British withdrawal from Singapore

On 18 July 1967, the British announced its plans to withdraw its troops from Singapore by the mid-1970s. Six months later, the deadline was brought forward to 1971 due to economic problems arising from the devaluation of the pound sterling. The news came as a shock to Singapore because Britain had earlier given their assurance that the pullout would be carried out in stages. As a compromise, the British agreed to extend its deadline for its withdrawal from March to December 1971. The sudden pullout of British forces presented serious problems to Singapore's defence and economic security. At the time, the Singapore Armed Forces was in its infancy, and Singapore's relationship with Malaysia remained tenuous after its separation in 1965. On the economic front, the military bases were contributing over 20 percent of Singapore's gross national product; additionally, it was projected that at least 20,000 people in Singapore would be rendered jobless by 1971 as a result of the British withdrawal. To counter these problems, Singapore embarked on a rapid industralisation programme, tightened labour laws to attract foreign investments, and beefed up its defence through military cooperation with other countries and tripled its military spending. By the deadline, Singapore had achieved strong economic growth and nearly full employment. By October 1971, most of the British troops had moved out of Singapore, leaving a token number behind. It would be another five years before the last of the British troops leave Singapore.

In 1964, the Labour Party was elected into power in Britain. The government set about to reduce the country's defence spending which was burdening its already weakened economy. The cost of maintaining the Singapore Naval Base alone was £70 million a year. By April 1967, the government decided that it would halve its commitment to the Far East Command by 1971 and disengage all troops by 1975.

In November 1967, the British were forced to devalue the pound due to mounting economic problems. This led to deep cuts to its budget. It became increasingly clear that Britain would no longer hold on to its military commitment in the Far East, and that Britain would soon announce its withdrawal of all of its troops in Southeast Asia by 1971, a deadline that was four years earlier than planned. 

The change came as a shock to Singapore because Britain had earlier given its assurance that the withdrawal would be done in stages. Singapore was then heavily dependent on Britain for its defence and economy. As the first batch of 900 national servicemen were still in training, Singapore was ill-equipped to take up its own defence. The military bases were also contributing to over 20 percent of Singapore's gross national product and its withdrawal was projected to result in unemployment for at least 20,000 people in Singapore. Besides those directly employed by the British military, many more, such as domestic helpers and shopkeepers, were reliant on the patronage of the British soldiers as well.

Initial reactions
Singapore had initially responded to the forthcoming announcement with dismay and angry panic. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew threatened to withdraw from the pound sterling, give the dockyard to the Japanese, and to disrupt British shipping and trade. He also suggested that if the British forces were to pull out too fast, he would have to hire mercenaries to defend Singapore. In a final bid to reverse the situation, he and then Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee left for London. There, they met with British political leaders and rallied for support through television appearances.

Despite the protests and intense lobbying, Britain announced on 16 January 1968 that they would pull out from Southeast Asia by 1971. As a compromise, the British agreed to extend the deadline for withdrawal from March to December 1971.

Overcoming the crisis
When it became clear that Britain's decision was irreversible, Singapore leaders quickly started planning for the future. They successfully negotiated with the British for a soft loan of £50 million, free transfer of key assets, help with operating the air-defence system, and training of military staff. In the same year, the Bases Economic Conversion Department was set up to oversee the conversion and commercialisation of lands and facilities, including the naval and air bases, which formerly belonged to the British. These assets were to be instrumental in propelling Singapore's shipbuilding and air industries forward.

To obtain the mandate that they needed to make far-reaching economic changes, the People's Action Party called for an early election to be held in April 1968. They garnered more than 84 percent of the votes and were returned to power. In August 1968, new labour laws were passed to curb industrial disputes and to attract foreign investors. Investments soon poured into Singapore, and reliance on Britain gradually weaned off as the United States took over as Singapore's largest trading partner, after Malaysia. Singapore also embarked on a rapid industralisation programme and sped up its urban renewal and infrastructure projects to the tune of S$900 million.

In the area of defence, military spending tripled, and an air force and a navy were added to support the army. The Five Power Defence Arrangements, consisting of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, was also formed to replace the defunct Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement. Although most of the British troops had withdrawn from Singapore by October 1971, small British, Australian and New Zealand forces continued to be stationed in Singapore as a token foreign military presence.

Australian ground forces exited in 1974 and the last British soldier left Singapore in March 1976. Troops from New Zealand only left Singapore in 1989.

Marsita Omar and Chan Fook Weng

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The information in this article is valid as at 2007 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

British Military Withdrawal, Singapore, 1971
Law and government>>Security
Politics and Government>>National Security
National security
Economic security--Singapore
Events>>Historical Periods
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Great Britain--Military policy

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