As the Japanese Army advanced through Asia from the beginning of December 1941, the bank retreated branch by branch until most of its network in the East was shut down. As with many of the bank's branches, the Pacific War hit the Singapore office hard. As Malaysia was occupied in 1941, our office in Collyer Quay became a venue for HBSC staff evacuees. The branch also had to work almost 24 hours a day to meet business demands.
Conditions were difficult with bombing almost continuous throughout most of January 1942, as this extract from an account by sub-manager A M Duncan Wallace written in 1942 testifies: "For some days prior to this all the members of the foreign staff in Malaya, with the exception of those mobilized with the SS Volunteers, had taken up residence in the bank office building as the general military situation near the end had become very obscure. Enemy shells were dropping in the outlaying districts of the town, which indicated that the residential areas might any moment be picked out as targets for the Nipponese guns."
A small group of staff officers under R A Stuart flew out of Singapore with a copy of the key ledger balances so the bank's business can be re-established. The remaining staff continued to work to put the books in order until the 15 February when the Japanese troops arrived. The following day the troops entered the bank and began the process of forced liquidation. The staff were interned in Changi Gaol.
A letter to Arthur Morse, Chief Manager from Duncan Wallace written on the Hospital Ship Karoa in the sea between Singapore and Madras on 12 September 1945 explains what happened:
"Greetings from the interned staff in Malaya! Twenty-five of us………were caught when Singapore fell in 1942 and I am happy to report that all the twenty-five come out in reasonably good condition. ……I regret I cannot here tell you definitely that our bank records are intact, but I have very good reason to believe that they are………On quitting the bank in February 1942 our books were in good shape, and, if we are fortunate enough to recover them, the work of reconstruction should be a comparatively simple matter for the [re]lieving staff."
13 February 1942 was the last day that the Bank was opened to the public. Singapore surrendered on the 15 February 1942.
During this extremely trying period, many employees demonstrated immense courage, sticking to their posts until the last moments to help customers and document information that will eventually help re-establish banking operations.
While it is often said that business is all about the bottom line, stories like this tell us that behind the numbers are people, who despite extremely difficult situations, will do the right thing. This is how we have grown and adapted to weather change and meet many challenges.
Reference: Photo and excerpts from HSBC Singapore Centenary supplement courtesy of Group archives