Remembering The Fall of Singapore: Complacency and Climate Crisis
Updated: Jun 29
This article is part of the theme "Return" (Jan–Feb 2022)
The fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 is largely remembered today in militaristic and material terms. What receives less attention is the ideological dimensions of Singapore society in the lead up to the British defeat. It is particularly important to highlight the thinking in Singapore prior to the Japanese victory because it bears stark resemblance to much of the thinking we see today when it comes to the climate crisis. Right up until the eleventh hour in February 1942, for instance, when all evidence was pointing in Japan’s favour, many in Singapore held strong to the belief that this island could avoid the fate of what was happening elsewhere in the region and sought to continue a kind of “business as usual” approach as they went shopping on Orchard road and frequented theatres and dance halls as if they weren’t in the midst of a World War. It was believed that this island was fundamentally different, even special, and could be protected. Life was to go on, undisturbed.
Today many in Singapore think of themselves in a similar manner when it comes to the climate crisis. In spite of the fact that this region will be, and is being, significantly impacted by climate change, a good number of Singaporeans continue to feel that at least this country might somehow get away unscathed. But the climate crisis knows no national boundaries and thinking of ourselves in this parochial and exceptionalist manner may very well sow the seeds of our own demise — just as it did in 1942.
Despite being a small island with no natural resources, Singapore is a critical site for empires past and present. Positioned at a chokepoint between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Singapore sits along one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. In 1930, close to a quarter of all British trade passed through Singapore’s ports and, at the beginning of World War II, the island was home to the largest oil refinery in Asia. Together, this contributed to making Singapore the richest city in Asia and “outwardly one of the most prosperous cities in the British Empire.” Far from being a small, insignificant colonial possession, Singapore was the British Empire’s crown jewel in the East.
But with wealth and modernity came arrogance and complacency. In December 1941, a few hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbour, over five-thousand Japanese soldiers advanced upon the shores of Kota Bharu in northeastern Malaya and set the night ablaze. It was the first major battle of the Pacific War. Hearing of the news in Singapore, Governor Shenton Thomas rang up Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival and allegedly remarked, “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.” Three hours later, bombs rained down on Singapore. Sixty were killed and over a hundred more injured. The air-raid sirens failed to go off, leaving many in a state of shock and confusion. Those living some distance away were unsure of what they had heard: “it may be firing practice somewhere,” surmised one resident. Elizabeth Choy, who was then a schoolteacher, refused to believe that Singapore had been bombed: “Everybody said ‘oh don’t worry, Singapore is very well protected.’” Later, it was revealed that the head of the Air Raid Precaution Unit had taken the night off to go to the cinema.
Many in Singapore believed that Japan would be defeated swiftly. Despite the fact that Singapore had just been bombed, people like Lee Kip Lin, who was then a student, thought that surely the “the British Navy would sail out of Singapore and smash the Japanese invading Kota Bharu. And the Americans would of course come and give us a helping hand. And it would all be over soon.” The following day, Kota Bharu was captured by the Japanese. Four days later, Penang fell; a week later, Ipoh. Over radio, the Japanese mocked British soldiers: “you English gentlemen: ‘how do you like our bombing? Isn’t it a better tonic than your whiskey soda?’” On 11 January 1942, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya, had fallen to the Japanese. The “little men” of Japan were proving difficult to “shove off.”
As Japan blazed down the peninsula, so too did thousands of Malayans who sought refuge in the crown colony of Singapore. As one of the richest, most modern and well protected colonies in the region, many thought that Singapore could insulate itself from its increasingly tumultuous surroundings. Newspapers proclaimed that “fortress Singapore” was “impregnable,” a “bastion of British might,” and “a new, bigger and better Gibraltar, one of the most formidable concatenations of naval, military and strategic power ever put together anywhere.” The fall of Singapore was unthinkable, until it wasn’t.
On 15 February 1942, after a series of devastating losses, the British hoisted a white flag atop the Cathay Building — the tallest skyscraper in Southeast Asia at the time. The British Empire had surrendered. Instantly, over 130,000 Allied soldiers were made prisoners of war, the majority of them Indians. To Winston Churchill, it was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Life magazine lamented the fact that “the little yellow men of Japan had toppled the great bastion of the British overlords.” In similar racist language, The New York Times published an article that spoke of the “thousands of fanatical little fighters [who] swarmed across the Johore Strait on to Singapore Island” and defeated the British empire, thereby inaugurating “perhaps the blackest period in our history.” Singapore was not just a strategic loss, but a humiliating one in which a supposedly inferior people had triumphed.
Under British colonialism, people came to believe that whatever threats Singapore might face, these threats could not possibly be of any match to the scientific, technological and military sophistication of the British empire. Critically, this mindset did not just apply to the Japanese but to countless other foes (both real and imagined), including the natural world itself. While in 2022 we have abandoned the ideology of an “inferior” Japanese people, the latter hubris of a superiority over nature remains.
The threat today is no longer Japan; it is the climate crisis. Though we should not by any means see our response to climate change as akin to a “war against nature,” it is worth recognising how much we underestimate the power of nature, while overestimating our ability to outsmart it — just as the British did with the Japanese. We are funnelling tremendous amounts of money into technologies to protect us from the worst effects of the climate crisis — which were set in motion decades ago — while keeping the fundamental structures of our society unchanged.
In Singapore and much of the world, we have yet to confront the fact that to deal with the climate crisis, we will have to make significant adjustments to our lives and the economic system that shapes us and our planet. The incessant desire for growth and competition at all costs led to humanity’s great world wars and untold levels of suffering in the twentieth century. If we continue down this path, the twenty-first century will see a climate catastrophe so grave that it can barely even be imagined. As the popular climate protest slogan puts it: system change, not climate change!
 For percentage of British trade passing through the port of Singapore, see Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2015), 43. For Singapore having the largest oil refinery in Asia, see Lee Geok Boi, Syonan: Singapore Under the Japanese 1942-1945 (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2017), 83.
 Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Harvard University Press, 2005), 50. The key term here is “outwardly.” Despite the immense wealth of Singapore then, like today, the island had exceptionally high levels of inequality.
 John Burton, Fortnight of Infamy: The Collapse of Allied Airpower West of Pearl Harbor, December 1941, 1st edition (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 91.
 Arthur Swinson, Defeat in Malaya: Fall of Singapore, 1st edition (London: Ballantine, 1970), 52.
 Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography (Editions Didier Millet, 2013), 235.
 Ibid, 239.
 Ibid, 239.
 Rachel Leow, Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 96.
 Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, 120.
 Frost and Balasingamchow, Singapore, 235-234.
 Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, 143.
 Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Harvard University Press, 2013), 196.
 Winston Churchill, Memoirs of the Second World War: An Abridgement of the Six Volumes of the Second World War (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 535.
 “An Era of Empire Ends at Singapore,” Life magazine, 23 February 1942, 17.
 The New York Times, New York Times Complete World War II: The Coverage of the Entire Conflict (Hachette UK, 2016).