Impressions and Appraisals in Singapore

May 18–May 29, 1962

by Albert Wohlstetter

I am putting the following note of explanation at the head of each of the accounts of various segments of my recent trip through the Far and Middle East and Europe:

This is one of a series of impressions gleaned during a long trip. As will be evident, the series combines a wide variety of matters: reports on conversations with American or foreign military or diplomatic officials, meetings with reporters, encounters with refugees, judgments on personalities and the immediate environment, half-formed surmises on strategic and political issues, tentative judgments as to useful topics for research, etc., etc. I have not attempted to sort these out, since to do this would probably preclude my getting much of it down. Rather, the impressions and offhand appraisals are put down nearly raw. I expect to exploit this near-raw material myself. It might conceivably be of interest to others, and in this hope I am circulating it. But it is closer to a diary than the conventional trip report. Hence the title, "Impressions and Appraisals."

The circumstances of the trip, the rather extensive preparation for it, and the time at which it occurred, made it a most stimulating and useful one from my own point of view. The timing was nearly pure luck. John Dewey remarks somewhere that "when there is any thinking going in, there is something definitely wrong." There was a good deal definitely wrong in Asia and the Middle East this spring, and I found many thoughtful people pondering the troubles. Trouble was popping all over; a mass exodus from China into Hong Kong, the movement of American forces into Thailand, protests against this movement in Japan, similar protests in Malaya about the movement of British units, war in South Vietnam, the West Irian madness at its peak in Indonesia, the worst financial crisis since the early 1950s in Iran, a six-week cabinet crisis in Turkey, etc., etc.

It was particularly useful to be pursuing several basic questions sequentially through a succession of countries affected by these questions. Nonetheless, the things I learned in various countries are partially separable, and to make it easy to get these impressions out, they are being published country by country, though not always in the sequence in which I made the trip.

One final note: many senior military and foreign service officers spoke to me with great candor and in confidence. Their remarks therefore should not be quoted and these reports are limited in circulation.


Singapore, Monday, May 28 — Talk with Sir Denis Allen, Deputy High Commissioner of Singapore, the United Kingdom. Sir Denis was written to on my behalf by Alastair Buchan and Sir Geoffrey Bourne, both of whom had urged me to talk with him if I was within striking distance. Both indicated that he was extremely able and better than Lord Selkirk, the High Commissioner. Allen's previous job was deputy to Malcolm MacDonald at the Geneva Conference on Laos. There, too, the American members of the Conference all had a very high regard for him. They told me, when I reached Geneva, they regarded him as the ablest of the men in the English delegation, and one of the best people at the Conference. This was said by the defense members of the delegation as well as the State Department members.

I found Allen, in fact, extremely intelligent, thoughtful and keen. Also, very much more hardheaded than the British I had known who have been concerned with arms control or armistice negotiations. I began by listing a half a dozen subjects on all or any one of which I was interested in hearing Sir Denis say something. First was the Chinese Communist regime. How stable was it? What was his estimate? What was the English estimate and his own estimate of its intentions and capabilities for becoming engaged in any large-scale war in Southeast Asia? Second, I was interested in hearing him say something about to what extent he regarded Chinese Communist behavior as explicable in terms of some of the traditional characteristics of China as a nation state, with traditionally limited interests; and how much was explicable in terms of the Communist program of making Communism worldwide. Third, Laos. Did the Russians want "a truly neutral Laos?" What would a truly neutral Laos mean? Is it something we're likely to get? If so, under what circumstances? Fourth, in such negotiations with the Russians and the Chinese, and other Communist states, what role is played by the presentation of risks to them in the threat of our possible use of force? Fifth, the Malayans had recently made a formal protest about the use by the United Kingdom of Malayan bases for the move to Thailand. This was nearly contemporary, and on the public accounts almost exactly analogous, with Japanese protests about our own movement of units from Japan to Thailand. I wondered whether the stories behind the news accounts were also analogous. Sixth, I was interested in hearing his comments on the attitudes of the so-called unaligned countries with which he was familiar towards our recent show of force in Southeast Asia, South Viet Nam, and Thailand. Seven, I was interested in what he had to say about South Viet Nam and what he thought of how the U.S. was applying the Malayan experience, how applicable it was, and so on. Finally, if he cared to, I was interested in having him speculate on how he thought it would all come out in Laos and South Viet Nam and in Indochina generally.

On China — Allen indicated it is clear that economic plans were knocked sideways and this was not merely bad climatic luck but a serious administrative breakdown as well. As to the implications for political control in China, it was hard to draw any conclusions. The U.K. representatives in Hong Kong and Peking were frankly puzzled by this spontaneous exodus and by the active and passive cooperation of the government. It is clear that the exodus itself was due not merely to worsening conditions but to worsening expectations. Nonetheless, the government has put the screws on again and this shows that they could. The Chinese, he said, are pragmatists. They adapt themselves to events. On Laos, the Chinese are quite deeply committed not to become involved in Laos. There was much evidence of this in Geneva, Allen thought, as well as in their current troubles. They haven't done much actually in Laos, and, tongue in cheek, they have taken credit at Geneva for "self-restraint." They have wished the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao well, but they haven't really done any more there than in Cuba or West Africa. Chen Yi at Geneva played the world statesman. They are leaving Laos and South Viet Nam to the North Vietnamese to deal with.

I asked, "When would they feel they had to come in?" Allen answered, "If they felt that China's borders were menaced. If the U.S. went after Hanoi, it might escalate. On the other hand, this shouldn't be exaggerated. The process is self-limiting in some respects. Perhaps the Chinese are rash. We've assumed this. But, with the troubles they have currently in particular, we probably could do a good deal more in Laos without risk."

Allen went on to say the pussyfooting by the U.K. (the phrase was his) did not in this case stem so much from fear of escalation. Rather, it was that the U.K. felt that the problem was more political than military. This is true with South Viet Nam today, whether or not SEATO gets involved.

On the lessons of Malaya, General Poett, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.K. Far Eastern forces who was also Chief of Staff in Malaya for three or four years, had a recent talk with Harkins. He came away convinced that the American army has absorbed and gone beyond the United Kingdom experience in Malaya.

The answer there in Malaya was political-administrative, as well as military. The new villages (in Malaya, the strategic hamlets) had to persuade people (a) that they would satisfy needs, (b) that services would come and increase, (c) that all of this was coordinated with military acts.

The Malayan Administration had the advantage of a good deal of British stiffening.

I asked about the role of the French in Laos and in the Geneva Conference. Can they obstruct? I asked about SEATO and the possibilities of obstruction. Allen thought that the Thais exaggerated the ability of individual countries to obstruct. Was there any other alliance possible? Allen thought that there wasn't much else that one could get. SEATO without the French was about the only thing. He thought that Australia was playing a very constructive role in SEATO now. I said that I had just come from Indonesia and had of course talked with many Indonesians about the West Irian problem. In fact, it would have been hard to talk about anything else. I had noticed an item in the newspapers about "Malayan Volunteers to Fight in West Irian." What was the story on this? He said that Indonesian instructors have collected volunteers. Their Consul General here (in Singapore) has done the collecting. The Malayan government won't either encourage or forbid volunteers. The Indonesians have for purposes of publicity exaggerated what they have got.

Returning to Laos, I asked, assuming that there was no purely military solution, whether there was a purely political one. Allen answered, No, he thought not. In fact, the military situation in Laos was very bad, and so therefore was the political situation. Laos had been pretty worm-eaten by the Communists by 1954. They captured the Nationalist movement. In Laos it might have been wise to go for a divided country rather than for a government of national union. In Cambodia they had had more success in cleaning up the Communists. The whole thing, however, was extremely untidy. There was an administrative vacuum with only the Pathet Lao in Laos strong. We could hope only for a buffer and now a very worm-eaten buffer at that. There just seems to be no local basis for running Laos. In short, it's awfully late in Laos for either a really neutral Laos or partition. The Kong Le coup was the last big opportunity.

I said that I was quite sure that it was awfully late, but I wondered whether, given our other commitments, we could afford not to make a try at preventing some critical parts of Laos from going Communist and serving as a means for an attack on Thailand and South Viet Nam. There had been increased Viet Minh activity in Laos. Couldn't we respond to this? Couldn't we use this as a pretext or occasion for action? Couldn't we find some occasion to threaten the use of force and, if necessary, actually attack the Viet Minh and the Pathet Lao, and possibly go for some useful partition? Allen thought that we still might be able to but we'd need to look spontaneous. The other Asian countries were extremely sensitive about this. However, Allen said perhaps we're too worried about our image.

I asked about whether there hadn't been some change in the other Asian countries in recent times on this matter of how they reacted to our moves. Didn't they have some genuine interest, increasingly self-conscious, in the defense of Southeast Asia by us?

Allen agreed that they did, but said it was to a considerable extent obscured by ideology. However, it was significant that there had been very little criticism among the Asian countries of U.S. action in South Viet Nam. Or in Thailand. As for Malaya, the Prime Minister of Malaya has said publicly, and even more privately, that the United States is defending the interests of the Malays in South Viet Nam. It is "our struggle." This attitude should help; in fact, the Malays are training the South Vietnamese in their police schools. They are doing this all in spite of the fact they are "unaligned."

As to the Malayan restrictions on the movement of the United Kingdom forces out of Malayan bases, these bases are not supposed to be for SEATO. The Prime Minister of Malaya heads a coalition of Malayans and Chinese. Therefore, he has to render a good deal of lip service to "non-alignment" to show that Malaya is not in danger of being drawn into non-Malayan problems by way of SEATO. He can defend the United Kingdom forces' presence in Malaya only if they are not directly for SEATO.

The formula worked out, however, was that these forces must go unobtrusively from the Malayan bases to Thailand; or else stage through Singapore, and there would be a "quarantine." I noted that the formula offered in connection with our own forces in Japan for public consumption was much the same, in fact, almost identical. Allen said that these constraints were not really very constraining, but the formula used was a calculation based on the local politics.

The United Kingdom actually has told Malaya that it thinks that Malaya should join SEATO, that it's for Malaya. The Malayans realize this but think that it might not be politically feasible. A good deal of collaboration then, in fact, has to be done by private arrangements with the Prime Minister. It is expected that the arrangements for the presence of military forces will be extended if Malaysia comes about.

One interesting feature of the talk with Sir Denis was that it made clear that he himself took a quite pragmatic and hardheaded view of the problems of Southeast Asia. He also suggested that if the U.S. did take a stiffer policy ultimately, even in Laos, that, provided it was done in the right way, the British would find a way to go along with it, in his judgment.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation document series. The RAND Document (D), a product of the RAND Corporation from 1948 to 1970, was an internal working paper written as a step in a continuing study within RAND, which could be expanded, modified, or withdrawn at any time.

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