Politics of Defence Acquisitions: Singapore and the Hawker Hunters (Part 1)

By Admin

by Koh Zhongwei, Alvin


Singapore acquisition of Hawker Hunters from the United Kingdom in 1970 seemed a straight-forward economic transaction in theory, but in reality proved anything but simple.[i] Despite British obligation to help Singapore build up its armed forces in light of their accelerated withdrawal[ii], the British government was highly reluctant to sell such sophisticated aircraft for they feared that doing so would endanger their interests in the region. In examining the reasons accounting for the initial British objections and following acquiescence, readers are offered a more balanced perspective into a period which has been painted by Singapore’s official historical narratives as being one of extreme vulnerability and state weakness.

As early as 14 January 1968, following the British announcement to withdraw from Singapore by December 1971, they had clearly articulated to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that there could be no permanent security for Singapore except within the framework of a wider regional defence arrangement with the other Commonwealth countries concerned.[iii] British intentions to withdraw from the region had not meant a curtailment of its interest in the area. For the British, the formation of some form of regional defence arrangement stood the best chance of protecting those interests. Through promoting Malaysian and Singaporean defence cooperation, while encouraging Australian and New Zealand participation in safeguarding the security of the area[iv], Britain could protect her interests on the cheap. And it was an option which looked on the verge of being fulfilled with a Five Power Conference scheduled to be held in Kuala Lumpur on 10 June 1968.[v]

However, this particular option was threatened on 7 April 1968 when Lee formally brought up the intended purchase of four Hunter Mk. VII two seaters and twenty reconditioned Hunter Mk. IX by 1970 to the British Commonwealth Secretary on the latter’s visit to Singapore.[vi] Arguing that Singapore needed to meet the 1971 deadline of British military withdrawal, Lee pressed for a British decision to be made prior to the conference[vii], with the underlying implication that external parties not be given the chance to derail or interfere in the deal. This, the British were unwilling to permit for fear of severely damaging the prospects of success for the Kuala Lumpur talks before it had even started.

For the British, there were two major problems with Singapore’s acquisition of the Hunters. The first was the nature of aircraft Singapore wanted. Despite being ostensibly intended for the air defence role following British withdrawal, the Hawker Hunter Mk. 9s that Singapore wanted was highly regarded for its ground attack function.[viii] In contrast, alternatives models had been rejected by the Singaporean side for having failed to meet their requirements.[ix] Furthermore, the total quantity of twenty-four Hawker Hunters that Singapore had requested for went far beyond the British professional advice of one subsonic squadron of twelve fighters[x], given the economic and operational constraints faced by Singapore.[xi]

In his official memoirs, Lee in reflecting upon this purchase of Hawker fighters consistently portrayed Singapore as being ‘forced to try to build up one fighter squadron… modest objectives that drew considerable resources from Singapore’s strapped economy with limited trained manpower.’[xii] What had receded to the dim recesses of his memory was his conversation with the British Commonwealth Secretary, ‘that the Advisory Working Group would recommend two squadrons and in any event [Lee] was determined to raise two squadrons; no one could stop him.’[xiii] As a result of such demands, the British feared that the Malaysians would draw unfavourable conclusions from these[xiv], leading to a diminishing chance of something being worked out at the June conference.

This issue of Malaysian sensitivity towards Singapore’s defence acquisitions had cropped up earlier in October 1966 when Singapore’s plans for the creation of an air force, as laid out in its Defence White Paper, had been rejected by the British in part due to their concern over Malaysia’s reactions.[xv] As recounted by Lee, Dennis Healey, then British Secretary of Defence had wagged his finger at Singapore for harbouring mischievous thoughts.[xvi]

In attempting to allay this fear, Lee had told the Commonwealth Secretary in their April meeting that the Malaysians had told him that they expected the Australian Air Force to stay in Butterworth and that they were therefore willing to see Singapore raise an air force while they themselves looked after the naval side, with army operations being the concern of each. He had even offered to show the official minutes of his meeting with Tun Razak to the British High Commissioner at a later date.[xvii]

However, this rosy image of a meeting of minds between Singapore and Malaysia was shattered when in clarifying this matter with the Malaysian government; Tun Razak had given an unequivocal rejection of such an agreement being made. As he espoused clearly, “I do not think that it would be right for Britain to make commitments to any one country at this stage without a joint examination at the forthcoming talks on the needs of the various parties to Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement.”[xviii] He also felt that it was of great importance that Singapore enters into no firm commitment on equipment until after the Five Power Talks, where the acquisitions of the Hunters should be discussed[xix], something that Lee had been keen to avoid. This immediately placed the British in an impasse between a Malaysian government keen on stopping the sales and a Singaporean government keen on pressing for the sales to move forward.

Part 2 continued here

The author is a simple man, with simple dreams, who loves nothing more than a good cup of tea under the stars. An undergraduate finishing his last year in the National University of Singapore, intimidated by the intellectual giants who surround his academic life, he simply wants to finish up on his university education and join the ranks of walking zombies in the working world.

[i] Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) 24 / 118. Meeting between the Prime Minister of Britain and Singapore in the Commonwealth Office. May 27, 1968.

[ii] FCO 24 / 117. Meeting between Prime Minister Lee and British Ministers on 12 January 1968 & Lee Kuan Yew, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew; From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 (Times Media: Singapore Press Holdings), pg. 60.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv]Ibid. Speaking Notes; Visit of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on 20 May 1968, Five Power talks: Brief No. 2.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid. Record of Talk between Prime Minister of Singapore and Commonwealth Secretary on 7 April 1968.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid. Speaking Notes; Visit of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on 20 May 1968, Air Defence: Brief No. 3, Ministry of Defence.

[ix] Ibid. Summary Notes of Discussion, 17 January 1968. The Future of Air Defence System for Singapore.

[x] Ibid.. Air Defence.
High Commissioner, Singapore to Commonwealth Office, 17 April 1968. Addressed Commonwealth Office Telegram No. 401 of 17 April 1968.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.. Speaking Notes; Visit of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on 20 May 1968, Air Defence: Brief No. 3, Ministry of Defence & FCO 24 / 117. Record of Talk between Prime Minister of Singapore and Commonwealth Secretary on 7 April 1968.

[xiii] Lee Kuan Yew, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, pg. 41-42

[xiv] FCO 24 / 117. Record of Talk between Prime Minister of Singapore and Commonwealth Secretary on 7 April 1968.

[xv] Ibid.. Speaking Notes; Visit of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on 20 May 1968, Air Defence: Brief No. 3, Ministry of Defence.

[xvi] Lee Kuan Yew, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, pg. 61-62

[xvii] FCO 24 / 117. Record of Talk between Prime Minister of Singapore and Commonwealth Secretary on 7 April 1968.

[xviii] Ibid. Speaking Notes; Visit of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on 20 May 1968, Air Defence: Brief No. 3, Ministry of Defence.

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