[Singaporean Literature]

The Flight of Colonial Administrators at the Japanese Invasion: Lee Kuan Yew on the Beginning of the End of the British Empire

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

When as a Cambridge University student the future Prime Minister of an independent Singapore argued that the British Empire would soon fall, he had already rejected much of the ideology that had supported long supported it. As he explains in his memoirs, he had been raised by his family to accept that British rule was "was the natural order of things," and he neither encountered "any local who by word or deed questioned all this" nor then realized that "there were many Chinese, educated in Chinese-language schools, who were not integrated into the colonial system. Their teachers had come from China, and they did not recognise the supremacy of the whites, for they had not been educated or indoctrinated into accepting the virtues and the mission of the British Empire."

The Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore, which he had experienced before travelling to England, changed all this:

In 70 days of surprises, upsets and stupidities, British colonial society was shattered, and with it all the assumptions of the Englishman's superiority. The Asiatics were supposed to panic when the firing started, yet they were the stoical ones who took the casualties and died without hysteria. It was the white civilian bosses who ducked under tables when the bombs and shells fell. It was the white civilians and government officers in Penang who, on 16 December 1941, in the quiet of the night, fled the island for the "safety" of Singapore, abandoning the Asiatics to their fate. . . . The whites had proved as frightened and at a loss as to what to do as the Asiatics, if not more so. The Asiatics had looked to them for leadership, and they had failed them. [53]

Admitting that many "stories of their scramble to save their skins [that] led the Asiatics to see them as selfish and cowardly" might have been exaggerated and unfair, yet there was no doubt that those in charge of "hospitals, public utilities and other essential services," such as firefighting, simply abandoned their posts -- and when they left, they dissolved the myth of British invincibility, superiority, and selflessness.


Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times, 1998.

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