"EAST OF SINGAPORE" S.E. Asia: Problem for the West
An Address by GENERAL SIR NEIL RITCHIE
Thursday, November 6th, 1952
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. John W. Griffin.
MR. GRIFFIN: Members and Guests of The Empire Club of Canada: Our speaker today is a distinguished veteran of two great wars. General Sir Neil Ritchie was commissioned in the Royal Highland Regiment (The Black Watch) in 1914 and won the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross for his service with this famous regiment in France, Mesopotamia and the Middle East. Between the wars he attended Staff College, served on the Northwest Frontier of India and again in the Middle East. In 1938 he was appointed Commanding Officer of the Second Battalion, King's Own. By the end of 1939 he was Chief of Staff to Sir Alan Brook, G.O.C. 2nd Corps, who later became Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Sir Neil went on to command successively the 51st Highland Division, 52nd Lowland Division, the 8th Army and the 12th Corps in Northwest Europe. From 1947 to 1949 he was Commander-in-Chief, Far East Land Forces and terminated his career with the important appointment of commander of the British Army Staff in the U.S.A. In 1950 he was appointed Colonel of The Black Watch. After he retired from the King's service Sir Neil decided to make his home in Canada and it is a pleasure, in the name of The Empire Club of Canada, to welcome him to the great Dominion. British generals have been coming here since 1759, Sir Neil, "when Wolfe the dauntless hero came" but not all have honoured the Empire Club as you are doing today.
GENERAL RITCHIE: Contrary somewhat to the title of this address I am going to talk chiefly of an area to the north of Singapore because it is that part of the world which I know best in the Far East.
In the time there is available today, I cannot, of course, attempt to cover all the problems of South East Asia and I will, therefore, confine myself in the first place to giving you a brief background of the South East Asian situation as it exists today, and then turn to Malaya and the situation there. If there is time, I will briefly mention some of the other countries such as French Indo-China, British North Borneo and Burma. I would like too to mention one or two factors--the outcome of the Korean war--as affecting South East Asia, and finally mention India as a very important entity in the future of that part of the world.
Within South East Asia lies an extremely important area of the world. It houses a very great population whose conditions of living are low as viewed through Western eyes: It possesses great natural resources which, in countries such as Burma, Thailand, and French Indo-China, have as yet scarcely been scratched. Potentially, it could for many years provide great markets for the manufactures of the West. Through it passes great ocean trade routes, and its importance in the development of the world's air routes increases daily. That it should become settled and stable is of great importance in balancing the whole economy of the world and in particular that of Japan. Lastly, it is the gateway towards Australasia to the south and India to the west.
Look where you will in South East Asia and there you will find enormous overseas Chinese populations. This is particularly the case in countries such as French Indo-China, Thailand and Malaya, all of which were in the past ages vassel States of the Chinese Empire. No matter how long these Chinese or their ancestors have been settled overseas from China, they have never really severed their ties with that country. As a general rule, they have not become a part and parcel of the lands of their adoption, or their birth. In the past they, or their ancestors, emigrated from China in search of trade and commerce, in conditions which were generally more stable than existed in China itself. They are always looking back to that country to see which way the wind is blowing and are setting their sails accordingly. So you will realize that the ideals adopted and action followed in China have a very direct influence over the majority of countries in South East Asia. There is, therefore, a ready made machinery through the medium of which Chinese thoughts and actions can be spread, with little or no effort, through that part of the world. It has an extremely important effect and should never be overlooked.
In the last few years there has been a really remarkable change in the attitude of the Chinese towards war. The campaign in Korea has illustrated that they can and will fight whereas in the past, the Chinaman was inclined to look upon fighting as a useless, stupid and undignified procedure. Of course, they had their wars but these usually took the form of manoeuvres, the design of which was to avoid closing the battle at all costs. Concurrently with this manoeuvring every subterfuge was employed to try and induce the enemy to change sides. At some suitable time the war was called off, the number of men on each side counted and the side that had the most was adjudged to be the winner. This may have been all very well in the past when the armies, or so-called armies, in China were really the private property of individual war lords. These war lords were hired by the contesting parties and grouped together to form the army. The individual soldiers were in effect mercenaries who were not fighting for any cause at all but merely for cash, and the cash quite frequently was not forthcoming. There was little or no national urge. With the coming into power of Russian-trained Chinese communist leaders this has all changed. The allegiance of the individual man is now to the central government and not as previously to individual war lords.
This is the main reason I suggest for this change of mind and why we see today Chinese soldiers fighting with great courage and determination on the Korean battle fields. This feature of the Chinese outlook has had a very marked effect on the overseas Chinese in South East Asia who are now starting to appreciate that China is beginning to become a military power of some consequence; she is no longer a military nonentity. There is no doubt that the effect will be widespread in Far East Asia and we may well see its spread outside that area as the future unfolds.
To turn now to the problem of rice. Somewhere about 25% of the total world population are primarily rice eaters. 95% of the people of the Far East eat rice as their stable food; 60% to 70% of the potential exportable rice of the whole world comes from the three countries of Indo-China, Burma and Thailand. These three countries between them form not only the rice bowl of the Far East, but almost of the whole world. They are, therefore, of extreme importance in the Far East in particular and in the word in general. Whoever controls them is in a very strong position to influence large areas outside. I need hardly stress the strategic importance that they present.
I would like here to mention a feature of change as between the pre-war era and the present day. There are today in most of the countries in South East Asia a very great number of unauthorized weapons in the hands of irresponsible and unscrupulous individuals. This is the result of the war and you will appreciate that these countries were over-run at least twice in most cases by contesting armies in the period between 1940 and 1945. This somewhat naturally results in an undercurrent of uneasiness and mistrust as between the various components of the population. There is only one real solution, and that is to get all these weapons under control, but we of the British Empire with our long experience of similar problems on the northwest frontier of India, and between the wars in Palestine, know that this policy is almost impossible of full achievement. I cannot recollect in my knowledge of history that it has ever proved fully satisfactory except in the subjection of the Highlands of Scotland, a that took 200 years to achieve.
Malaya is, as it were, a mirror which reflects far mo. what happens outside it than what goes on within. The troubles that have now been going on in that country for the last four years are wholly Communist inspired. The bandit participants are almost 100% Chinese. It is a mistake to imagine that Communism in Malaya is any, new feature. In fact, the first cells there appeared over+ thirty years ago and the Communistic Organization in that land was utilized by the Western Allies to a considerable extent during the late war. It is not generally realized perhaps that the population of Malaya is made up of 42% Chinese, 42% Malayans, and the remaining 16% are Indians, Indonesians, Europeans, Eurasians, and what nots. One can truthfully say there is little, if any, Nationalist feeling.
I would like now to give you some idea of the country and the climate. Down the spine of Malaya, there runs a mountain range which in parts rises to nearly 10,000 feet. Two-thirds of the country is unopened virgin jungle. It will give you some idea as to what it is like when I tell you that in the densest jungle it is dark almost all the time. It is far worse than anything I ever saw in Burma. The only means of progress is to cut your way through it as you go. Roads and railways are few and far between, except in the coastal area on the west side of the Peninsula. The climate is hot, humid, and enervating; it rains almost every day. If perchance it doesn't rain for two consecutive days, the climate becomes insufferably oppressive. There is no change of season; no summer, no spring, no fall, no winter; just the same all the time. So you will gather it isn't perhaps the choicest terrain in which to carry out police and quasi military operations, and it places a great physical strain on all who participate in them. But this is by no means all of the complications that this country presents. There are, or there were, in Malaya at the close of the late war, some one quarter million people--all Chinese--known as "squatters". By squatters is meant people who have just gone into the edges of the jungle, cleared small areas, and existed there by the raising of poultry, vegetables, etc. They are quite uncontrolled and by this I would imply that not only are they outside the law from the point of view of keeping them in order, but also the administration found it impossible to protect them against the unwelcome attentions of local bandits. There is only one solution to this problem and that is to resettle these people in areas where they can be controlled. This has been strenuously tackled in the last four years and much has been done to alleviate this difficulty. I do not personally believe that there can be any real or lasting settlement there until the squatter problem has been finally sorted out.
I wish I had time to tell you something about our fighting forces out there; something of the combined effort of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Civil Police, but there is not time. I would only say that all the services play their part but it is only natural that the Navy's part is not great. The main brunt falls on the Army and the Civil Police, but I would make it clear that without the assistance of the Air Force, operations in Malaya would be very much more difficult. The Air Force can attack in three quarters of an hour targets located in the jungles that it would take a soldier or policeman three weeks to reach. Furthermore, without the supply by air which has been employed throughout the troubles in that country, it would not be possible to maintain troops in the jungle. The Air Force's contribution, therefore, has been very considerable. Though I would like to tell you about the Gurkhas, the Malaya Regiment, and others, I have only time now to mention the British troops. I can only tell you that I have the highest regard for the British soldier. I would not confine this to those who are members of the permanent forces but include amongst them the National Service men who are doing their period of conscript service in the Far East.
I would not leave Malaya without giving you a brief word on the life of the planter and the miner out there. As you are well aware, by its production of rubber and tin Malaya contributes probably more than any o constituent part of the British Empire towards filling the dollar gap. Much, therefore, rests on the effort of the planters and these miners. They live in constant unceasing fear of death at the hands of the bandits. The move nowhere except under cover of armed escorts their homes, which are normally surrounded by barbe wire, you would never sit down-man or woman--with out your revolver, tommy gun, and other lethal weapons beside you on the table. I cannot say enough for their courage and I would take every opportunity of publicizing their difficulties and dangers whenever opportunity offers.
The situation in Malaya is better than it was a year ago, and it appears to me from what I can gather in the newspapers that this improvement is continuing. But as I have already said, the state of affairs there is really a reflection of what goes on outside, chiefly in China. Therefore, I would hazard the opinion that there will never be full settlement and quietude in Malaya until the situation in China is altered.
Korea is somewhat outside my terms of reference today, but nevertheless it has a very direct effect on the areas to the south of it.
Korea, to my mind, has illustrated the ineffectiveness of Russian tactics in battle. It is shown that bodies in mass cannot overcome bullets skillfully used by courageous troops. This may, I think, have caused the Russians to pause before plunging into a policy of total war. It may indeed have given the Western Powers a breathing space to prepare more adequately against Communistic aggression. It might not be too much to say that Korea, in itself, has been a very important contributing factor towards avoiding a third world war. Possibly one of the most interesting results of the Korean war has been its effect in retarding the spread southwards of Chinese Communist Armies into South East Asia. China may indeed have unlimited manpower, but she certainly doesn't possess unlimited trained man power. Our identifications of Chinese in Korea has shown that many of them at least came from Chinese Armies that before 1950 were being employed on the Sino-Burma border. This, as I have already pointed out, may have given the French sufficient time adequately to re-organize and hold their own in the Far East.
Lastly, I would refer to India and the importance of that country in Far Eastern affairs. It is, of course, true that India has publicly proclaimed an attitude of neutrality, and this, of course, is an understandable outlook, until their interests physically clash with Chinese aspirations in that part of the world. If and when this happens, I do not see how India can sit back and take no action. It surely cannot be the case that she would no nothing if Burma fell under Chinese Communistic domination and China thus threatened the very borders of India herself. It seems to me that we should look to India as the champion of Western Democratic ideals in the Orient, and openly show that we will not remain disinterested toward Chinese Communist expansion in South East Asia. It is, therefore, vital to keep India in the Western Camp and one can only pray that if and when the test comes, she will be united, strong and equal to the situation.
In concluding, I would say that in South East Asia, as in other parts of the world,. you have seen since the war a great surge of nationalism. It is perhaps understandable that colonial peoples must look forward at some stage in their evolution to becoming free autonomous states. We must accept this ambition and, if our policy of colonization is any good, we should try to assist in achieving its fulfillment. The trouble, of course, is that there are different opinions as to when a country is fit for self-government.
I personally do not despair of the British Empire falling to pieces. I believe these Colonies, as time goes on, can become self-governing, and, if we handle the situation properly, can remain self-governing within the British Commonwealth. Nor do I despair of the situation in South East Asia. There can be no lasting settlement in South East Asia unless we have a clear and unified policy laid down between the Western democratic people and the people in that part of the world. More especially is it of importance that Britain and the United States of America should work together towards a common end in South East Asia. It is only through the medium of such measures as those envisaged under the Colombo Plan for economic, scientific, and other assistance designed to raise the conditions of living and the standard of life that we can look forward to the solution of this vexed and complicated problem.
THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Mr. H. G. Colebrook.