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.