SINGAPORE guards the western gateway of the Pacific. Situated at the extreme southeastern corner of Asia, where the tongue of the Malay peninsula protrudes into the East Indies, it is so favored by geography that ships plying between Suez and Japan as well as between India and Australia must pass within a mile of it. Off Singapore the waters of the Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the Java Sea meet. Like Panama, Gibraltar and Suez, it is one of the great focal points for shipping, where geography forces far-flung lines of communication to converge.

The strategical significance of Singapore was first appreciated by Sir Stamford Raffles, agent for the East India Company, whose brilliant career and services to the British Empire have never received proper recognition. He it was who in 1819 planted the British flag there, only to be scorned and denounced by the Little Englanders of his day. "It gives us," he wrote a friend, "the command of China and Japan, with Siam and Cambodia, to say nothing of the islands [the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines] themselves." Within a half century of his unsung death the city which he founded was one of the great ports of the world. Today as much commerce flows past it as through Panama or Suez. Its importance as the great Eastern outpost of the British Empire is at last being realized, despite the efforts of pacifists and present-day Little Englanders to discredit it. As early as 1882 the first elements of a naval base were laid down, but only in 1921 was it decided to ask Parliament for £10,500,000 to make Singapore the principal naval station in Eastern Asiatic waters.

In order fully to appreciate the importance of Singapore it is necessary to examine the accompanying maps. From these it is clear that Singapore stands on not only the principal trade route from Europe to Eastern Asia, but also the line of communication that ties the Dominions in the Pacific to India and the rest of the Empire. To show the relative distances two circles have been drawn, with a radius of 1,500 and 3,000 miles respectively. Within the smaller circle lie the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, French Indo-China, Siam, and the Bay of Bengal. The outer circle just touches Japan. The sailing distances, in nautical miles, from Singapore to the principal ports are as follows: Nagasaki (the nearest Japanese seaport) 2415; Hongkong 1454; Manila 1370; Port Darwin (northwestern Australia) 1967; Calcutta 1646; Madras 1591; and Colombo, Ceylon, 1585.

Aside from the general geographical position of Singapore in relation to trade routes, the local features are favorable for the creation of a naval base with ample storage facilities. Singapore is an island which fits like an egg into the cup of the Malay Peninsula. On the southern or outer edge, nearest the shipping lanes, is the commercial harbor and the city of 500,000 inhabitants who live by its trade. On the northern or inner portion is the site of the base, with ample anchorage space. It is protected from the sea by the surrounding low hills. The outer approaches through Dutch and English owned islands are readily defensible by mines and nets.

The base itself is to consist primarily of docking and storage facilities, rather than of costly defense fortifications. The reason for this is that the British fleet in Eastern waters is at present forced to depend on distant stations for supplies and repairs. This is particularly true of capital ships that cannot be drydocked at any point short of Malta, thirty-one days steaming distance from Singapore. There is at present in Singapore a commercial drydock capable of handling ships of less than 10,000 tons. As part of the new naval base development a floating dock was shipped to Singapore and installed during the latter part of 1928, for the purpose of handling larger ships. At the same time the oil storage facilities were completed, and the provision depots planned with sufficient thoroughness to insure adequate supplies for Singapore so long as it does not fall into enemy hands.

The island is connected with the mainland by a granite and concrete causeway through which runs an aqueduct and over which is an excellent road for motor lorries and a double track railway. The presumption is that in the event of war it would be possible to supply Singapore overland from some port near the Indian end of the Malaca Straits. This causeway was at one time severely criticized by naval experts because it shuts off one of the two sea approaches to the base. The economic consequences of linking the island with the hinterland would seem, however, to outweigh these naval objections.

Not only in the United States, where the rôle of bases in naval operations has never been generally understood, but even in England, the question "Why Singapore?" has often been raised.

The answer, apart from the geographical factors already explained, is to be found in a further consideration of the functions of naval bases in peace as in war. The popular conception of a naval base as a highly fortified rocky eminence, like Gibraltar, is largely misleading. While a base must be safe from attack, its chief purpose is to give the fleet greater mobility in important strategic centers. This means primarily to provide fuel and supplies of all sorts, and to furnish adequate docking facilities so that in peace the ships' bottoms may be scraped and in war the necessary repairs made. A fouled bottom reduces a battleship's cruising radius, as well as its speed. In tropical waters it is particularly necessary to dock ships frequently in order to remove the rank growth that accumulates on them.

As a matter of fact it may be said that a fleet without a naval base within striking distance is much like an automobile in the Sahara. In war an injured ship has a chance of recovery if it can reach a near base. But if it has to travel many thousands of miles it is in imminent danger of annihilation. The existence of a well developed naval base with drydocks and supplies at Singapore therefore greatly increases the mobility of the British fleet in Pacific and Indian Ocean waters, and so affords to the British possessions in these regions that same degree of protection which other portions of the Empire now enjoy.

The most succinct summary of the wherefores of the Singapore base was made by Mr. Amery, First Lord of the Admiralty, from 1921 to 1924, speaking in Parliament on March 18, 1924:

"Singapore is essentially in a British part of the world. It is actually the point of one of the richest and most progressive parts of the Empire. It is the key to the Indian Ocean, round which lies three-quarters of the land territory of the Empire. The Great Southern Dominions, India, and our East African possessions lie around that ocean. Three quarters of the population of the Empire is around it also. We have not a single base in all that vast region at which a modern ship could be fitted or repaired. . . . There passes through that Ocean every year something like £1,000,000,000 worth of our traffic and a great deal of other traffic belonging to the rest of the Empire. Something like £160,000,000 worth of our ships and cargo is afloat in that ocean at any minute of the day. Singapore is the one point from which the whole area can be effectively defended and protected. More than that. If Singapore were an enemy base, there is no other point from which any part of that great area could be protected. It is also the only station on the way to Australia and New Zealand by which the fleet can move to their help. You cannot steam a fleet either from the Panama Canal or the Cape across to Australia and New Zealand. The only route by which help can come to the Southern Dominions is by way of Singapore. Once the fleet is at Singapore it already covers the approaches to these Dominions, and is in the best position to provide them with security."

When the Singapore project was first discussed in Parliament it was attacked on three grounds: that it was a violation of the spirit of the Washington agreement; that it was an aggressive act against Japan; and that it would involve unwarranted and ever-increasing expenditures.

To the first complaint even Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, who was one of the strongest opponents of the Singapore project, took exception in no uncertain terms. Like Lord Balfour, who directed the British negotiations at the Washington Conference, he pointed out that at that Conference the boundary of the area delimited in the treaty as that in which fortifications were not to be strengthened was fixed at 110 degrees, and that Singapore, lying outside the boundary, was knowingly and expressly excepted from the agreement. This was understood at the time by the public as well as by the American, Japanese and other naval experts. The charge that the base violated the spirit of the Washington Conference may therefore be dismissed as specious.

To the second criticism the defenders of the base pointed out that Singapore is very nearly as far from Japan as England is from the United States. This is too great a distance for a modern fleet to operate successfully in an aggressive action against a strong fleet in its home waters. Furthermore, they pointed out that at the Washington Conference Great Britain had forfeited the right further to fortify Hongkong, and that the withdrawal on Singapore was, in fact, removing their Far Eastern base 1,500 miles farther from Japan. Finally, rather than establishing a new point of attack on the Island Empire, they insisted that Singapore was not directed "against" any nation any more than is Gibraltar or Malta.

To the third charge -- that the base would entail increasing expenses -- no adequate replies were made in the Parliamentary discussions. But it is interesting to note that the contract awarded in September 1928 for completion of the base called for an expenditure of only £7,750,000 instead of £10,500,000 as originally demanded.

Even today many Englishmen fail to appreciate the implication of the argument so ably put forward by Mr. Amery and others in Parliament -- that Singapore is an Imperial, rather than a merely English, base. In fact, the pressure for the construction of Singapore came largely from the Pacific Dominions and colonies. At the various Imperial Conferences the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers, supported by New Foundland and on occasions by Canada, urged the creation of the base so that they might benefit from the protection of the British defense system. In order to show its earnestness, New Zealand contributed a sum of £1,000,000 and the crown colony of Hongkong £250,000. The Federated Malay States donated the land for the base and additional sums. Australia preferred to put her contribution into ships, but her officials never ceased demanding that the base be completed as rapidly as possible. When the Ramsay MacDonald government decided to halt work on the base in 1924, many people in the Dominions felt that England had betrayed them and, to use the words of the then Australian Prime Minister, that "incalculable harm" was done to the Empire's prestige.

The British Empire has not been alone in supporting this project. In the Dutch East Indies it has been hailed with enthusiasm and relief. Holland possesses in her tropical islands one of the richest treasure stores in the world. Not only is their present agricultural yield enormous, and their production of oil an important item in the world's supply, but they contain vast scantily-populated areas which promise to be as rich as Java when commensurately developed. This empire is unprotected. Holland's few cruisers in the Dutch East Indies, based on a small naval depot at Soerabaya, would be unimportant against even a second-class naval power. The Dutch have long known that as a result of this they hold the islands only on the sufferance of their neighbors. Hence they are keenly anxious to see the balance of power preserved in the Pacific. They realize that with a strong British fleet based on Singapore, Britain's interests, which, like those of Holland, are determined by the necessity of upholding the status quo, would automatically protect the Indies. In fact, with a base at Singapore, Great Britain could never permit the occupation of any of the Dutch islands surrounding Singapore by a power other than Holland. It would not be surprising, therefore, to learn that the already closely interlocked Dutch and British oil interests are factors in the Singapore situation. No agreement has ever been published, but that an understanding of some sort exists is generally believed in the Orient.

The Americans in the Philippines look with just as friendly an eye on the Singapore base as do the Dutch because they, too, care only about the preservation of the status quo in the Pacific. They realize that the provisions of the Washington Conference forbidding the strengthening of the existing island defenses, taken in connection with the distance of the islands from Hawaii, makes difficult their defense by the American navy alone. Hence they place much faith in the close community of interests between the Americans, British and Dutch in this section of the world as the best assurance of achieving the mutually desired peaceful goal.

The weakness of the Singapore base lies in the exigencies of European politics. The size of the fleet which Great Britain can base on Singapore, whether in peace or war, is determined by the demands of the European political situation. An example from history will make this plain. Prior to the German race for naval armament, Great Britain maintained a powerful fleet in Chinese waters, based on Hongkong. As the German fleet began to threaten the English fleet after 1908, it became necessary for the British to withdraw their Asiatic squadron upon the Mediterranean, and ultimately to make their principal concentration in the North Sea. While there is no imminent danger of a new threat from Germany alone, it is more than likely that if England were to become involved in a war in the Far East the enemy would seek to create a situation in Europe which would at least threaten England's lines of communications and so force the immobilization in European waters of an important part of the British navy.

But this does not mean that Great Britain would be defenseless in the East. In a war which threatened the status quo in the Pacific she would not be likely to be fighting single handed. None of the Powers in the Singapore area could view with impunity an attack on the possessions of one of the others in that region. Fortunately the likelihood of such an attack is at present infinitesimal. But it is the policy of the British Empire, if not of Holland or the United States, to run no risks in matters of defense and to prefer to make good-will doubly sure by preparing for all emergencies. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that despite the fact that England's financial contribution to the base was withheld during the premiership of Ramsay MacDonald, the work was carried on, thanks to funds from other portions of the Empire, and that it is now assured of completion within a few years.

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  • NICHOLAS ROOSEVELT, of the editorial staff of the New York Times; author of "The Philippines: a Treasure and a Problem " and "The Restless Pacific"
  • More By Nicholas Roosevelt