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Friday, June 5, 2009

'The British will look after us'

'The British will look after us'
By Goh Chin Lian, Senior Political Correspondent

Mr Morrice recalls that during the early years of self-government, his platoon once protected temporary workers collecting night soil in Chinatown. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

OFFICER cadet John Morrice was 250km away from home on the day Singapore proclaimed self-government in 1959.
He was 24 and learning tactics and jungle warfare from British trainers at a Malaysian military college in Port Dickson. The question of who would defend the island was moot for him in those days.

'We thought that if anything happens, the British will look after us,' recalls Mr Morrice, now 74 and a retired colonel from the Singapore Armed Forces.

The British at that time retained control of the island's external defence and foreign affairs. This was accepted, even welcomed, for it offered stability while the new Singapore leaders focused on battling unemployment and housing. Also, British naval dockyards and air bases in Singapore were a vital source of jobs for locals.

Singapore's dependence on British military presence would continue through independence in 1965. Then as domestic pressure in Britain mounted, its forces here were pulled out in 1971.

Decades on, Mr Morrice still regards the British with some fondness. This is a perspective shaped by his acquaintance with them early in life, which he describes in an account for the Oral History Department of the National Archives.

He recalls growing up in the servants' quarters of Government House, now the Istana, where his India-born father waited on British governors. On Fridays, the boy would sit on the floor of a hall, watching military film footage with Lord Louis Mountbatten, then Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command.

Lord Mountbatten later recommended him for the 1st Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR) in 1957, when it was recruiting regular soldiers from the local populace.

He recalls the next two years at the Federation Military College in Port Dickson as a time of tough discipline under the British sergeant majors. They ordered hour-long marching drills under the afternoon sun for soldiers who failed to make beds or polish boots to their exacting standards.

And from monthly dinners with the commanders and their wives, he learnt table manners, ballroom dancing and the ways of a British gentleman-officer.

Back in 1 SIR's camp in Ulu Pandan, he joined one of the few local officers who soldiered alongside British commanders.

His commanding officer, one Colonel Jackson, invited him to his Mount Pleasant Road home on weekends for lunch.

'He looked after me like his own son,' Mr Morrice told Insight, saying his parents died months apart in 1959.

His close ties with the officers was a contrast, however, to the segregation he saw in tram cars where the front was reserved for whites and the rear for locals.

His own platoon was composed mainly of Malays. Many were former gangsters who stole durians and rambutans out of mischief, but they proved to be good fighters when it came to the crunch.

The largely Malay make-up of 1 SIR and also 2 SIR, formed in 1962, posed a security risk in independent Singapore, which was three-quarters Chinese. More non-Malays were later recruited.

In those early years of self-government, the most pressing threats were internal, as workers went on strike and secret societies thrived. Local soldiers augmented an overstretched police force.

Mr Morrice's platoon protected temporary workers collecting night soil in Chinatown in the early 1960s. City council workers, who used to do the job but had gone on strike, would attack them.

He would lead the way in a jeep with soldiers trailing him, followed by the temporary workers on lorries and more soldiers guarding the rear. 'It was like a Chinese funeral procession,' he recalls.

The external threat appeared in 1963, when Indonesia pursued a policy of 'konfrontasi' against British-backed Malaysia, of which Singapore was a part.

Unlike today's SAF troops who have not seen actual conflict, both regiments saw action against the Indonesians: 2 SIR defended Johor, while 1 SIR sailed to Sebatik Island off the coast of Sabah.

Mr Morrice later went on to command an SAF infantry brigade and serve as commandant of the SAFTI military institute, before retiring in 1983. He never expected his military career to turn out the way it did when he signed on as a young man. After all, the British had raised the two regiments to be part of the Malaysian armed forces.

In 1959, no one foresaw the accelerated British withdrawal of forces. Nor did anyone expect Singapore to become an independent nation, one that would build up its own defence force - and thrive.

chinlian@sph.com.sg

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