523 Massey to Burton

Letter SINGAPORE, 28 December 1947


I hope that my Departmental Despatch No.27 will be the last, for some months at least, which you will have from me on the subject of the fourteen Malay seamen. The issue seems to be settled so far as local opinion is concerned and, until the arrival of the men here [1] and the possible development of a new controversy regarding the reaction of their wives and children to Malay life, I really think we have heard the last of it. Only press reports from Australia are keeping it sufficiently alive to cause us a lingering embarrassment here. I have forwarded a selection of these to the Department without comment. The 'Straits Times' correspondent in Australia, Bob Gilmore, seems to be responsible for almost all of them.

The lesson of this sorry business was conveyed in my Ministerial Despatch No. 5/47 of 27th November, which was rather lengthy, I'm afraid, but which was meant to treat the subject exhaustively because of its gravity. I am writing now to emphasise to you personally that the repercussions in Malaya and in surrounding countries have been very bad, and have largely undone all the good achieved by the efforts of Australian representatives in this area since the war to secure the goodwill of the local peoples, and the excellent impression made by the Government's positive policy since July on the Indonesian question. This is all the more a cause for chagrin because the idea had secured widespread acceptance that Australia was identifying itself with the interests and aspirations of its neighbours, and because our position here as a result had been appreciably strengthened. It may seem hard for the general public in Australia to believe that the private misfortune of fourteen not particularly estimable Malay seamen could largely undo the good of a public policy which is clearly liberal and democratic. This has, however, happened.

So long as our immigration policy remains what it is (and we know there is no thought of changing it) we will always have to face the general bitterness towards it which I have found lies under the surface and which has been recently shown here in such a crystallised form. But we can do much to play this bitterness down, by avoiding provocation, by instituting a quota system, and by educating our own public opinion to not only take a wiser view of our immigration policy's dangers, but also to try and understand the problem by realising that there are very many highly educated, highly cultured persons of Asian birth. I have in mind the beginning that might be made in the 'Observer' for instance. If it would assist, I would arrange for a series of short articles to be supplied from here for publication in Australia.

It was possible for me in the present case to prevent a really dangerous situation by working in turn on each section that took up the agitation against us. But a repetition of this incident will be hard to handle indeed, and may lose us more ground still.

I hope therefore that you can convince the Government of the very real dangers which are ahead of us, and of the impossibility of pursuing a successful policy on the political plane here while the situation remains unchanged as regards immigration.

1 The men did not in fact leave Australia until February 1948.

[AA : A1838, 411/3/6/1/2, i]