Vandalism of Cenotaph: For Democracy?

The Straits Times reported today that, “heritage experts say Tuesday’s vandalism of the Cenotaph points to a growing disconnect between Singapore’s younger generation and the significance of national monuments. This is understandable, considering that the public’s consciousness of national monuments fades with time … (and that) it gets harder passing down memories after two or three generations.”

Photo credit: The Straits Times

Certainly, there is historical significance to which we need to value our country’s culture and history. However, let me ask three questions:

  • What is our government doing to retain Singaporeans’ sense of rootedness to our history and culture? How many historical buildings or monuments has the government demolished? 
  • What are our schools’ priorities? How relevant is conserving the students’ sense of value and appreciation to our culture and heritage, as compared to the strident focus on excelling academically and in CCAs?
  • How has the government chosen to rewrite history according to their political legitimacy and hegemony, such that our understanding of history has become severely impeded and fundamentally changed?

Acting Minister for Culture, Community & Youth Lawrence Wong wrote on his Facebook page, that, “The defacement of any National Monument is unacceptable and the Police are currently investigating the matter. This is a disrespectful and deplorable act.”

Mr Wong had also said that, “Many have come out to strongly state our disapproval against the act.” Indeed, The Online Citizen (TOC) had also released a statement which stated that, “the very act is an insult to those who have shed blood, sweat and tears to liberate our nation from oppressors. The Cenotaph commemorates those who lost their lives during the World Wars.”

TOC added that, “This action is nothing short of defacing the graves of our pioneers, those who have given up their very lives for the people of this nation. Under no circumstances is it excusable.”

I find this very ironic. Mr Wong might call the “the defacement of any national monument” as being “unacceptable”, “disrespectful” and “deplorable”. When TOC talks about how this “is nothing short of defacing the graves of our pioneers”, doesn’t this bring to mind how “the government is planning to drive a highway” through the Bukit Brown Heritage Park. To paraphrase TOC, here at Bukit Brown are also “the graves of our pioneers … who have given up their very lives for the people of this nation”.

Thus when Mr Wong called on the “defacement” as being “deplorable”, can the same be said about how the government’s plans to “deface” Bukit Brown, or how the government has “defaced” many of our heritage in Chinatown, Kampong Glam and the demolishment of many other buildings with historical significance in Singapore?

Of course, in pragmatic Singapore, we have learnt not to hold too much sentimental value to historic buildings. Otherwise, where do we put our Gucci or Prada shops? Or the Mercedes car showroom?

But the larger question is this – why do some people get to define what heritage is, and what can be considered a national monument, whereas some people have to suck their thumb at seeing their heritage be demolished? Who gets to define what is defacement? Is the scribbling of the word, “Democracy”, on the Cenotaph considered to be a more dire defacement than the mass “defacement” of Chinatown into a tourist destination, losing nary a sense of what its history was at all about?

It is unfortunate, as well, that The Straits Times had chosen to frame this incident as a “growing disconnect between Singapore’s younger generation and the significance of national monuments”. The Straits Times had perhaps conveniently neglected the expression of the word, “Democracy”.

True, Singaporeans have a growing disconnect with our history – but this is to be expected of a government which is party to this in its blatant focus on economic growth, having selectively prioritised the preservation of cultural heritage with economic value and neglected the rest. This brings to mind how the government “is preparing for a bid for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site” even as Singaporeans are calling for a greater discussion as to what other heritage should also be considered, such as Bukit Brown and Tiong Bahru.

Another interpretation to this episode is that the “vandal” had felt that the sacrifice of the soldiers in World War I and II to free Singapore so that we could achieve statehood and democracy has come to nought, as this country is now ruled by politicians who are economic plundering from Singapore anyway. Have we truly been freed?

Indeed, on two large plagues at the Cenotaph, it reads, “they died so we might live”. One wonders if they have died in vain, and what they had wanted us to live for and if we truly have lived.


  1. Jentrified Citizen

    While vandalism is deplorabable in general, this unprecedented act of painting the word Democracy with the big cross on the war memorial in Singapore can be viewed in the larger picture. By this one word and one act it has jolted many of us to think of its significance. Democracy? do we really have that here? Democracy with the cross out, is democracy dead? Has the brave heros died in vain in saving our country? Many thoughts and emotions abound when looking at this picture with the vivid red paint. While the conservatives will disagree vehemently with me, there will be those who see deeper intepretation that goes beyond the simple label of vandalism.

    • My Right to Love

      Hi Jentrified Citizen,

      I agree. There are many ways to look at this incident.

      Though some might not agree with the act, it does give us an opportunity, like you have said, to reflect on the situation, and in the political situation of Singapore.

      The artist would have meant to create a platform for discussion, but because he might have used a platform that can be more easily criminalised, the conversation has thus veered towards his act of ‘criminal intent’ more than what he or she had intended to express, which is a pity.


  2. Emily Lai

    On the point of democracy and whether we have truly achieved it, my question would more so be, is it better for Singapore to be a democracy? Do correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a democracy one where the government/state is ruled by majority? This should not be what Singapore is striving for because we have many minority races that we have to protect, especially since we live in a multi-racial society. We see many policies that aim to protect the rights of the minority races, for example GRCs, the freedom of religion, and even if we do infringe upon the rights of the people, we need to keep in mind that the government has one fundamental duty and that is to ensure the social contract is being upheld, meaning the people “sacrifice” some rights so as to get protection for other rights from the government. The famous saying, “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins” shows how we give up certain rights in order to prevent ourselves from getting punched. Hence, even if the government infringes upon certain rights, we say that they are justified in doing so.

    However, keeping that in mind, we don’t want an oligarchy in Singapore. However, what does the act of vandalism really achieve? If we don’t focus on the “criminal intent” of his act, we look at the impacts of the act. For me, it doesn’t achieve anything, other than infuriate me because war memorials are something special, and do not deserve to be vandalized on out of basic human respect. Secondly, the message he attempts to send is extremely vague. The years 1914-1918 have no corelation to the idea/word “democracy” (at least one that a reader can see) and the word “democracy” in itself is extremely vague and does not send a message. If he really would like to air his view, I would strongly encourage it because i do not agree that the government is perfect etc. However I would suggest that he do it on a better platform where he can express his views COHERENTLY for better persuasiveness and effect, for example on a blog, or the many focus group discussions that are being organized.

    Simply put, I do not understand why he harm himself by committing an offence without even communicating his view properly.

  3. sureesh

    The GRC’S are not there to protect the minorities. It is there to serve the interest of the ruling PAP. Why don’t they have policies to make sure that private companies must employ minorities, if they want to protect us. The whole idea is not to protect the minority races. The whole idea is to prevent riots that would disrupt our economy and scare away foreign investors.

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