, or course, impossible to predict. Indeed, only a small contingent of U.S. Navy people are presently scheduled to move from their Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines to Singapore, 1,500 miles to the southwest.

However, the fact remains that Singapore is one of the most strategically located places in the world -- both in terms of naval operations and maritime commerce -- and governed by "aggressively pro-American leaders," as the New York Times put it the other day.

"The American presence, in my view, is essential for the continuation of law and order in East Asia," Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's prime minister for 31 years before stepping down in 1990, said in one published interview.

"We intend to stay as long as we are welcome," Mr. Bush said.

Sultry Singapore, a politically conservative island nation just 85 miles north of the equator, sits at the tip of the Malay Peninsula and commands the Malacca Strait, a vital waterway that connects the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.

The 210-square-mile territory, which gained full independence in had been a bastion of the British empire before World War II and "the most publicized fortress in the world," as one naval historian observed, before it surrendered ignominiously to the Japanese in World War II.

In fact, there were few defeats for the Allies in that war that were more ignominious. People old enough to remember those dark days may recall that Japanese forces, eschewing a naval assault against the fortress, came down the Malay Peninsula with surprising swiftness and overpowered the British whose powerful coastal guns were pointed toward the sea.

Naval historian David Thomas called the defeat "the worst disaster and the largest surrender in British history."

"In just seventy days . . . [Japanese Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki] Yamashita had struck 650 miles down the Malay Peninsula and captured 130,000 British troops, and in the same seventy days an Empire was lost to Britain," Mr. Thomas wrote in his book, "The Battle of the Java Sea," the tale of another defeat in a string of disasters for the Allies in the early days of the Pacific war.

There was a good deal of gallows humor associated with the British guns "pointing the wrong way," but the defenders of Singapore were not as stupid as hasty opinion concluded, and were uncomfortably aware of their vulnerability at least several years before the Japanese attack.

As early as 1937, two years before World War II began, a wordy dispatch in the The Sun described a "mimic" attack that was made against Singapore "from land, sea and air in order that the experts [unnamed] might discover, if possible, just how Stamford Raffles' fulfilled dream would come out of a combined assault by an enemy force . . . and it was broadly hinted in the colony that the experts were none too well satisfied with the results." Sir Stamford Raffles, the Encyclopia Britannica recounts, was an employee of the British East India Company who founded Singapore in 1819, in part it seems, because nobody else wanted it. In 1803, The Associated Press recalled in a 1927 article, the then Rajah of Lahore "tried to give it away" but there were apparently no takers until Raffles came along.

Skeptical Britons of that day referred to Singapore as "Raffles' Folly" in much the same vein that unthinking Americans later called Alaska "Seward's Folly," a disparaging reference to the then U. S. secretary of state, William Henry Seward, who bought the territory from Russia in 1867 for a song.

However, the far-sighted Raffles recognized the potential importance of the place which at the time was said to be covered by mangrove swamps and populated by legions of mosquitoes, tigers and enormous snakes.

Sir Stamford, a man who rose from modest circumstances, seems to have been less an agent of rapacious imperialism and more a person of conscience who took a genuine interest in the "third world" peoples of those times, trying to improve their lot and taking the time to learn their culture, language and history.

Raffles died in 1826 but as the years passed, Britain remained mindful of the strategic significance of Singapore, eventually spending millions over a period of 15 years on a naval base there, advertised as capable of floating the entire Royal Navy.

Today, Singapore is a metropolis of office towers and other accouterments of modernity, one of the largest ports in the world and as much interested in money as ships of the line.

Despite a penchant for free trade, the territory is very much a law-and-order kind of place run by the Peoples Action Party, which frowns on political opposition, according to dispatches from the city during the Bush visit.

Reportedly, the government even has banned the sale of chewing gum because a discarded piece of it prevented a door from closing properly.

Though Britain, struggling to uphold its end of the fight against the forces of fascism a half-century ago, was unable to defend its Southeast Asia prize, that does not alter the fact that Singapore is very much still there in 1992 -- prosperous, friendly, and just as important in many ways as Raffles imagined it would be 172 years ago.

Albert Sehlstedt is a retired Sun reporter.

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