458. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, April 4, 19561


  • Singapore and Malaya, and Offshore Islands


  • Sir Percy Spender, Australian Ambassador
  • Mr. J. R. Rowland, First Secretary, Australian Embassy
  • The Secretary
  • Mr. William J. Sebald
  • Mr. Eric Kocher
[Page 772]

Singapore and Malaya

After the usual amenities the Australian Ambassador opened the discussion by stating the concern which the Australian Government feels about the Communist threat in Singapore. He stated that his government recognizes the dilemma in which the UK now finds itself before the start of the UK–Singapore discussions on self-government in London later this month. If self-government should be given too soon, then the Communists may use the withdrawal of UK controls to take over Singapore. Yet the UK will find it extremely difficult to resist demands for an accelerated pace toward self-government in view of recent concessions to the Federation of Malaya. Sir Percy indicated that the Australian Government not only is aware of this dilemma but has no clear idea how the UK should proceed. Still, in view of Australian interest in the area, it had decided to consult with the US Government to determine to what extent the two governments could work together on this problem. He mentioned that Australia would be an observer on defense matters at the April 23 self-government meeting in London.

The Australian Ambassador went on to state that internal security seemed to be the question that could arouse the greatest controversy in the London negotiations. Chief Minister Marshall of Singapore now finds himself in a situation where his tenure in office may depend on the UK granting the Crown Colony some measure of control over its own internal security. According to the Australian point of view, internal security and external defense are intricately tied together; it is both difficult and dangerous to detach one from the other, leaving internal security in Malayan hands even if external defense remains the responsibility of the British.

The Secretary in reply stated that the US Government has been concerned for some time about the sensitive and difficult problem of Singapore. Although the US prefers not to interfere in the affairs of the area, he did talk briefly in Karachi at the SEATO meeting with Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd.2 At that time, although no details were explored, general concern was expressed. The Secretary also mentioned that our Singapore Consul General had been approached informally by the Commissioner General for Southeast Asia as well as by the Governor of Singapore concerning US reaction to present UK difficulties in dealing with the Communist menace.3 Other than these informal approaches, however, the US Government had not dealt with the British on this problem.

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The Secretary stressed the disastrous results which a Communist take-over in Singapore might have on the surrounding area. Not only would the effect on SEATO be damaging, but Communist control once ensconced in Singapore would undoubtedly find it easier to spread into neighboring areas. Fortunately, the situation in other parts of Southeast Asia seemed to have improved over the previous year so that countries like Indonesia and Viet-Nam which were in rather precarious situations some time ago now find themselves in a stronger position to resist both Communist aggressive and subversive attempts. Returning to the problem of Singapore, the Secretary agreed with the Australian Ambassador that the British should not relinquish control of Singapore until they were sure that the Communist menace can be resisted.

The Secretary asked the Australian Ambassador what action, if any, the Australian Government had taken in this matter. Sir Percy explained in reply that the Australian cabinet at a recent meeting on this subject had decided the British will not be able to resist the Singapore demand for self-government at the forthcoming London meeting. At the same time, the UK should not give “complete self-government immediately” to Singapore until the Communist threat could somehow be placed under control. The Australian Ambassador mentioned that the school system in Singapore seemed to be particularly threatened but indicated that his government had not gone into the details of possible countersubversive measures. Because of its concern about the outcome of the London talks, however, the Australian Government felt that a high-level approach should be made to the UK, which might take the form of a joint effort on the part of the US and Australia.

After considering this proposal, the Secretary at first wondered if SEATO might be the proper medium for the type of consultation suggested. On second thought, however, he proposed to Sir Percy that because of Australia’s primary concern in the area, initial approaches might better come from the Australian Government. If the Australian-UK consultation should have a negative result, the Secretary indicated, the US might reconsider its decision not to approach the British on this matter. In any case, we would take no action until the Australians had made their initial approach and communicated its result to us.4

Mr. Sebald inquired of the Australian Ambassador his assessment of British plans to promote self-government in Malaya. Sir [Page 774] Percy frankly admitted that in his opinion the promise of self-government to Rahman for the Federation of Malaya by August, 1957, was hurrying things along too fast. The Australian Ambassador then asked whether the US had considered the granting of economic aid to either Singapore or the Federation of Malaya. In reply it was stated that this type of aid was not being considered at the present time, that no approach to that effect had been made to the US Government, and that UK channels must be observed while Malaya remains in its present dependent status.

[Here follows discussion of the Chinese offshore islands.]

  1. Source: Department of State, Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 64 D 199. Secret. Drafted by Kocher.
  2. There is no record of this discussion in the reports of the conversations between Dulles and Lloyd at Karachi during the SEATO meeting, March 6–8, 1956.
  3. Reported in despatch 358 from Singapore, February 6, not printed. (Department of State, Central Files, 746F.00/2–656)
  4. During Sebald’s conversation with Blakeney on April 18, Blakeney stated that Australian representatives had made an approach at the U.K. Foreign Office as discussed and that the Australian suggestion “appeared to have fallen on fairly receptive ears.” (Memorandum of conversation by Smith, April 18, Ibid., 746F.00/4–1856)