My ten years in Singapore after the war were remarkably industrious. I made many friends, not only among those working with me on newspapers, but in government and the services too. I soon became involved with the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force and attended the first planning meetings. In 1949 I was commissioned as Commandant of the Malayan Air Training Corps - a voluntary job, but one which provided me with enormous scope, access to inner sanctums and special flying privileges.
On one occasion I was flown to England by Transport Command for training as a glider pilot at RAF Detling, in Kent. Here I gained my A, B and C certificates in one long, exciting weekend and, wearing a set of new and untried contact lenses, came near to killing myself when the lenses misted up during a solo flight and I was forced to make a crash landing.
Despite a constant lack of funds and encounters with the remote, bureacratic and unsupportive Singapore Governor in Chief, Sir John Nicoll, the MATC was a great success and grew into eight squadrons. Cadets were given flying training and many were sent on flights in RAF and civil planes to Britain, Australia and the USA. I often wonder what happened to those young men of the fifties? One - Sulaiman bin Sujak - went on to join the RAF, and later became C.O. of the Royal Malayan Air Force, one or two became jumbo jet pilots and another - Peter Lim - followed in my footsteps and became one of Singapore's most senior newspaper editors.
What a pain Nicoll proved to be! One day I was in the middle of writing an editorial for the Sunday Times when the Defence Secretary, Gerald Hawkins, phoned and said I was wanted urgently at Government House. Nicoll was sending his car and we were to waste no time in presenting ourselves. I had to put aside my work and dart downstairs. The Rolls duely arrived outside the Straits Times building in Cecil Street, with Gerald Hawkins in the back. He had no idea what it was about but he thought Nicoll, then comparatively new to the Colony, required advice and wanted to thank me for my work.
It turned out to be something entirely different. We were kept waiting for an age in the main reception room, and when Nicoll finally appeared he sat down at the end of a long table and I was made to stand at the other. He then proceeded to upbraid me for wasting government money on an organisation for which he saw no aim or purpose, and said he proposed to cut my budget there and then. I was not allowed to interupt or plead for mercy. With a wave of his arm I was despatched, like some wretched felon, followed by a cry, I shall always remember, "Woolly planning, Behague!"
Hawkins was aghast. I was very angry. My existing budget for the MATC was laughably low, the entire setup was held together by voluntary help, and with the terrorist war at its height in Malaya and the fear of communist infiltration into youth organisations in Singapore, the need to offer discipline and adventure training was paramount. But it wasn't just the ATC Nicoll was kicking. I had written a story about the inadequacy and weakness of government in cleaning up parts of the Colony, in particular the Rochore Canal, which used to smell to high heaven. Nicoll could not reconcile my full time job as a journalist with that of my part time role as a commissioned officer, nomatter how voluntary. He obviously regarded me as a traitor.
So angry was I that I scribbled a note to General Sir Gerald Templer, who had taken over in Kuala Lumpur from the assassinated Sir Henry Gurney as Malayan High Commissioner. Templer's aim was to capture the hearts and minds of the people and unite them against the communist guerillas, and I knew that he at least supported my efforts. Although he had no jurisdiction over Singapore, he had the backing of Downing Street and possessed both power and a great sense of purpose. Within 24 hours, much to the surprise of my Straits Times colleagues, a despatch rider apppeared on the editorial floor and handed me a personal letter from Templer. It said, simply, "Don't worry, I'll do all I can."
Nicoll never spoke to me again, nor was I ever invited back to Government House, but my budget remained untouched. Strange to relate, I was twice told - once by the Colonial Secretary and then by the Defence Secretary - that I had been recommended by them for the honours list. Needless to say, nothing happened.
Even stranger, whenever I faced some urgent financial need in the following months, such as funds to pay for a cadet's stay in London, books or a flying scholarship, an annonymous donation would arrive with one cryptical word attached. That word was Asolando. Who on earth was Asolando? I racked my brains over it, but despite my suspicions never truly found the generous person responsible. What I did discover was that Asolando was the title of a collection of stanzas written by the poet Robert Browning in 1890. Light dawned one day, several months later, when, together with the gift was a poem. This is it:
- One who never turned his back but marched breast forward.
- Never doubted clouds would break,
- Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
- Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
- Sleep to wake.
Those stirring words form part of the Epilogue in Browning's Asolando. They continued to bolster my spirits and kept me going long after I had left Singapore.
That the MATC prospered was mainly due to the generosity and goodwill of the RAF which provided me with liaison officers and lecturers from the three operational airfields on the island. People like the AOC, Tog Mellersh, were always ready to help, and he and his wife would appear on important occasions to lend a hand. The AOCs who followed him were equally co-operative. The Commissioner General for Southeast Asia, Malcolm MacDonald, would also pop in and greet everyone with a cordial, if toothy, smile, but despite the fact that the ATC headquarters, were smack bang in the centre of Singapore with the last Spitfire to fly on operations in Malaya guarding its entrance, Nicoll, who lived just round the corner, only once condescended to call.
There followed a constant, uphill battle with bureaucracy. I turned to the Americans for help, and the Asia Foundation in San Francisco provided funds for cine projectors and other equipment. On a liaison visit to Honolulu the Civil Air Guard made me a present of two Link Trainers. Its generosity was matched only by the meanness of the Singapore government which, after weeks of discussion, failed to find the funds to ship them over. The most appalling act of meanness came after a triumphant meeting with RAF Training Command chiefs at White Waltham in England who offered me six brand new Tiger Moth aircraft, crated and complete with spares, for a token price of £5 each. The only stipulation was that I would have to provide the transport.
Aware of what the Nicoll faction would say, I turned to the Royal Navy for help. A far but not at all distant relative, Captain Peter Behague, put the pressure on, reserved space aboard an aircraft carrier, and even persuaded the navy to pick up the goods and deliver direct to me. The Royal Singapore Flying Club and engineers of Malayan Airways (three of whom were MATC officers) agreed to house and service the planes without cost, and we had a complete flying school ready and waiting to take off. It was an incredible coup.
It all turned to ashes, however, when the Singapore government, after innumerable committee meetings, decided it could not afford the risk, and refused to sanction or insure the undertaking. As it was, flying training had to be confined to sessions at the Flying Club, financed by scholarships, gifts, and funds we raised ourselves. There was no insurance, and before each flight, cadets had to sign blood chits absolving the government of any responsibility.
It would have made good scandal headlines, but I had to consider the consequences. And, for once, the mysterious Asolando failed to deliver.
Torn in two directions
It was odd wearing two hats, and I was constantly being torn in two directions. Working for the Straits Times was no sinecure, with a six-day week, long hours, and none of today's comforts. In the evening there was a quick change act into uniform for parades and lectures and the occasional offical visit to RAF stations. I was deeply involved with Air Days at Kallang Airport, in meeting incoming VIPs from around the world and preparing speeches for such people as the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, when he opened the International Airport at Paya Lebar.
I spent eight years building up the MATC and was responsible for training more than a thousand young men. Before I left, very ill with amoebic hepatitis, the man who took over from Nicoll, Sir William Goode, wrote a note of thanks in response to my letter of resignation. It was a bit more than a bread and butter job. It was cordial and sincere enough, and if one read between the lines, had the appearance of an apology. I had no quarrel with Bill Goode, who had arrived too late on the scene to be of any help, and I was glad that he, at least, was aware of the progress made and the many bureacratic obstructions that had been placed in my path.
Nevertheless it is heartwarming to look back on all the adventures shared and things enjoyed - the weekend air experience flights in RAF Dakotas, the circuits and bumps in Tiger Moths and Cessnas at Kallang, trips to faraway places in RAF Hastings aircraft for the lucky ones, jungle exercises with the RAF Regiment and Gurkha police, first class training by veteran pilots and navigators, annual camps at Changi and Sembawang, exhibitions, visits to RAF and RN stations and many rallies and social gatherings.
I often wonder what happened to the Spitfire. It was the last to fly on operations against the terrorists and was presented to me by the AOC Malaya as a symbol and souvenir. Before I left I patted it and said, "One day I'm coming back for you". That was in 1958. In 1987 I went back, this time to train journalists and producers at SBC, but the Spitfire had gone.
An old colleague, Wee Kim Wee, who became President of Singapore, remembered it, but when I met him at the Istana in the very room where Nicoll had once torn a strip off me, he had no idea what had happened to it. I never did want a gong, but I often wish I had my Spitfire back.
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