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 pound sterling. The news came as a shock to Singapore because Britain had earlier given their assurance that the pullout would be done in stages. As a compromise, the British agreed to extend its deadline for withdrawal from March to December 1971. The sudden pullout of British forces presented serious problems to Singapore's defense and economic security. At that 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 to over 20 per cent of Singapore's gross national product and provided direct employment to 1 in 10, or 25,000 people in Singapore. A hasty withdrawal would lead to a mass unemployment problem. To counter these problems, Singapore embarked on a rapid industralisation programme, tightened labour laws to attract foreign investments, and beefed up its defenses through military cooperation with other countries and tripled its military spending. By the deadline, Singapore had overcome the odds by achieving strong economic growth and near 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 defense spending which was burdening its already weakened economy. The cost of maintaining the Singapore Naval Base alone was 70 million pounds a year. By April 1967 the government decided that it would halve its commitment to the Far East Command by 1971 and disengaged 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 defense and economy. As the first batch of 900 National Servicemen still in training, Singapore was ill-equipped to take up its own defense. The military bases were also contributing to over 20 per cent of Singapore's gross national product and provided direct employment to 1 in 10, or 25,000 people in Singapore. Many more, from domestic helpers to 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 sterling pound, 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 of 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 Britains decision was irreversible, Singapore leaders quickly got down to planning for the future. They successfully negotiated with the British for a soft loan of 50 million pounds, free transfer of key assets, help with operating the air-defense 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 which 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 vote 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 speeded up its urban renewal and infrastructure projects to the tune of $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. Though 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

All out by 1971 [Microfilm: NL 5382]. (1968, January 17).
The Straits Times, p. 1

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Drysdale, J. (1984). Singapore: Struggle for success (pp. 400-403). Singapore: Times Editions.
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Koh, al. (Eds.) (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia (p. 73). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet with the National Heritage Board.
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Lee: If there's a power vacuum, I'll have to hire mercenaries. (1968, January 15). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved July 14, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Mr Lee to seek arms pact. (1968, January 18). The Times, p. 3. Retrieved January 9, 2009, from The Times Digital Archive database.

Murfett, M. H., et. al. (2004). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from first settlement to final British withdrawal (pp. 392-407). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic.
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Pull-out aid [Microfilm: NL 5464]. (1968, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 10.

Singapore: Journey into nationhood
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Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore 1819-1988 (pp. 293-399). Singapore: Oxford University Press.  
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Vain hopes raised by Mr Lee's visit to London. (1968, January 17). The Times, p. 8. Retrieved January 9, 2009, from The Times Digital Archive database.

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.

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

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