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What Colonial People Think
About the War

British Get Little Aid Now from Their Own Subjects

(14 February 1942)

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 7, 14 February 1942, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Some of the capitalist press accounts of the Malaya fighting stoop to the absurd in an effort to “explain”, the Japanese military successes. One of the correspondents, for instance, even has it that the Japanese soldiers have the advantage of being “natural” jungle fighters, although most of them have never seen a jungle, being largely farm boys, factory workers, office clerks, etc., of the sort that make up the armies of the western powers.

More plausible accounts reiterate the plaint about Japanese “hordes” and “overwhelming superiority of numbers” and “tremendous concentrations” of mechanical equipment.

A New York Times story, Jan. 31, reports the extent of these “hordes”. “A British military commentator in London estimated that the Japanese had six full divisions of 100,000 men in Malaya.”

But how does it happen that 100,000 men have made such rapid advances against the British who rule over 400,000,000 people in India, Burma and the Malay States?

Britain and China

As for aircraft, tanks and guns, the British forces in Malaya are far better off in this respect than the Chinese army.

“Yet here are the Chinese, who have nothing,” observes the columnist Samuel Grafton in the New York Post, Jan. 15, “killing hell out of the Japanese at Changsha, and filtering toward Canton, while the Malayans, plus Indians, plus Australians, plus British, are backing down the Malay Peninsula toward Singapore. How is it that Chinese ‘natives’ alone” he asks, “are doing better than Malayan natives plus English?”

Here is a question which probes deeply into the reasons for, the British defeats. What about the Malayan natives? What role are they playing? Haven’t they heard the message of the “four freedoms?”

The dispatches from the Far East don’t say much about the native peoples. But they do contain somé significant hints on the status of affairs.

Reports on the Natives

Interspersed in the reports from Malay and Burma one reads repeatedly:

“British troops most of the time have had to fight blind ... while the Japanese have had aerial observation constantly and the great added advantage of land reconnaissance by their own men slipping through the lines disguised as Malayans or by hirelings among the natives.” (Singapore dispatch, New York Times, Jan. 15)

“The Japanese continue to fight largely in plain clothes ... Japanese troops dressed like Malays and riding in small groups on bicycles, as if going to market, have attempted to filter through the British lines.” (Northern Johore dispatch, New York Times, Jan. 21)

And from the Maulmein Front, Burma, comes the story:

“Fifth columnists aided them (the Japanese), to some extent, in creating general civilian disorganization ... The Japanese dress in the uniforms of prisoners and advance shouting in Burmese, Indian and English. They force natives to shoulder guns and march along with them to give the impression of numerical superiority.”

It sounds strange indeed, that the British who have ruled Malaya for a hundred years are so easily fooled by Japanese “disguised as natives”; that the Malayan and Burmese natives don’t tip the British off about these cunning tricks; that ordinary Japanese soldiers tun around “shouting” in three foreign tongues, no less.

One is forced to conclude, at any rate, that the native peoples aren’t giving much aid to the British because they are more or less indifferent about the British fight for the “four freedoms?’ Here, then, is a clue to the British difficulties.

Afraid to Arm the Native People

Moreover, the British show no eagerness to organize and arm the natives in defense of their own land.

The London Daily Express, Jan. 15, lamented that:

“... here is the great tragedy of Malaya. We could have had a native defense in Malaya ... But a pack of whiskey-swilling planters and military birds of passage have forgotten this side of the Malayan population.”

No, they haven’t “forgotten” it. They deliberately obstruct it. An Associated Press dispatch from Singapore on Feb. 6 tells that the Singapore radio has broadcast an appeal “for all able-bodied European civilians” to join the Singapore defense forces, explaining that “the use of only Europeans for this service likely would prevent the Japanese from trying to land disguised as natives.”

Surely, one must ask, wouldn’t the advantages of a greatly augmented armed force offset the possibility of a few Japanese infiltrating “disguised as natives”, and wouldn’t aimed Malayans be the best, preventive of such a possibility? Clearly, this is a pretty thin excuse to cover the fact that the British fear aimed natives as much as they do the Japanese.


Because the British authorities feel that the native people hate them no less than they fear the threat of the new Japanese masters.

We have a good example on a small scale of what has bred that hatred in the following, reported in an Associated Press dispatch from Singapore, New York Times, Feb. 6:

The ranking air raid warden in Singapore is quoted as saying:

“It’s no use telling the people that Malta has had a thousand raids and they have stuck it, or that Chungking has had worse than we’ve had. Those places have ideal shelters and we have nothing except drains and trenches.”

The report comments:

“Before the war came to Malaya, authorities here shelved a proposal for deep shelters holding that the terrain was unsuitable and the cost prohibitive.”

Naturally, the native people, who are being bombed mercilessly by the Japanese, resent the fact that the British could spend $400,000,000 for a now useless naval base and find the “cost prohibitive” for air raid shelters.

And behind this British indifference to the natives’ welfare is what the CBS correspondent Cecil Brown described in the Jan. 12 issue of Life magazine:

“Singapore Mentality”

“The atrophying malady of dying-without-death best known as the ‘Singapore mentality’, largely helped to bring the Japanese more than 125 miles inside Malaya (early in Jan.). For civilians (British) this walking death is characterized by an apathy to all affairs except making tin and rubber, money, having stengahs (whiskey and soda) between 5 and 8 p.m., keeping fit, being known as ‘a good chap’, and getting thoroughly ‘plawstered’ on Saturday night.”

The Singapore authorities reacted to this disclosure by barring Brown’s broadcasts, over the Singapore radio because they were “damaging to the British cause and inimical to the local morale.” Local morale, it seems, is affected by accurate reporting, but not by the lack of air raid shelters or the activities of the British ruling class exclusively devoted to “making tin and rubber, money, having stengahs.”

At least one capitalist press commentator, however, has dared to put his finger on the real reason for the British defeats. Samuel Grafton, in the New York Post, Feb. 5, frankly states:

“The natives of Malaya did not care whether the British Won or the Japanese won, and refused stoutly to give their all for what the London press calls the ‘whiskey-swilling planters’ ... Singapore needed a layer of freedom around it a couple of hundred miles wide: this is the only kind of Maginot line which works ...

“India’s millions, like the Chinese, could pour across that border (Burma) or over the Bay of Bengal, and rip the heart out of the invaders, save the Burma Road, save China, save India, and save freedom, if only they had a portion of freedom to save.

“It is not that the Indians are indifferent to the war, or ‘prefer the Japanese’; it is that the spirit of man or dog dies under sufficient cuffing and one gets sick of hearing about how we are going to free countries we don’t have, and won’t free countries we do have.”

Yes, it’s hard for the peoples of India, Burma and Malay to get panic-struck at the idea of suffering a new Japanese master, when three centuries of British “civilization” has brought them little more than a 90 per cent illiteracy, a ragged cotton gown or loin-cloth, and an average life expectancy of 21 years.

Somehow the message of the Atlantic Charter has failed to reach the lands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. And if it has, the natives of India, Burma, Malay and the Dutch East Indies are still so largely illiterate that they cannot read it.

Some apologists for western imperialism shake their heads at the “stupidity” of the subject peoples in the Far East Who aren’t willing to fight for the “difference” between their present lot and what they will have to suffer under the Japanese imperialists. They cannot understand that the natives’ minds are too occupied with the whip actually slicing across their backs to worry much about a Japanese whip which has not yet struck.

The only message that will arouse these subject peoples is the message of independence from all oppressors. Under the banner of national liberation of all the colonial peonies, they would fight and die gladly against the Japanese invaders.

But apparently the British government prefers to risk defeat at the hands of the Japanese rather than give up a single one of its colonies to the people who live in them.

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