Australia’s policy towards Britain’s end of Empire in SE Asia

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Cold War and Decolonisation: Australia’s policy towards Britain’s end of Empire in Southeast Asia. By Andrea Benvenuti. National University of Singapore Press, Singapore, 2017.
Reviewed by Michael Fogarty

ANDREA BENVENUTI is a lecturer in international relations at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies with the University of New South Wales. The book is earmarked for an academic niche but it services a higher realm. Many Australians, Malaysians and Singaporeans will be the beneficiaries of his research and analysis. It is relevant for a generation of RAN personnel who spent much of their seagoing careers in the region (up top) from 1955-1971, and for later service with ANZUK.

His account interests me for several reasons, both personal and professional, during a span in which fellow club members can also relate. I served in the Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR) in the first half of 1967. He styles it the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve (CSR) which indubitably it was. As a teenage midshipman, serving in a RAN destroyer (DUCHESS) it left an indelible impression on me. Dr Benvenuti has reminded us that Australia, with its allies, contributed to overall military stability in countering the latent threat to the foundling states of Malaysia and Singapore.

The book is well presented with an agreeable division of chapters which attenuate the diplomatic manoeuvring between the major players; Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Indonesia, as the principal antagonist in ‘confronting’ the former British possessions, has to be studied during a tense period, under an errant leader, when Sukarno and his ill-governed people lost control of their proud history. The author is alive to their quest for self-development and how the then Malaya (1957) and Singapore (1959) had to arrive at their nationhood. Communism was a threat and the two nascent states had to be defended, lest they drift into an arc of instability, their existence being subverted by hostile foreign powers.

Australia had a primal fear towards regional security in the Far East, which we also regard as the Near North. The loss of Singapore in 1942, along with other European and thus imperial possessions, burned deeply into the Australian national psyche. It was visceral as palpable. Canberra sought to engage London and Washington to contribute to an overarching security umbrella.

‘Cold War and Decolonisation’ is an ambitious project and it largely succeeds. It remains a workable book so do try and understand that range of events were you a Malaysian or Singaporean. Independence is not born overnight. In many cases, it is an unrelenting struggle replete with internal politics as local political elites jockey for power once a colonial power bequeaths them the wherewithal to do so, as they retreat from empire.

Touch down at Singapore, in July 1974. The Department of Foreign Affairs posted me to the Australian High Commission for two years. In the interregnum, I witnessed the phased withdrawal of British forces as the two emerging Asian nations consolidated their own defence posture, now that a threat from Indonesia had receded. End of empire? I recall having the odd drink with an ANZUK liaison officer, Commander Tom Clack, RN at HMS TERROR officers’ mess, where he privileged a pink gin. Once regarded as a voluble submariner, on the occasions we met, he never spoke much, like our first Australians, but filled his conversations with silences, for there was nothing more to say. It was nostalgic last orders, at the end of empire café.

What of Singapore, in the mid-seventies? I attended an anniversary of its independence in August, 1974. Among the formations which paraded, they included ‘political prisoners.’ I was politically naïve (ignorant) as I could not discern whether they had been jailed by the British or the Singapore Government itself? The author notes the political dynamics within, when leftist firebrands from the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) posed a threat to their internal security and thus stability of Singapore, and by extension, Malaysia if they courted foreign sympathies. I once observed Lee Kuan Yew pass one of our official cars and he scowled at me. Surely, he could not have mistaken me for his much taller nemesis, Gough Whitlam, PM?

Dr Benvenuti has written an informative book. To repeat, we must know more of our Commonwealth neighbours, joined in mutual security alliances, to the military defence of their immediate surrounds and our practical conception of defence projection overall. Take the time to reflect on how our service personnel related to their immersion in Southeast Asia. Mathew Radcliffe has accounted for this formative experience: ‘Malaya bound, Australia’s colonial perceptions of Asia, 1955-65’.

The author skilfully describes and explains Asian sensitivities in a post-colonial world. Singapore and Malaya/Malaysia (1963) sought security guarantees from its Commonwealth allies during its political evolution in their early years. Britain had its own problems, defence estimates being one. The UK could no longer afford to bank roll a sizeable military profile in the Far East. Savings had to be made but the question was timing. Australia recognised and responded to those regional insecurities, which matched our own, and we ably reinforced their security yearnings.

As a postscript, as said hitherto, it is apt to reflect on the wider naval dimensions of that self-development. No discussion of this theme is adequate unless we array the Australian contribution to the FESR, be it naval, military or air units. To his credit, Andrea has canvassed the ‘military’ overlay, when Australia with its Commonwealth partners, defended the survival of two countries that had yet to fully build their own combat forces, which is also a facet of their true independence. In short, he pays tribute to our individual service components who served there.

While the author tables a respectable bibliography, it does not include ‘Britain in the Far East, The Singapore Naval Base’, by C. Northcote Parkinson (1955). Whilst dated, it is a useful historical survey of the defence imperatives which led to its formation. Although Dr Benvenuti has privately acknowledged the incisive work by Derek McDougall, it is similarly absent. I refer to “Australia and the Military Withdrawal from East of Suez”, ‘Australian Journal of International Affairs’, Vol. 51, No. 2, 1997. This work buttresses his own as it illustrates that Australia had an ongoing commitment to the area after ANZUK was phased out by early 1975.

Again, the author might have sourced ‘Between Two Oceans, A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal’ by Malcolm Murfett and others (1998). It has some useful time lines so we can gauge the impact of the British exit. After all, the British Defence posture in Singapore accounted for 20 per cent of the tiny state’s GNP. The last word must go to the Commander ANZUK Force in his farewell message on New Year’s Eve in 1974. “To have served within this unique force has provided us all with a most worthwhile military experience and a much greater understanding of our closest friends and neighbours. At the same time, we consider we have made a worthwhile contribution to the security of the region in which we have served.” We might also include the RAN contribution to the FESR in successive deployments in over 16 years. All of us can look back on that historic era with unalloyed pride. My own brief service was more patriotic than effectual, but a facet of my life I still cherish.

This book is a seminal contribution to our understanding of defence and foreign policy, in its continuum, within the region. This scholarly book deserves our attention if we are to better relate to our neighbours. ‘Cold War and Decolonisation’ is an anthem to our Australians of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage.

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