Speech by Mr. Henry Kwek , MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2019
Watch the speech here
Lessons from the fall of Singapore in 1942
1. Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of the budget.
2. On 15th of Feb, 1941, the morning Singapore fell, General Percival conferred with his fellow generals at Fort Canning.
a. Bukit Timah had fallen, along with crucial military supplies.
b. The water supply was at the verge of collapse.
c. Thousands of soldiers wandered aimlessly around the city, dazed and confused.
d. The morale of key units facing the Japanese was in question.
e. Collectively, the generals decided that counter-attack was impossible.
f. They went against their orders, to fight to the last man.
g. They decided to surrender.
3. The surrender marked one the biggest defeat in British history. On surface, this is a military mystery.
a. How could an army of one hundred and thirty thousand British Imperial troops,
i) Defending Malaya and Fortress Singapore,
ii) Be outfought, out-maneuvered, and out-led
iii) By a Japanese army roughly one third of its size?
b. How did the British fail to defend Singapore, after spending vast resources and twenty years planning for its defense?
4. As we commemorate our bicentennial, it is a good time to reflect on history. While the British Empire no longer exists, we are still on the same soil where the British once stood. There are some lessons worth learning.
The Singapore Strategy – A Strategic Illusion
5. A close read of history showed that Singapore was lost not just on the battlefields of 1941-42. Singapore was lost on the planning tables since 1921.
6. After WWI, the British Empire was overstretched financially.
a. The British returned to the gold standard at an artificially high exchange rate, which triggered a deflationary monetary policy.
b. Wages did not adjust downwards due to union pressure, and British exports became uncompetitive.
c. This was accompanied by sharp fiscal cuts.
d. For most of the 1920s, the British suffered a depression.
e. And despite regular budget surplus, they failed to reduce their high national debt.
7. As such, the British defense budget was cut very deeply for more than a decade and a half until 1935. The British military failed to modernize and keep up with her enemies.
8. To compound matters, after WWI, America and Japan started to compete for dominance in Asia. In 1922, America forced the British to chose a side.
a. Britain chose America over Japan, her former ally.
b. With that, Britain guaranteed herself a dangerous military enemy – a Japan with a formidable navy.
9. Despite her military weakness, the British must convince Australia and India, then part of the British Empire, that the Far East can be protected.
a. Especially so since Australian and India troops were needed to protect the Empire’s interest in Europe and the Middle East.
b. Yet the British could not afford a Far East navy to counter the Japanese navy, which rivaled the British in size and sophistication.
10.To make the impossible possible, the British came up with the “Singapore Strategy”. In the event of a future world war, Britain will concentrate its entire navy to defeat its European adversaries, and then sail over its main fleet to Singapore to counter the Japanese.
11.Therefore, in 1921, the British cabinet approved the building of a naval base in Singapore to host its main fleet. And Singapore must be defended until the arrival of that main fleet.
12.The idea was sound. But the implementation of the Singapore Strategy over the next two decades could only be described
a. As fundamentally unsound,
b. As a twenty-year sleepwalk towards disaster.
13.First of all, according to historian Brian Farrell, the British never found the money to build a big naval base.
a. The British knew they needed most, if not its entire main fleet to contend with the Japanese.
b. But surprisingly, the naval base in Singapore was never designed to hold more than twenty percent of the main fleet.
c. And to save cost, the British build the naval base at Sembawang, in northeastern Singapore instead of the more secured southern Singapore.
d. Therefore the British had to defend not just Singapore, but also Johor in order to protect their naval base.
14.Second, knowing that no fleet in Far East, and knowing that they needed to defend Malaya and Singapore from a land invasion from the north, in 1936, the British turned to their air force.
a. Unfortunately, the British air defense plan was fundamentally unsound too, as noted by the same historian Brian Farell.
b. The British air force built a string of airbases in the north without consulting their army.
c. While these air bases were close to South China Sea and the Thai border – areas that they expect the Japanese to invade from – they were situated in indefensible terrain.
15.And after all these hassle, the British incredibly never found the money to deploy an air force large or sophisticated enough to serve its needs.
16.All these meant that the under-strength British Army now had to not just defend the empty naval base in Singapore in the south, but also had to defend the under-equipped airbases in the north. The Singapore Strategy was Nothing More than a Strategic Illusion
17.As let me sum up the fundamentally unsound Singapore Strategy:
a. The security of the British Far East depended on the British sailing their main fleet to Singapore to fight the Japanese.
b. But they built a naval base too small for their main fleet.
c. And to defend a naval base of insufficient size, the British build indefensible airbases in the north,
d. But the British could not find the money to fund an air force
i) Large or modern enough to do the job.
e. And then they overstretched their army to defending both Singapore and Northern Malaya.
18.In short, the Singapore Strategy that the British relied on was nothing more
than a “Strategic Illusion”
a. A plan that could never work against a determined enemy;
b. A plan one hope will never be tested.
19.But hope is not a strategy. The harsh realities of WW2 quickly caught up with the British.
a. After the unexpected fall of France,
b. The British fought for their lives at the Battle of Britain,
c. And fought to prevent Germany from capturing Middle-East oil.
d. After the attack on Pearl Harbor.
e. The British stood alone in Malaya and Singapore.
Decades, Not Years, Needed to Build and Sustain a Strong Defense
20.In the final years before the Japanese invasion, the British built up their Malayan army to almost three times the size of the invading Japanese.
21.But decades are needed to build and sustain a strong defense. Many historians including Frank Pike concluded that:
a. The large British army in Malaya was only capable of fighting fixedpiece battles of WWI, rather than fluid combined arms battles of WWII.
b. While there were some good units, even the British official historian Woodburn Kirby concluded that most units were raw, and unfamiliar with how to fight in the tropics.
c. Lastly, the British army lacked comprehensive intelligence on the Japanese, and a general sense of complacency largely prevailed from top to bottom.
One of the Biggest Military Defeats in British History
22.Therefore, when the Japanese swept down from the north in December 1941, they destroyed the undersized and obsolete British air force in the north within 100 hours, and sank the only two modern and major British warships in the Far East, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse.
23.They then proceeded to destroy the British Army dispersed throughout Malaya, piece-meal. They:
a. Defeated the British at Jitra to win Northern Malaya;
b. Overran and disperse the British at Slim River,
c. Outmaneuvered the British at Muar to win the crucial fight for Johor, and
d. Reached the gates of Singapore, all within fifty-five days.
24.After a seven-day fight for Singapore:
a. Despite the last minute reinforcement of one more division of British troops,
b. The divided and demoralize British army, an army with still one hundred thousand men, chose to surrender,
c. Despite facing an invading army half the size.
Lessons from the fall of Singapore in 1942
25.So what lessons can we learn from the Fall of Singapore? The obvious lesson is that we can only count on ourselves for the defense of Singapore, regardless of security arrangements with others.
26.WWII is a good reminder that empires have many enemies. When things get tough, we cannot count on any major powers to come to our rescue, because our survival does not neatly falls within their core interests.
27.But I would like to spend today speaking about at least three other lessons worth pondering on.
Sustained and Sufficient Defense Spending
28.The first lesson is: sustained and sufficient defense spending is needed to keep a country safe. In the case of the British Empire after WWI, they faced a rapidly changing world order, with the rise of Japan and the revival of Germany.
a. The rise of air power, the use of combined arms for land battles, and switch from battleship duels to carrier-based naval warfare, all require substantial investments and innovation.
b. When the British woke up to the reality in the mid-1930s and started ramping up on defense spending, five years was insufficient to reverse two decades of military neglect.
29.The situation for Singapore today is vastly different. But some lessons are still worth noting. The most advanced militaries today must grapple with major challenges. Just to name a few:
i) Adapt to fifth generation aerial warfare,
ii) Content with cyber and hybrid-warfare,
iii)Meet the threat of global terrorism, as well as
iv) Deal with disruptive technology from drones and AI.
30.These require substantive and sustained investments in defense and security over decades, and not years. Therefore, I am heartened that 30% of budget 2019 goes to defense, security and diplomacy.
a. Because history shows that even with the best diplomacy, there is no
substitute to deterrence.
A Strong economy, a Sound Fiscal Foundation
31.The second lesson is: a nation’s security depends on the strength of its economy, and on the availability of fiscal resources to deal with the changing world.
32.In the case of the British Empire, while it thrived in the First Industrial Revolution of steam engines and weaving looms; it failed to transform its economy, and fell behind America and Germany in the Second Industrial Revolution of chemicals and cars.
a. It was unable to convert its global empire into profitable market for its goods, which preventing it from overcome rising global trade protectionism in the 1930s.
b. Its misguided monetary policy led to deflation, then to depression.
c. It accumulated significant debt because of WWI, a debt that the UK government today is still paying off.
d. Despite owning an empire where the sun never sets, it never built a diverse and sustainable tax base to pay for its defense.
33.In short, the world changed dramatically for the British Empire, and it ran out of money to adapt to the changing world.
34.That was then. How about our world today?
a. Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, recently said,
i) “We are in a very, very grave period for the world”, and
ii) The current times could mark an “end of an era”.
35.I am more optimistic. While there are major global uncertainties ahead, I believe there are ample opportunities for a nimble Singapore.
a. But this requires us to sustain our economy beyond the coming decade, and maintain our fiscal discipline.
36.Our economy today is in good shape. The past year’s GDP growth is strong, unemployment and inflation are both low, and median wage increase is high.
37.But what about our economy in ten years time?
a. No one can guarantee us that our companies can continue to thrive in the face of technology disruption and global competition.
38.Therefore, it is essential that our companies’ partner with the government with one another, tap on various grants and program, and press on relentlessly to transform.
39.On maintaining our fiscal discipline, I would like to highlight my concerns. There are many voices, including in this chamber, asking for more government spending, and to dig deeper into our reserve income.
a. Many of them are for deserving causes – keeping cost of living low, dealing with rising medical cost, investing in our people, forestalling tax increases.
40.But it is important to remember our reserves anchor our economy through turbulent times.
a. If we expect our economy to grow, and surely we in this house must agree on this,
b. Then if we fail to grow our savings over time,
c. When a major storm hits Singapore a decade or so down the road,
d. We may find our financial anchor of insufficiently weight to stabile our
much larger economy then.
41.At the same time, in this house, we frequently say that we are not done building Singapore. Our people expect this much from us.
a. But as the experience in many developed countries show, once non-discretionary spending forms a bigger portion of the budget,
b. There will be less budgetary room for major policy shifts to respond to a changing world,
c. Less room to build a better Singapore across generations.
42.Therefore, we must continue to build a strong economy, and maintain our sound fiscal foundation.
Shared Beliefs Rooted Firmly on Reality
43.The third lesson is: a successful society requires its people to have shared beliefs rooted firmly on reality.
a. The British Empire had an unworkable defense plan.
b. Over two decades, the British electorate and her leaders failed to have robust debates on
i) Whether it was realistic, and
ii) Whether there were sufficient resources to backstop their plan.
44.Singapore’s success to date, in my view, largely rests on our people having a shared belief on what it takes for our country to succeed. But the world is increasingly diverse, and our people’s views mirror this increasing diversity.
45.To meet tomorrow challenges, we need to strengthen our shared beliefs in many areas. For example:
a. How can we balance giving our youth with the best we can afford, while ensuring that they remain hungry and curious for new opportunities, especially in emerging Asia?
b. How can we persuade our people that keeping Singapore open to the world is to our best collective interest?
c. How can we continue the unfinished business of tackling inequality while maintaining the core promise of meritocracy?
d. How can we balance free speech with protecting society from the corrosive impact of fake news?
e. How do we achieve inter-generational equity?
f. How can we best represent the causes and values of some, while enlarging the common space for all?
46.The answer lies in more robust conversations not just between the government and the people, but also between people of differing viewpoints.
47.We need more discussions where our people can
a. Air their views,
b. Listen to differing opinions,
c. Understand the realities that constraints Singapore,
d. And achieve a nuanced and shared understanding of our common future.
48.I hope that our government can foster such conversations, because it is crucial for Singapore’s future.
49.Mr. Speaker Sir, to conclude, the commemoration of our bicentennial allows us to reflect on history. And today, I shared about the lessons that we can draw from the Fall of Singapore in 1942.
50.The situation today is vastly different.
a. Singapore is safe and prosperous.
51.Nevertheless, there is a Chinese saying 居安思危. Even in peace and prosperity, it is essential to plan for and act on, the turbulence and uncertainty ahead.
52.Budget 2019 makes the most of our opportunities
a. While planning and resourcing for threats and complexity, and
b. With the people at the heart of it.
53.It is a budget best described by this same Chinese phrase, 居安思危.
54.With that, I stand in support of the budget. Thank you.