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Why did the UK withdraw from Singapore and Malaysia and what were the consequences for the region?

This essay was written by lower-sixth former Alexander Downey, and shortlisted for the 2020 Fifth Form Transitional Research Project. The following provides a short abstract to the essay.

Estimated read time of abstract: 2 minutes

Estimated read time of essay: 12 minutes


This essay was written by lower-sixth former Alexander Downey, and shortlisted for the 2020 Fifth Form Transitional Research Project. The following provides a short abstract to the full essay, which can be found at the bottom.

Estimated read time of abstract: 2 minutes
Estimated read time of essay: 12 minutes

When Harold Wilson took over as Prime Minister in 1964 from Alec Douglas-Home, he inherited a country riddled with financial difficulties. Macmillan’s supposed “Age of Affluence” left a remarkable balance of payments deficit of £400 million. The economic downturn was the trigger for calls for a review and a change in the way money was being spent and invested in foreign affairs and the military when the number of Brits at home who needed financial support grew.

Ever since the end of the Second World War Britain’s influence on the world stage had been in decline along with her empire. This led to Wilson taking the decision to continue with the post-war consensus idea of focusing on becoming a political power in Europe and adapting a role there rather than a worldwide role. Part of this meant reducing military commitments around the world, the term “East of Suez” was coined to refer to all British military bases and territories in the Eastern hemisphere, this included Malaysia and Singapore.

This region had a rather unique political situation due to the unique way in which Malaysia and Singapore were linked as well as Malaysia’s internal divisions. Following the decision to give independence to Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and Borneo forming the Federation of Malaysia, the internal politics of this new country were chaotic to say the least. The Malaysian-Chinese population were discriminated against by the Islamophilic regime leading to violent protests, Britain then feared they would be drawn into a Vietnam style conflict, especially when Singapore separated itself from the Federation forming its own sovereign state. The political tensions along with Britain’s changing international role were important factors in the decision to withdraw from Malaysia and Singapore. 

However, one can argue that the role of pressure groups in the UK were more important as they emphasised Britain’s changing role and the dangerous political atmosphere of the region at the time. Whilst the importance of the pressure groups is often overlooked, the main point they pushed was the economic situation and the cost of having military bases in the Eastern hemisphere, Wilson was aware of this, so the importance of the pressure groups was much less than the economic situation at home at the time. The consequences for the region have been, in the long run, intrinsically positive. Malaysia’s economy in particular initially suffered an economic downturn but both countries are now amongst the most powerful Southeast Asian economies and continue to grow. 

To view Alexander’s full article, follow this link below.

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