Baťamen in Singapore – the story of Silvestr Němec and Baťa’s interwar expansion overseas
Baťamen in Singapore – the story of Silvestr Němec and Baťa’s interwar expansion overseas
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The Baťa shoe company is one of the most famous and successful Czech businesses in the world. In large part thanks to its rapid international expansion during the interwar era, which was based around copy-pasting the successful company model abroad through the sending out of special core teams made up of Czech Baťa employees. But how did this work in practice? Jan Beránek has written a book which traces the life of his ancestor Silvestr Němec, who was one of the so-called Baťamen sent to Singapore in the 1930s. His life shows the adventures, but also tragic fate that a young village boy from Czechoslovakia could encounter by working for the shoe company.
The mysterious great-uncle Silvestr Němec
Mr. Beránek, you have written a book which looks into Baťa’s Singapore branch, by tracing the life of one of its employees - your uncle Silvestr Němec. Tell me, what did you know of this man before you started your research?
“Silvestr Němec was my great uncle. He was considered a bit of a mysterious person on my mother’s side of the family. When I was a little boy, I spent a lot of time in the village where my grandparents lived, which is also where Silvestr was born. There is a big photograph of him in the house, but little was said of him in the family. I also recall that my grandmother would visit the memorial in the village to lay some flowers there for him since he had no grave.
“He was her brother, a family favourite, but his disappearance apparently became a major trauma, so no one wanted to talk about him. All I knew was that he disappeared in Singapore.”
“[Baťa] was basically the biggest Czechoslovak industrial establishment and probably the biggest shoe producer in the world with several international branches, so it had a very sophisticated system of hiring talent and training employees.”
Silvestr was born in a small town called Vemyslice in 1919. How did he end up working for Baťa?
“Silvestr was obviously quite a talented boy. He finished the school in his village and then, at the age of 17, joined the Baťa company as a seller. That was in 1936. I have not yet managed to identify which specific store he worked in, as there were thousands of them in Czechoslovakia at the time.
“Baťa had quite a competitive system. The company was basically the biggest Czechoslovak industrial establishment and probably the biggest shoe producer in the world with several international branches, so it had a very sophisticated system of hiring talent and training employees. The best of them would eventually be given opportunities to go overseas.
“It included background checks as well as questionnaires on their social and economic conditions. These were things such as how they handled their finances, whether they drank or smoked. There was a lot of scrutiny before people were even allowed to be tested and given trials at the company.”
“Baťa was seen as a golden spot for employment. The company gave poor people from the villages unparalleled conditions in terms of salaries, social security and health care support.”
Did you find out from any of his personal documents how he felt about the business?
“Unfortunately, I do not have the direct views of Silvestr, because virtually nothing survived from his personal documentation. However, I have managed to read many letters and documents from his colleagues and other Baťa employees, so I can extrapolate on that.
“Baťa was indeed seen as a golden spot for employment. The company gave poor people from the villages unparalleled conditions in terms of salaries, social security and health care support. He was also careful to create institutions that gave them opportunities and entertainment in their free time, so they would be well taken care of.
Silvestr was sent to work in the local Baťa branch Singapore in 1938. He was not even 20 years old at that time. Was it common for such men to be sent overseas?
“There were dozens and hundreds of mostly young men like Silvestr Němec who were sent to Singapore, South America, or several places in Asia. From their experiences we know that this opportunity usually came quite short notice.”
“Indeed, it must have been fantastic. I am still grasping to try to imagine what it must have felt like for a boy from a Czechoslovak village to get the opportunity to work on a tropical island in a new environment thousands of miles from home.
“There were dozens and hundreds of mostly young men like him who were sent to Singapore, South America, or several places in Asia. From their experiences we know that this opportunity usually came quite short notice. The internal bureaucracy within the company picked the candidates and, once management decided to go ahead, they were just given a few weeks to prepare before they had to leave. It was not an option, but company orders. They could either take on the mission or get fired. The majority of them complied. I think that most of them found it interesting in the end, but it was not a voluntary choice.”
1938 was of course a tumultuous year in Czechoslovakia. There was a real threat of war from the May crisis through to the Munich Agreement and the loss of Sudetenland with its border defences. Do we have any records showing how Silvestr felt about being sent away at such a time?
“Unfortunately we do not know about how he felt, but we can speculate. There is only one letter from Silvestr that survives in the family archive. It was penned in March 1939, just after Silvestr arrived in Singapore. It captures his first impressions of the island and is very nice reading. However, it does not go into how he felt about the situation at the moment of his departure.
“I think that the family actually also saw Silvestr’s posting to Singapore as a great opportunity for their youngest son to get out of Europe, because it was clear that the situation was getting ever worse and that war was just around the corner. I think everybody hoped that he would be safe and sound in Singapore and could return back to the family after the war. That, we know, did not happen unfortunately.”
Baťa’s interwar expansion overseas
We will look into what happened to Silvestr Nemec after Japan declared war on the British Empire. But first, can you tell us a bit more about Baťa overseas business operations during the First Republic era and why it was expanding to such distant parts of the world?
“It is a fascinating phenomenon actually. It is also one of the reasons why the company became so successful, because it was very innovative and unorthodox in terms of establishing and approaching its businesses.
“The first breakthrough actually came during the great depression when economies were collapsing and states were creating all sorts of barriers. That was impacting Baťa at the time. The company had established a chain of stores across Europe and overseas already in the 1920s, but with these newly introduced barriers it was not possible to sell the Czechoslovak made shoes abroad.
“Baťa chose to move entire production lines abroad and domesticize them. This led to a major expansion of production facilities to both European countries and to South America in the 1930s. In 1931, Baťa also chose to set up a factory in Batanagar, which lay in British India at the time. Singapore became the second hub in the region in 1932 and another factory was opened in British Malaya in 1935. This subsequently flooded the surrounding markets with hundreds of millions of pairs of shoes.
“Baťa’s strategy was to send core teams of talented people who possessed different sets of skills [abroad]. These were then expected to fully localise production and management.”
“As the political and military situation deteriorated, it made managing this vast network increasingly difficult, because these overseas factories were outside the German sphere of influence and under the control of the allies. These two sides were at odds of course. Baťa’s strategy was to send core teams of talented people who possessed different sets of skills. These were then expected to fully localise production and management, so that these branches could operate independently of the company headquarters in Zlín. From 1938 to 1939, over 1,000 people were sent overseas in batches to fulfil this strategy. Silvestr was one of them.
“It was basically copy-pasting the production methods and processes from Zlin and rubber stamping them abroad. Therefore, people who were familiar with the Zlin system were put in charge of managing these overseas branches.”
Baťa branch in Singapore
What was the specific Baťa branch in Singapore like?
“As tensions were rising at home, it inevitably left a mark on the [Czechoslovak] community in Singapore.”
“It took me quite some time to understand this and recover sufficient details. However, it seems that there were lots of conflicts within the Czechoslovak community in Singapore and between the Baťa employees themselves.
“The community consisted of around 130 people. That was a very small group, but it did include people from very different social and national backgrounds. There were the Jews as well as German and Polish Czechoslovaks. Then there were of course the Czechs and Slovaks themselves. As tensions were rising at home, it inevitably left a mark on the community in Singapore. For example, some of the Czechoslovak Germans decided to become citizens of the Third Reich and that must have caused some rifts.
“There were also conflicts surrounding the local Baťa branch director. He obviously must have had good standing with the Baťa headquarters as one of its early employees, but his management style was not very professional. He was rough when dealing with people and took decisions that were not understood by others. There was a lot of injustice going on. For example, he had a tendency of firing people who did not agree with him immediately. There was also a lot of evidence of bullying and the sexual abuse of the wives of his employees.
“There were nasty things that were happening and several of the Baťa employees, including Silvestr, seem to have had reservations. They raised complaints to local British authorities and eventually even to the Czechoslovak Government in Exile. One of my conclusions based on my research is that Silvestr and five or six of his friends were fired from the company a sometime in the spring of 1941.
“However, not all his experiences would have been negative. There were several beautiful times that he and his friends would have had. For example, going to the seaside over the weekends, or visiting the waterfalls belonging to the sultan of Jahore, who was a frequent guest at the Baťa store and always let Silvestr and his friends go to the waterfalls.”
Fighting the Japanese
It did not take long for the Second World War to catch up with Silvestr even in this remote, but important British imperial territory. Singapore was lost to the Empire of Japan in February 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Is it true that Silvestr took part in the fighting as part of a volunteer group known as the “Baťamen”?
“It actually happened well ahead of the Japanese invasion of Malaya. As soon as the war began in Europe, there were some young Czechoslovaks who decided to return and fight. A couple of Silvestr’s colleagues left to join the Czechoslovak Legions in France and later in Britain.
“However, most of them joined the local volunteer corps in Singapore. This most likely happened sometime in late 1940 or early 1941. They underwent a two month training camp, were deployed in the defence of Singapore and saw action when the Japanese attacked the British territory.
And he went missing during that battle over Singapore. You went into this research knowing only that. What are your theories on what happened to him now?
“The official version according to the documents is that Silvestr was declared missing before the capitulation of Singapore. Since he did not appear after the war ended, he was declared dead in 1947 by the British authorities.
“By tracking what his friends and compatriots did in the fighting, we can assume that Silvestr took part in the fighting around Pasir Panjang, which are the hills in the south west of the island where some of the fiercest fighting took place. There is a record there of him being hospitalised for shellshock on February 11, four days before the capitulation. There are other documents and references that suggest he was murdered in the hospital during the infamous Alexandra Hospital massacre on February 15. If he was there at the time, it is quite likely that he was killed by the Japanese. That is the most likely story.
“However, there are also other references which slightly contradict that, such as a letter from his friend who says he saw Silvester fighting in Battle two days after he was hospitalised. It is therefore possible that he re-joined his company and either died in battle or died as a prisoner of war. One document hints at that.
“There is also a fourth hypothesis, which is not supported by documents, but I think is possible. Namely, that he may have died during the evacuation, when thousands of people died in the sea. We know that at least four other Czechoslovaks died this way.”
Your book on Silvestr Němec was published in Czech this October. I hear that you are thinking of publishing the book in English as well. When would that be?
“Yes, that is correct. Actually, I wrote a blog tracking my research process which is already available online. People who are interested can read the core of the story can find it at https://searchingforsilvestr.wordpress.com/.
“But, of course, the book is significantly more fleshed out. It has been published in Czech and if I am lucky, it could be published in English by 2021. I cannot promise that for certain, but it is one of the objectives I have for next year.”
Jan Beránek’s book is titled Pátrání po Silvestrovi: Válečné osudy Baťovců v Singapuru. It can be purchased online on the website of the publisher Mystery Press: https://mysterypress.cz/patrani-po-silvestrovi/