British withdrawal from Singapore



On 18 July 1967, Britain announced its plans to withdraw its troops from Singapore by the mid-1970s.1 Six months later, the deadline was brought forward to 1971.2 The sudden pull-out 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 the British military bases were contributing over 20 percent to Singapore’s gross national product.3 To counter these problems, Singapore embarked on a rapid industrialisation programme, tightened its labour laws to attract foreign investments, strengthened its defence through military cooperation with other countries, and tripled its military spending.4 By the deadline, Singapore had achieved strong economic growth and nearly full employment.5 Most of the British troops had moved out of Singapore by October 1971, leaving a token number behind. It was five years later when the last of the British troops left Singapore.6

Background
In Britain, following the Labour Party’s election into power in 1964, the new Labour government was forced to reduce the country’s defence spending which was burdening its already weakened economy.7 Maintaining military bases in Singapore alone had cost £70 million a year.8 By April 1967, the government had decided to halve its commitment to the Far East Command by 1971 and disengage all troops by 1975.9


In November 1967, the British were forced to devalue the pound due to mounting economic problems.10 This led to deep cuts to its government budget, and it became increasingly clear that the British government could no longer uphold its military commitment in the Far East.11 On 16 January 1968, Britain announced a total withdrawal of its troops “East of Suez” by end 1971, with the pull-out from Malaysia and Singapore by 31 March 1971 – a deadline four years earlier than planned.12

The announcement came as a shock to Singapore, because the British had earlier given their assurance that the withdrawal would be done in stages.13 At that time, Singapore was heavily dependent on Britain for its defence and economy. As the first batch of 900 national servicemen had just started their training on 17 August 1967, Singapore was ill-equipped to take up its own defence.14 In addition, the British military bases were contributing over 20 percent to Singapore’s gross national product, and it was projected that about 25,000 base workers in Singapore would be rendered jobless in 1971 as a result of the military withdrawal.15 

Initial reactions
When informed in late 1967, the Singapore government responded to the forthcoming announcement with dismay and anger.16 Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew threatened to withdraw from the pound sterling, give the dockyard to the Japanese, and disrupt British shipping and trade.17 He also suggested that if the British forces were to pull out too quickly, he would have to “hire mercenaries to defend Singapore”.18 In a final bid to reverse the situation, Lee 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.19

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  extended the withdrawal deadline from March to December 1971.20

Overcoming the crisis
When it became clear that Britain’s decision was irreversible, Singapore leaders quickly began to plan 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.21 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 bases that had belonged to the British.22 These assets were to be instrumental in propelling Singapore’s shipbuilding industry forward.23


To obtain the mandate that they needed to make far-reaching economic changes, the People’s Action Party (PAP) called for an early election to be held in April 1968.24 With the main opposition party – the Barisan Sosialis – boycotting the election, only 7 of the 58 parliamentary seats were contested and the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day.25 The PAP candidates also won all seven contested seats, resulting in a clean sweep.26 In August 1968, new labour laws were passed to curb industrial disputes and attract foreign investors.27 Singapore also embarked on a rapid industrialisation programme.28

In the area of defence, military spending tripled, and an air force and a navy were added to support the army.29 The Five Power Defence Arrangements, which comprised the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, was also formed to replace the defunct Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement drawn up in 1957.30 Although most of the British troops had withdrawn from Singapore by October 1971, a small contingent of British, Australian and New Zealand forces stayed on as a token military presence.31 The last British soldier left Singapore in March 1976.32 However, troops from New Zealand left Singapore only in 1989.33 Australian ground troops had left even before the British in December 1975.34



Authors
Marsita Omar & Chan Fook Weng




References
1. Pull-out in middle 1970’s. (1967, July 19). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. All out by 1971. (1968, January 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Murfett, M. H., et al. (2011). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from 1275 to 1971. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 328–329. (Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET)
3. Murfett, M. H., et al. (2011). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from 1275 to 1971. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 327, 329. (Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET)
4. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 310–311. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
5. Wee, S. (1971, September 15). ‘Phenomenal’ growth by our industries. New Nation, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Murfett, M. H., et al. (2011). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from 1275 to 1971. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 333. (Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET)
7. Murfett, M. H., et al. (2011). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from 1275 to 1971. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 321–325. (Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET); Labour, but only just... (1964, October 17). The Straits Times, p. 1; Healey rules out big cuts in Britain’s manpower. (1965, August 6). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Hack, K. (2001). Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore 1941–1968. Richmond: Curzon Press, p. 285. (Call no.: RSING 959.504 HAC)
9. Murfett, M. H., et al. (2011). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from 1275 to 1971. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 325. (Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET)
10. Wilson explains. (1967, November 21). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Murfett, M. H., et al. (2011). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from 1275 to 1971. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 328. (Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET); Hack, K. (2001). Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore 1941–1968. Richmond: Curzon Press, pp. 286–287. (Call no.: RSING 959.504 HAC)
12. All out by 1971. (1968, January 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Darby, P. (1973). British defence policy east of Suez, 1947—1968. London: Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, p. 324. (Call no.: RSING 355.033542 DAR)
13. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 50–60. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
14. Dinners to honour S’pore’s first batch of soldiers. (1967, August 18). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lee begins talks to avert total British pull-out by 1975. (1967, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, p. 69. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
16. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 57–60. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
17. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 309. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, p. 58. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS]); Lee warns: We may cut ties. (1968, January 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Lee: If there’s a power vacuum… (1968, January 15). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, p. 61. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
20. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, p. 60. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
21. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 309. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
22. Rozario, F. (1968, February 23). A takeover of 15,000 acres. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 309. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
24. Yeo, J. (1968, February 10). Feb. 17 is line-up day. The Straits Times, p. 1; De Cruz, P. (1968, March 24). The battle for economic survival. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Yeo, J., et al. (1968, February 18). Walk-over. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Chandran, R., et al. (1968, April 14). The PAP seven sweep to victory. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Necessary change. (1968, July 16). The Straits Times, p. 12; Right to work past 55… (1968, August 1). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Drysdale, J. G. S. (1984). Singapore, struggle for success. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 407. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 DRY-[HIS])
28. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 310–311. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
29. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 311. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
30. Thompson, S. (2015). British military withdrawal and the rise of regional cooperation in South-east Asia, 1964–73. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 127—129. (Call no.: RSEA 355. 03109410959 THO)
31. Murfett, M. H., et al. (2011). Between two oceans: A military history of Singapore from 1275 to 1971. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 333. (Call no.: RSING 355.0095957 BET); Vanzi, M. (1971, October 30). Now nowhere east of the Suez… New Nation, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Sung, B. (1976, March 31). No fanfare as Britain’s last soldier leaves. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Thomas, J. (1989, July 20). NZ troop withdrawal marks more than an end of an era. The Business Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Troop pullout talks soon. (1975, May 2). New Nation, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



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.

Subject
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
Singapore--History--1965-1990