Absent History: The Untold Story of Special Branch Operations in Singapore 1915-1942
Ban Kah Choon
Singapore / SNP Media Asia / 2001
Writing a history of British political intelligence activity in East and Southeast Asia is an extremely difficult task given the limited materials and sources available. Absent History is the first book to attempt to do so for the Special Branch in Singapore before World War II. The author, Ban Kah Choon, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, utilizes a rarely tapped source, the Straits Settlements Police Journal, to provide readers with a basic outline and some useful vignettes of Special Branch activities in this important colony.
This book divides the history of the Special Branch before the war into three stages. The first examines the origins of the Special Branch from 1915 until the mid-1920s, the second looks at the decade from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, and the third explores the remaining years up to 1942. This division reflects the different targets of Special Branch interest during these periods. In the first, the Special Branch monitored the Indian nationalist movement; during the second stage, it turned its attention to the (mainly Chinese) communist movement; and in the last period, it was concerned with countering Japanese expansionary intentions. Ban assesses the effectiveness of the Special Branch in its activities during these three stages and concludes that the Branch performed well against its first two targets, but could not function fully in its latter years as it was constrained by diplomatic concerns and limitations.
The book provides useful insights and information about a number of cases and incidents in which the Special Branch played a key role, and Ban assesses the impact and influence of each event on Singapore’s internal security. For example, the Kreta Ayer Incident, which was sparked by rioting on 12 March 1927, the anniversary of Sun Yat Sen’s death, “turned into a prolonged boycott of the trolley buses accompanied by riots and damage to property.” Ban reveals that both the riots and the boycott were inspired by communist agitation, and he details the process by which the Special Branch tried to gather information about the activities of communist agitators so that it could eventually bring the boycotts to an end.
He repeatedly notes that the threats to Singapore’s internal security before the war came from outside. As such, it should be important for us to consider each event from a much wider regional context, but in general, Ban is unable to provide that regional perspective. One exception is the useful connections he draws between the Ducroux affair in Singapore, the Noulens affair in Shanghai, and Ho Chi Minh’s arrest in Hong Kong, all actions taken by British special branch agents against the Comintern in 1931. Joseph Ducroux (a.k.a. Serge Lefranc) was arrested in Singapore on 1 June 1931. Through his arrest, the Special Branch in Singapore obtained knowledge of his controller in Shanghai. The Branch provided this information to the Shanghai Municipal Police, who arrested Ducroux’s controller, Hilaire Noulens, on 15 June 1931. Then, on the basis of documents obtained from Noulens, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) was arrested in Hong Kong on 6 July 1931. Ban argues that “by the arrest of Ducroux and Noulens, the Special Branch had gained an important initiative, possessing a comprehensive picture of communist intentions. Successful raids in both the Straits Settlements and Shanghai had disrupted connections between the local parties and their bases in China.” In this case, we are able to understand the external connections and regional context of Special Branch activities, but in most cases, Ban is unable to situate his example in this broader context.
A more major deficiency in the work is the insufficiency of notes and the haphazard bibliography. In general, it is poorly documented, and some major references in the text fail to appear in the bibliography (e.g. Harper and Miller). Given the originality of some of the arguments, and the general freshness of the topic, it is a great pity that the author has chosen not to annotate the study a little more fully. Future scholars have no way to trace some of the claims and statements made and so to assess the validity of the arguments. This is the major drawback of what is essentially an attractive work.
Despite these faults, the work provides a useful overview of the activities of the Special Branch in Singapore in the early twentieth century, and I strongly recommend it to those who have an interest in the history of colonial policing and intelligence activities in Asia.
The reviewer is a Ph.D. candidate in political history at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies.