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 bachelors evening might start in his club, move on to the
ball room at Raffles Hotel where the number everyone wanted to hear was Aint
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 Maughans 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 - Malayas 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 Wells
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 doesnt 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 Andrews 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.