The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell

Empire Trilogy #3

The Singapore Grip
J.G. Farrell
  • Category:Historical Fiction
  • Date Read:23 May 2023
  • Year Published:1978
  • Pages:676
  • 5 stars

A most striking thing as you fly into Singapore, just as the plane dips in a turn over Batam Island before heading north, is the flotilla of trading ships in Singapore Strait. Coming from Australia, a country no one needs to pass unless they actually intend to come here, the sight of hundreds of cargo ships and other vessels is arresting. It speaks of the importance of Singapore and the reason for its existence as a trading hub. In The Singapore Grip, J.G. Farrell characterises Sir Thomas Raffles’ foresight in establishing Singapore: “Here is where we must have a city, half-way between India and China. This will be the great halting-place on the trade route to the Far East.” Thus, Singapore is created, not “by a natural deposit of commerce”, but “simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map.” Singapore was one of the last jewels in the British Empire’s colonial crown. It fell to the Japanese in 1942 and the British were to later cede India back to the Indians in 1947. By 1956, the Empire was effectively gone with the resolution of the Suez Crisis.

The Singapore Grip is the final volume in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy. The first volume, The Siege of Krishnapur, dramatizes the events of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 that was a catalyst for Britain’s eventual withdrawal from India. The second, Troubles, is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where Britain had tried to suppress the mostly Catholic population for centuries. The Singapore Grip is set in the period prior to the Japanese attack on Singapore and culminates in the fall of the island to the Japanese.

Despite its rather grim subject – war – The Singapore Grip is a somewhat humorous novel in its first half, and still manages humorous moments as Singapore succumbs to the Japanese in its second half. Matthew, recently arrived in Singapore, is encouraged to accompany Monty and his sister to The Great World where an Irish woman, Miss Olive Kennedy-Walsh, is to be fired from a cannon to help raise money for an anticipated defence against the Japanese. The Great World was a fairground in the late thirties and early forties where circus acts were performed. Mrs Kennedy-Walsh is meant to hit a representation of a Japanese armoured car as part of the act. But first, her enormous breasts, which simply refuse to fit, must be kneaded into the cannon by a woman from the audience under the modest veil of a sheet. Then the cannon fails to fire. Finally, Miss Kennedy-Walsh is fired, but she fails to hit the armoured car and Fortress Singapore, it would seem, having spent its powder, lies undefended from the Japanese armoured vehicle whose inhabitants look at each other, now uncertain how to proceed. It’s a farcical moment, but the crowd reacts angrily. Farrell’s scene, it turns out, is a brilliant foreshadowing of Singapore’s fate.

The novel’s title is no less humorously instructive. When Matthew lands in Singapore he is warned by an R.A.F. crew member to “watch out for the Singapore Grip!” The warning suggests the threat of the exotic, a caution against the ‘other’. But Matthew is simply left confused and a little paranoid. What is the Singapore Grip? When he comes down with a fever, he believes he has caught the Singapore Grip, because sometimes it is described as a disease to him. But in Farrell’s hands the Singapore Grip is turned into a running joke that eventually has a serious intent, like Miss Kennedy-Walsh’s misplaced bombardment of the armoured car. The Grip is variously described, depending on whom Matthew asks and in what circumstances, as a suitcase made of rattan, a double-bladed hairpin, the ability that Singapore’s prostitutes have to contract their vaginal muscles, and is even jokingly referenced when Matthew and Vera Chiang, his new-found lover, accidentally walk in on two men, naked, ‘gripping’ each other.

Much of the first half of the novel is a British melodrama too, revealing the entitled mindset of Singapore’s expatriate business class who have inherited a colonialist mindset. Walter Blackett, whose company, Blackett and Webb, produces rubber, soon to be a much-needed commodity as war looms, faces uncertainty when his business partner, Mr Webb, dies. Walter hopes to gain control of Webb’s interest in the business, but Webb’s will could thwart Walter’s plans. Webb leaves his share in the business to Matthew, his son, who has grown up in England and has received a progressive education, instilled with a belief, Walter surmises, in sexual equality and perhaps even vegetarianism! Walter lives, “in a magnificent old colonial house of a kind rare in Singapore.” With its lush gardens, orchid house, fountains, manicured lawns, tennis courts (yes, plural), Mayfair House could only exist with the kind of colonial history that Singapore has; its exploitation of a native population and the wealth that that has produced. Walter’s pride in his company’s past and his family’s achievements are manifest. Attend a function at his home and you are likely to be taken to see his collection of paintings that document the company’s history: showing its owners through time and the rise and success of the business. And Walter is consumed with preparations for a parade to celebrate the company’s centennial year, even as the threat of a Japanese invasion looms.

Walter is of an older mindset to Matthew. He is an heir to Britain’s colonial grip on Singapore, and reminisces over times now slipping away:

At one time in Singapore everyone had known everyone. Those were the days of great rambling colonial houses where the tradition of lavish hospitality lingered on from the nineteenth century. Ah well, all that had gone with the wind. In the course of time the bachelor messes, too, which the merchant houses kept going for their young chaps, had been replaced by blocks of flats. And once they had disappeared all the fun that young men used to have in the tropics had disappeared with them.

Walter’s thinking is enlightening. That Farrell puts into his mind the phrase “gone with the wind” recalls Margaret Mitchell’s novel about the American South and Civil War. Does Walter really consider the dwindling colonial grip on Singapore analogous to a sympathetic reading of the situation of slave-owning plantation owners in America’s South? Added to this thought is his entitled remark – “the fun that young men used to have in the tropics” – which euphemistically suggests the unfettered sexual freedom enjoyed by this class.

Unsurprisingly, then, several characters in the book are fairly appalling. Walter is too wrapped in his business and sympathetic to Britain’s colonial history for us to like him. His daughter, Joan, is manipulative and opportunistic. She cares little for the men she dates. It is more important that they offend her parents. But when Matthew is suggested as a marriage prospect she is willing to accept him, sight unseen, because she is a pragmatist who looks out for her future. Then there is Joan’s brother, Monty, a minor character who spends his time ‘trying to enjoy the unfettered fun that young men used to have’, attending acts at The Great World and trolling the streets for prostitutes. When he suggests to Matthew they buy shares in a prostitute on an on-going basis, it is evident that Monty has inherited a colonialist attitude to the Asian population of Singapore. When he suggests to Matthew they could go to Lavender Street to look for prostitutes he describes it as having a “colonial experience”. He sees personal advantage in the desperation of the local women. But when the Japanese attack, Monty is not interested in fighting for Singapore. Rather, he desires to flee to Australia where the women and children of the family have been sent.

While a minor character, Monty’s attitude reflects a major aspect of the problems identified by the book. When the Japanese attack, much of Singapore descends into anarchy with widespread looting. Major Archer, who has long been associated with Webb, Walter’s now-dead business partner, is shocked by the implication: “The laws of a country are merely the wish of the people to live in a certain way. Remove the laws for a few days and you don’t expect anarchy to result overnight, any more than by abolishing road regulations you would expect motorists to pick at random which side of the road they would drive on.” The Major’s realisation – “these people looting and raping don’t consider themselves to belong to our community at all” – speaks to the weakness of Fortress Singapore and its colonial foundations:

But what, after all, could one expect of a society whose only culture and reason for existence was commercial and self-interest? A society without traditions, without common beliefs or language, a melting-pot, certainly, but one in which the ingredients had failed to melt: what could one expect of such a place?

This is not a criticism of Singapore’s population; rather it is an indictment against colonial rule. In creating Singapore as a commercial hub, colonial powers have been concerned with the exploitation of its position and people for their own interests without an attendant concern for the society that this has created. While the Major may be shocked by this insight, Matthew, despite his altruism and idealism, implicitly understands the weakness of this ideological position: “You might just as well expect stockbrokers to be ready to die for the Stock Exchange.”

Strikes by Asian workers plague the city and Walter’s own company. The Japanese are ascendant in the region. And if war breaks out Walter could be set back years, even lose everything. When Webb’s son and heir, Matthew, flies into Singapore, Walter anticipates an opportunity. If Walter can position his daughter, Joan, to marry Matthew, he could consolidate his hold upon the firm and its future direction. But Matthew proves to be somewhat more difficult to manage than expected. Rather than allow himself to be levered into an unwanted marriage, he begins a romance with Vera Chiang, a Chinese national who has escaped Shanghai under suspicion of being a Communist sympathiser, instead. Since her escape from Shanghai, Vera has enjoyed the patronage and protection of the Blackett family. Vera owes almost everything to the Blacketts, including her clothes which she receives as cast-offs from Joan. Now, Joan and Vera are sexual rivals. Added to this complication is the idealism of Matthew and his desire to see a better world. Fresh from his disillusioning experiences working on committees for the League of Nations, Matthew seeks a new purpose in his life, and his disgust at the exploitation of local peoples and Colonialist ideologies that drive men like Walter Blackett – ideals further encouraged by Vera – set him at odds with the Blacketts. Matthew advocates a world in which races acknowledge a shared humanity and work together rather than in competition. And as idealistic and naïve as Matthew appears to us, he is an effective voice for Farrell’s criticism of Colonialism.

Against this drama is the drama of the war itself, dovetailed neatly into the fictional lives of the novel’s characters. Matthew’s frustrations working on committees for the League of Nations reflect its shortcomings. Walter’s fixation on the minutiae of regulations in the rubber trade, while sometimes burdening the narrative, provide a concrete representation of what is at stake as Walter laments his warehouses full of rubber that he cannot export, now vulnerable as the Japanese advance. And key historical figures cross paths with our characters, too. Walter bumps into General Percival before the invasion, while Matthew finds Australian Lieutenant General Gordon Bennett in the dark by the side of the road in a broken-down jeep, still looking to escape, as the Japanese sweep into Singapore. We witness the Japanese advance, with the taking of George Town, Penang and the Battle of Slim River told from the point of view of the advancing Japanese. Farrell takes us into the minds of his historical protagonists, like Private Kikuchi, a Japanese soldier who feels the burden of his relation to his hero-uncle, Bugler Kikuchi, who died heroically for the Emperor. Or Lieutenant Matsushita who is driven recklessly by a desire for glory; not to be outshone by his rival Lieutenant Nakamura. And General Percival, who commands the forces in Singapore against the Japanese, sees the tide of history turn against him: how everything seems to go wrong and the war to remain just out of his control, driving him to a belief that, “some hidden hand had been tampering with what one might reasonably expect to have been the normal course of events.” Percival’s sense of dislocation – he has a sense that everything happening to him cannot be real – is a realisation that his own personal failure is also the nexus of an historical seismic shift.

Difficulties are made to be overcome! A businessman must shape his own environment to suit his needs: once he finds himself having to submit to it he is doomed.
The Singapore Grip, page 466

At the heart of this shift is something larger than people or specific incidents. Rather, in Farrell’s hands the fall of Singapore represents the encounter between competing cultural spirits. In a sense, the Japanese are no different from the British, since their war is a reaction to commercial pressures created by the British in Asia: their trade embargo against Japan and support of China against Japanese incursions. In fact, Walter initially sees Japan’s imperialistic ambitions in the light of Britain’s own past: “They are an excellent imitation of the sort of economic imperialism through demands for special privilege which Britain herself has been making in Asia since . . . well, since this young man’s father started our business in the 1880s.” But the British have become complacent in their colonial interests, while Japan has fostered a national spirit that surpasses mere economic interests: loyalty to the emperor; a moral code steeped in nationalism and a belief in national purity; a sense of the importance of the collective over the importance of the individual. It’s a creed that contradicts the individualistic tenets of capitalism, and in response men like Walter and Percival can only understand their part as passive victims of fate, as in Percival’s case, or the “Spirit of the Time”, as Walter sees it. Walter believes that there is a spirit in any historical period which determines that the significance of anything happening can only be understood in the context of its social and historical moment. This seems like sound reasoning, but Walter, like Percival, feels overpowered by history. Normally, he would advocate that individuals may react to business pressures or social and historical change – and a good businessman will do so. But Walter implicitly understands that the individual cannot react to change in the way that the collective can. And this is the problem with the tenets of capitalism when faced with an historical imperative: that while capital may seek to accommodate its social milieu, it is not a monolithic response, but rather the response of self-interests.

Matthew also understands this, but he is not burdened by a history of privilege nor has he steeped himself in the machinations of his father’s business, yet. Instead, he has fallen in love with Vera whose communist sympathies influence his thinking. She takes him to a house for the dying where Matthew meets an old man, formerly a rubber farmer, who has suffered the exploitative terms imposed upon native growers by Western business interests like Walter’s. Matthew comes to believe that what is needed is “a new spirit”, one in which people set aside self-interest for the sake of a communal good, although he is never able to articulate a practical vision of this new society.

Which brings me to Farrell’s ultimate joke, which is the meaning of the Singapore Grip: what it is, as Matthew finally sees it:

It’s the grip of our Western culture and economy on the Far East . . . It’s the stranglehold of capital on the traditional cultures of Malaya, China, Burma, Java, Indo-China and even India herself! It’s the doing of things our way . . . I mean, it’s the pursuit of self-interest rather than the common interest!

When I was in Singapore recently, I witnessed one Asian woman respond to another Asian woman contemptuously. The woman had spoken to her in an Asian language – I couldn’t identify it – and the other woman told her dismissively to, “speak English.” Of course, Britain’s cultural influence on Singapore is permanent. But the grip that Farrell dramatizes in the early 1940s is weakened and febrile. The British Empire is complacent, capitalism has moved the market but it has not moved the hearts of the people. Singapore is a melting pot of individual agendas while Japan looms as a homogenous culture with individuals moved by a collective reason. The Singapore Grip is a dramatization of the loosening hold Britain has on its empire, and it realises this historical moment brilliantly.

Trailer for the 2020 adaptation for television of J.G. Ballard's The Singapore Grip
A short video that covers the key moments in the fall of Singapore to the Japanese army
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J.G. Farrell
J.G. Farrell
J.G. Farrell was an English novel who is best remembered for his Empire Trilogy: The Siege of Krishnapur, Troubles and The Singapore Grip. The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973 and Troubles was retrospectively awarded the Lost Booker Prize in 2011, a one-off prize created for books that had been ineligible to win the Booker Prize in 1970 due to a change in rules concerning the publication dates of entries.
General Arthur Percival
General Arthur Percival
General Percival had seen action in World War I and had a successful military career. But in 1942 he was forced to surrender to the Japanese after Singapore was invaded from the north through Malaya. After the surrender he was held for a short time at Changi Prison and spent most of the rest of the war as a prisoner. Naturally, history has credited him with some of the blame for the fall of Singapore, but other factors such as the under resourcing of the army and the weak defences against a land invasion from the north are major factors in the British defeat.
Lieutenant General Henry Godon Bennett
Lieutenant General Henry Gordon Bennett
Bennett was the commander of Australian forces in Singapore. He served in World War I and had a distinguished career, but his career waned after the fall of Singapore. He controversially managed to escape from Singapore while his troops were imprisoned by the Japanese. He never commanded troops in battle again after this.

The Fall of Singapore

Invasion from the North
Singapore’s reputation as a ‘fortress’ was based upon its defences facing the sea against an amphibious invasion. But as this map shows, the Japanese attacked from the north, crossing the strait between Malay and Singapore.
Surrender at the Ford Motor Factory
Surrender at the Ford Motor Factory
This above photo shows General Percival in the bottom right corner with his hand to his mouth facing General Yamashita at the Ford Motor Factory where the terms of surrender were stipulated. The painting below is of the same scene. In both, Yamashita’s body language suggests his unwillingness to negotiate, with either his fist on the table in the photo, or his arms crossed in the painting.
The Meeting of General Yamashita and General Percival by Miyamoto Saburo
Surrender to Japanese troops
Surrendering troops of the Suffolk Regiment are held at gunpoint by Japanese infantry.

Here was the towering dome-shaped head of the octopus which, instead of the more usual lion, had been selected to symbolise Singapore herself: this octopus, smiling genially, had been fitted out with amazingly life-like rubber tentacles specially made for the occasion in Blackett and Webb’s local workshops . . . The advantage of the rubber for this purpose, he went on, was that it was flexible and the ends of tentacles which were twisted normally into rings could be pulled open to allow someone to be ‘captured’ in a friendly grip: in this way young women with banners proclaiming them to be Shanghai, Hong Kong, Batavia, Saigon and so forth could walk along beside the float and appear to writhe in the tentacles, which would fit around their necks, in ‘a very naturalistic manner’

A description of a float intended for use in Walter Blackett's anniversary parade, to represent the commercial influence of Singapore in Asia, from The Singapore Grip, page 417