The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell

Anyone who loves Singapore should read The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell. He won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur about the 1857 War of Indian Independence. The Singapore Grip is also a historical novel, describing Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. The book was first published in Britain in 1978 and Farrell died a year later.

The author vividly describes the fighting in what was then Malaya and the fall of Singapore, the burning and the looting, the humiliation of the British, who were outgeneralled and outfought by superior Japanese forces, and the manner in which civilians and soldiers alike tried to escape from the island as the Japanese approached Singapore. The narrative captures the whole spectrum of human behaviour from cowardice and selfishness to selfless courage. There are some stoic heroic figures and a very attractive Eurasian woman who gain your empathy.

But best of all are the descriptions of Singapore before it was devastated by the war – the colonial bungalows at Tanglin, the carnival atmosphere of the Great World, the taxi dancers and the prostitutes, a dying house where the Chinese went or were left by their relatives to die to prevent misfortune at home, the world of the rich colonial businessmen and the relationship between the races. Especially memorable is the description of a plane landing in Singapore. The author gives an aerial view of Singapore as the plane begins its descent – it’s marvellous.

I have been reading the book again because I am already beginning to miss Singapore.

I will be away from Singapore for more than a month, returning towards the end of June. This will probably be the last post till then.

So I will end with this – a vivid description of the city I love as it was long ago. These are the opening lines of The Singapore Grip:

The city of Singapore was not built up gradually, the way most cities are, by a natural deposit of commerce on the banks of some river or at a traditional

Image via Wikipedia

confluence of trade routes. It was simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map. “Here,” he said to himself, “is where we must have a city, half-way between India and China. This will be the great halting-place on the trade route to the Far East. Mind you, the Dutch will dislike it and Penang won’t be pleased, not to mention Malacca.” This man’s name was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles: before the war his bronze statue used to stand in Empress Place in a stone alcove like a scallop shell ( he has been moved along now and, turned to stone, occupies a shady spot by the river). He was by no means the lantern-jawed individual you might have expected: indeed he was a rather vague-looking man in a frock coat.

Although people had once lived there, the island of Singapore, when he arrived, was largely deserted except for a prodigious quantity of rats and centipedes. Rather ominously, Raffles also noticed a great many human skulls and bones, the droppings of local pirates. He wasted no time, however, in negotiating for the island with an alarmed native and then proceeded, his biographer tells us, to set up a flag-pole thirty-six feet high. “Our object,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “is not territory but trade: a great commercial emporium, and a fulcrum, whence we may extend our influence politically as circumstances may hereafter require.” As he stood there on the lonely beach and gazed up at the flag with rats and centipedes seething and tumbling over his shoes did Raffles foresee the prosperity which lay ahead for Singapore? Undoubtedly he did.

When you think of the city as it was forty years ago you should not imagine an uncivilised frontier-town of the jungle. You only had to stroll around the centre of the city with its wide avenues and lawns and look at the monolithic government buildings, at the luxurious department stores and the marmoreal dignity of the banks, to realise that Singapore was the work of a great and civilised nation. True, there were other parts of the city, the various native quarters where Tamils, Malays, and above all the Chinese lived, which were rather less imposing. There, in those “lower depths” Chinese secret societies undoubtedly performed monstrous crimes, kidnapped their own prominent citizens, fought out appalling territorial battles, stunned themselves with drugs and so forth. If you were merely a visitor, a sailor, say, in those years before the war, Singapore would undoubtedly have seemed no less tawdry, no less exciting than another of the great Eastern sea ports.  You would have gone to drink and dance at one of the amusement parks, perhaps even at the Great World itself, whose dance-hall, a vast, echoing barn of a place, had for many years entertained lonely sailors like yourself. There, for twenty-five cents, you could dance with the most beautiful taxi-girls in the East, listen to the loudest bands and admire the gorgeous dragons painted on the walls. In the good old days, before the troops started flooding in at the beginning of the War, that place could swallow an entire ship’s company and still seem empty except for you and two or three Chinese girls with dolls’ painted faces sitting at your table, ready to support you with tiny but firm hands should you look like plunging to the floor full of Tiger beer.

The Great World is gone, but there is still the Tiger beer. And Raffles’ statue, the department stores, government buildings, wide avenues and lawns. Singapore is beautiful.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: