British withdrawal from Singapore
On 18 July 1967, Britain announced that it would withdraw its troops from Singapore by the mid-1970s.1 Six months later, the deadline was brought forward to 1971.2 The sudden pullout of British forces presented serious problems to Singapore’s defence and economic security. In response, 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.3 By the deadline, Singapore had achieved strong economic growth and nearly full employment.4 Most of the British troops had moved out of Singapore by October 1971, leaving a token number behind. The last of the British troops left in 1976.5
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.6 Maintaining military bases in Singapore alone cost £70 million a year.7 By April 1967, the government had decided to halve its commitment to the Far East Command by 1971 and disengage all troops by 1975.8
In November 1967, the British were forced to devalue the pound due to mounting economic problems.9 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 Southeast Asia.10 On 16 January 1968, Britain announced a total withdrawal of its troops that were “East of Suez” by end 1971, with the pullout from Malaysia and Singapore to be done by 31 March 1971 – four years earlier than planned.11
The announcement came as a shock to Singapore, because the British had given their assurance that the withdrawal would be done in stages.12 At the 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 defence13 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.14
When informed of the decision, the Singapore government responded with dismay and anger.15 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.16 He also suggested that if the British forces were to pull out too quickly, he would have to “hire mercenaries to defend Singapore”.17 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.18
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 1971.19
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.20 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.21 These assets were to be instrumental in propelling Singapore’s shipbuilding industry forward.22
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 1968.23 With the main opposition party Barisan Sosialis boycotting the election, only seven of the 58 parliamentary seats were contested and the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day.24 The PAP candidates also won all seven contested seats, resulting in a clean sweep.25 In August 1968, new labour laws were passed to curb industrial disputes and attract foreign investors.26 Singapore also embarked on a rapid industrialisation programme.27
In the area of defence, military spending was tripled, and an air force and a navy were added to support the army.28 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 1957.29 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.30 The last British soldier left Singapore in March 1976.31 However, troops from New Zealand left Singapore only in 1989.32 Australian ground troops had left even before the British in December 1975.33
The British withdrawal from Singapore marks the country’s emerging new place in world history as a development-driven, industrial state at the end of the 1960s. It was a milestone event that enabled the making of a “nation”.34
Marsita Omar & Chan Fook Weng
1. “Pull-Out in Middle 1970’s,” Straits Times, 19 July 1967, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “All Out by 1971,” Straits Times, 17 January 1968, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Malcolm H. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971, 2nded. (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 328–29. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET)
3. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 310–11. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
4. Sunny Wee, “‘Phenomenal’ Growth by Our Industries,” New Nation, 15 September 1971, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans, 333.
6. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans, 321–25; “Labour, but Only Just...,” Straits Times, 17 October 1964, 1; “Healey Rules Out Big Cuts in Britain’s Manpower,” Straits Times, 6 August 1965, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Karl Hack, Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore 1941–1968 (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2001), 285. (Call no. RSING 959.504 HAC)
8. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans, 325.
9. “Wilson Explains,” Straits Times, 21 November 1967, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans, 328; Karl Hack, Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia, 286–87.
11. “All Out by 1971”; Phillip Darby, British Defence Policy East of Suez, 1947–1968 (London: Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1973), 324. (Call no. RSING 355.033542 DAR)
12. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, 2000), 50–60. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
13. “Dinners to Honour S’pore’s First Batch of Soldiers,” Straits Times, 18 August 1967, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Lee Begins Talks to Avert Total British Pull-Out by 1975,” Straits Times, 27 June 1967, 18 (From NewspaperSG); Lee, Third World to First, 69.
15. Lee, Third World to First, 57–60.
16. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 309; Lee, Third World to First, 58; “Lee Warns: We May Cut Ties,” Straits Times, 9 January 1968, 1. (from NewspaperSG)
17. “Lee: If There’s a Power Vacuum…,” Straits Times, 15 January 1968, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Lee, Third World to First, 61.
19. Lee, Third World to First, 60.
20. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 309.
21. Francis Rozario, “A Takeover of 15,000 Acres,” Straits Times, 23 February 1968, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 309.
23. Joseph Yeo, “Feb. 17 Is Line-Up Day,” Straits Times, 10 February 1968, 1; Peter de Cruz, The Battle for Economic Survival,” Straits Times, 24 March 1968, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Joseph Yeo, et al., “Walk-Over,” Straits Times, 18 February 1968, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. R. Chandran, et al., “The PAP Seven Sweep to Victory,” Straits Times, 14 April 1968, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Necessary Change,” Straits Times, 16 July 1968, 12; “Right to Work Past 55…,” Straits Times, 1 August 1968, 10 (From NewspaperSG); John Drysdale, Singapore, Struggle for Success (Singapore: Times Books International, 1984), 407. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DRY-[HIS])
27. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 310–11.
28. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 311.
29. Sue Thompson, British Military Withdrawal and the Rise of Regional Cooperation in South-east Asia, 1964–73 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 127–29. (Call no. RSEA 355. 03109410959 THO)
30. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans, 333; Max Vanzi, “Now Nowhere East of the Suez…,” New Nation, 30 October 1971, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Bailyne Sung, “No Fanfare as Britain’s Last Soldier Leaves,” Straits Times, 31 March 1976, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
32. John Thomas, “NZ Troop Withdrawal Marks More than an End of an Era,” Business Times, 20 July 1989, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Troop Pullout Talks Soon,” New Nation, 2 May 1975, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Loh Kah Seng, “The British Military Withdrawal from Singapore and the Anatomy of a Catalyst,” in Singapore in Global History, eds., Derek Heng and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, eds., (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), 195–214. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN)
The information in this article is valid as at October 2020 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.