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Extracts of Singapore Burning

From Chapter One:-

Rubber was king. Ford and the other car giants were putting the western world on wheels and Malaya was the biggest exporter of natural rubber on the planet. Half of its crop went to the United States. By 1927, its 60th anniversary as a Crown Colony, Keppel harbour boasted three miles of wharves and warehouses, known locally as “Godowns”. Its population numbered about 700,000 and was predominantly Chinese, mainly second generation immigrants from south China, followed in size by the Malay and Indian communities.

Living with servants from both races, usually in the black-and-white timber framed tropical tudor bungalows of its garden suburbs, were the ruling minority: the British colonial civil servants, entrepreneurs and administrators who were almost all, one way or the other, trying to see that the place was run so that the rubber and tin could be extracted at the smallest cost for the greatest profit. As the jazz age roared on and rubber prices soared they worked as hard as was considered healthy in tropical climes and many perhaps played rather harder than they should have done. A bachelor’s evening might start in his club, move on to the ball room at Raffles Hotel where the number everyone wanted to hear was ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ . Then, if he was unlucky in love, and at any social event available European women were almost always a minority, solace of a kind might be found in one of the better brothels where Russian émigrés from Shanghai demanded the highest prices, every one a fallen princess.

Up country planters, across the Johore Straits in the Malayan peninsula, miners and planters often did lead hard lives, working from dawn to dusk with their Malay and Tamil labourers in places not long hacked out of virgin jungle. Some planters, veterans of what was starting to be known as the Great War, had accepted government grants to ex-soldiers of 100 acres rubber plots, sometimes forming consortiums to make sizeable holdings. This was the backcloth Somerset Maughan chose, after a short visit, for his stories of quiet desperation punctuated by drink, adultery, abandoned Eurasian children and vengeful Asian mistresses. Not surprisingly Maughan’s subject matter was highly indignant. Sport was their substitute for sex and plenty of it: a constant round of tennis, badminton,cricket, rugby football, hockey and what the Malays, an athletic race, called “kickball”. Furtive visits to the bordellos of Kuala Lumpur - Malaya’s capital and always known as ‘KL’ - rarely made their letters, diaries or memoirs. Nor did the common practise of new assistant rubber estate managers hiring a “sleeping dictionary” to improve the vocabulary they had acquired from the best selling “Well’s Coolie Tamil”.

The crudeness of South African style apartheid was unknown in Malaya and the Tuans and their Mems, passing through Cape Town on the Blue Funnel line ships that carried them to and from Southampton, were sometimes surprised to discover the rigid colour bar. In Malaya it was done with more subtlety. Clubs such as the Selangor Club in KL, known as “the Spotted Dog’ for its enormous black and white tropical tudor premises, rarely allowed a non- European membership. Urbane, intelligent, and often deeply Anglicised Malay, Indian and Chinese civil servants were passed over for promotions awarded to less able British colleagues. Only occasionally was the boot on the other foot. In KL some wealthy Chinese started a “millionaires’ club” from which whites were excluded. The young journalist Ian Morrison, son of a famous missionary to China, thought that the Dutch, who had been in the East Indies longer and were far more tolerant of intermarriage, made a better job of things. “ People of mixed blood could, and did, rise to the highest positions in the Indies. They formed a bridge between the Dutch on one hand and the natives on the other.”

Apart from sex, one of the few things that was truly multiracial in British Malaya was sport. A district officer played for a cricket team which included, “Eurasians, Indians, Ceylonese, a Sikh bowler and a Japanese wicket keeper.” But for the young British male seeking the pleasures of the East nowhere was as glamourous, or sometimes as debauched, as Singapore . The island was rapidly becoming known, even more than Nairobi, as one of the more hedonistic beacons of the sprawling Empire on which the sun never set. (“Because God doesn’t trust the British in the dark,” declared nationalists from Peshawar to Penang.) Even when rubber prices slumped in the world wide economic depression that began with the New York stock market crash in 1929, and redundant Tuans were being declared “Distressed British Persons” and granted government assisted passages home, Singapore somehow partied on.

On the whitewashed walls of St Andrew’s cathedral there were brass plaques commemorated some of those killed restoring British rule during the sepoy mutiny of February 1915. ‘Ready Aye Ready,’ read the epitaph for a stoker off HMS Cadmus assigned to one of the shore parties. But twenty years on it seemed that all most people were ready for was fun. Few of the younger dancers at Raffles, or on the terrace of the Swimming Club with its five bars, or at the Happy World with the professional Chinese dance hostesses known as Taxi Girls, or being seen at the races at Bukit Timah, knew or cared of the mutiny of the 5th Light Infantry . Even fewer of the grisly executions which followed.


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Buy this book from
  Singapore Burning - Heroism and Surrender in World War Two
Viking Penguin,
London, 2005

ISBN 0-670-91341-3
A Penguin paperback edition is scheduled for May 2006.
(The Amazon catalogue entry that it came out in September this year is a mistake. As yet, no paperback exists.)
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