Two years ago, I wrote about how I went to a community tribute site to pay my respects to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who had just passed then. It was a heavy week as everyone grappled with the significance of his passing. Two years on, I found myself reflecting on what it means to honour him and our founding generation of leaders.
Mr Lee himself was exceedingly clear that he did not want a personal monument and especially not a personality cult. His last will and testament firmly set out his wishes for his house at Oxley Road to be razed after his daughter Dr Lee had moved out.
So it is with some apprehension that I visited the Founders’ Memorial Showcase at Gardens by the Bay. Named “Remembering our Founders: The Making of a Memorial”, this public showcase invited members of the public to share their ideas on where the memorial should be and what should go into it.
A quote from Dr Goh Keng Swee greets visitors in the second section of the showcase.
If this showcase was a precursor for the eventual memorial, it was clear that the organizers marked the wishes of Mr Lee. The Founders’ Memorial showcase honoured the values and ideals of the founding leaders, through the voices of fellow Singaporeans who shared what those ideals meant to them. It was not just about Mr Lee, nor the individual founding leaders. It was what it meant for all of us, as fellow Singaporeans building our lives in the country that they helped establish.
The showcase also featured many creative ideas from the public on how they would like the Memorial to look like. Here is one of my favourite:
The participants from this group must have had lots of practice with Lego as kids.
This little girl is pretty talented too!
The showcase will be at Gardens by the Bay until the end of April but you can also share your ideas on the official website here.
On memorials, you may also have heard about the controversy with the naming of the Syonan Gallery, officially renamed Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies. (It’s a mouthful and I’m still waiting for some expedient acronym.) Housed at the Former Ford Factory, the public was divided on whether the name Syonan was appropriate given how it evoked a dark and painful past. (Syonan-to was the name given to Singapore during the Japanese Occupation, which means ‘Light of the South’.)
The refurbished building preserves the art deco style of the factory built in 1941.
For many of us born after the war, the Japanese Occupation is something we remember from our social studies textbooks or stories we heard from our grandparents. The gallery tries to bring all that to life, using the government records, donated artefacts, wartime propaganda videos and oral history interviews. The experience is poignant, especially gripping when I turned a corner and found myself in the room where the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.
It could have been the air-condition but this room was especially chilly.
During my visit, there was a group of octogenarians standing around the banana banknote display (These were Japanese issued currency during the Occupation), talking about how much food used to cost then. The oldest among them recounted in Cantonese, “When the Japanese devils left, we took all the banana notes and burned them, in bags after bags.”
Visitors looking at the banana notes.
That is the part of the story which was missing from the carefully curated exhibition – the harsh realities of starvation, the brutality of the war and seething distrust among communities. My late Grandfather used to share some stories when he was still around, but each time the pain of recollection would get too much to bear. If your grandparents are still around, I urge you not to lose that part of our history.
That is the unwritten purpose of both galleries – to start conversations; to hold onto the parts of our past that we cannot afford to lose; and to never forget who we are as Singaporeans.