History has not judged the colonial residents of Singapore kindly. Thanks to novelists like Somerset Maugham and J. G. Farrell, we’ve been left with the impression they were the worst examples of rapacious Empire-builders, who enjoyed a carefree lifestyle downing Singapore Slings at Raffles Hotel, while failing to notice the encroaching threat of the Japanese during World War Two.
On Sunday, a new ITV adaptation of Farrell’s novel, The Singapore Grip, hits our TV screens. Adapted by Oscar-winning playwright Sir Christopher Hampton and set during the lead up to the Fall of Singapore in February 1942, it tells the story of Walter Blackett’s attempts to shore up rubber company Blackett and Webb as war approaches.
Actor David Morrissey, who plays Walter, described his character’s “entitlement as monstrously fascinating”, adding, “He’s a victim of his own world view. [British] arrogance is so blinding that they don’t see their world is about to disintegrate.”
The Fall of Singapore was one of the most devastating defeats in our history. But is it fair for Farrell to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Britons who lived there, and poke fun at their plight? My late aunt by marriage, Rosie Ramsay Rae, was the daughter of the Attorney General, the Governor’s right-hand man in Singapore during the Fall. She took a dim view of this fictional characterisation of moronic, entitled expats having no thought of the war raging in Europe as they partied.
In recordings with Rosie and her late husband, Air Vice Marshall Ronnie Ramsay Rae, made by the Imperial War Museum before their deaths, she raged at the “misconception” that “everyone was an idle, whisky-swilling planter, being waited on hand and foot and doing absolutely nothing, and this really wasn’t true.”
Rosie met her husband, a handsome Australian RAF officer, in Singapore. They married in August 1939 on the eve of war itself in Singapore Cathedral. Listening to Rosie’s testimony, it’s evident how much war encroached on their lives once it was declared.
Ronnie, then a Flight Lieutenant, was called back from their honeymoon as war broke out, and Rosie trained as a nurse. In 1940, Rosie’s father, Charles Gough Howell KC took leave to the UK, volunteering as an Air Raid Warden, while Rosie’s brother Bill Howell joined the RAF.
“He was in the first night fighter squadron that had radar and started flying over Germany shooting the bombers down before they could take off,” Rosie said. War was present in all their lives; with Ronnie in the RAF, the young couple had more of an insight into the growing danger of the Japanese. But, as The Singapore Grip relates, there was a reluctance on behalf of top brass – in London and Singapore - to take the threat seriously and equip the colony.
“There’s a historical strand which is truthfully rendered by Farrell,” Sir Christopher said. “The military characters making these disastrous plans are real people. They are scenes of incompetence and ineptitude, so there’s a fine line to be trod between making fun of these people and respecting them and realising it wasn’t really their fault. There were orders from London that were impossible to follow.”
In his account, Ronnie recalled, “There was a tremendous delay in bringing anything to bear in the Far East. It was at home the pressure was on, from the Germans. We hadn’t even thought of the Japanese as being an enemy.”
Instead – and in fairness to the real-life versions of Walter Blackett-types – the colony was ordered to churn out the tin and rubber that was vital to the supply of munitions.
“The Governor insisted the whole area should remain as a dollar arsenal and not be subject to service control and discipline. It made it difficult to build up at short notice after the Japanese attacked,” said Ronnie.
While parties continued, Singapore society was aware of the lack of military hardware, and Rosie told of a group of bright young things who raised money for fighter planes with “dances and gymkhanas”. Still, invasion took them by surprise.
“Nobody thought it was going to come so violently and suddenly as it did at Pearl Harbour [in December 1941],” Rosie said. Refugees poured from the north as the Japanese surprised the Allied forces by striking landwards. Included in the series to show, according to Sir Christopher, “the menace and the terror of the Japanese” is the massacre at the Alexandra Hospital, in which 200 patients and staff were killed.
Despite Sir Winston Churchill urging that there should be no surrender and “the battle must be fought to the end at all costs”, the following day, the British capitulated and the population tried to flee on boats. By that point Rosie was in Australia, having left weeks earlier with a lung condition.
“My mother Gretchen was trying to get my father out, knowing he only had one lung, but the Governor wouldn’t allow it,” she recalled. “My mother got onto a boat which had one big hold for cattle and they were all herded onto it, women and children with one small handbag each.
“They were attacked from the sea and the air and of the 15 ships that left, 13 were sunk. She said the sea was full of people shouting and bodies and the worst thing was two little children clinging onto a bit of driftwood shouting and waving and saying, ‘isn’t this fun, look at our boat! She knew they’d just cling on until they fell off. She never got over it.”
Ronnie, meanwhile, was charged with flying the last plane out of Singapore to Sumatra, armed with secret documents: “he noticed [Japanese] parachutists arriving as the same time as him and set fire to the papers in the aircraft.” Ronnie escaped, taking a boat to Java, but his luck ran out in March that year when he was interned in a prisoner of war camp. Rosie did not see her father again.
He was one of 100,000 Allied troops and civilians taken prisoner, forced to march to the notorious Changi Prison before being shipped to Taiwan, where he died. Rosie and her mother reunited in Australia where they set up the Malayan Research Bureau, helping people record their experiences.
“She went on working after she heard about my dad,” said Rosie. “She wouldn’t give in.”
A month after Ronnie’s capture, Rosie received the official POW postcard saying, “I am a prisoner of war, I am alright, I am being well treated”, although later she was told he was missing, presumed dead. But Ronnie survived, despite losing half of his body weight.
Rosie said, “He was the very last POW of the entire war to come back. He was terribly thin and worn-looking but full of beans. His main object was to get flying again.”
The Singapore Grip shines a light on an ignominious portion of history, but the machinery of Empire is complex: for every racist chancer like Walter Blackett, there were many others, like Rosie and Ronnie, who were driven by duty and self-sacrifice.
The fact they occasionally enjoyed a Gin Sling should not distract us from that.
The Singapore Grip begins on ITV Sunday at 9pm.
See iwm.org.uk for more on Rosie and Ronnie Ramsay Rae.