Hankering for National Heroes

Hong Lysa

Heroic celebrations, 2008

‘This year, we celebrate the heroes of Singapore’, declared the Singapore HeritageFest which had its anchor exhibition at Suntec City entitled, ‘Who’s Your Hero?’ (12-27 Jul 2008). The activities were not only confined to the popular shopping mall, but also fanned out to sites such as the popular disco, Zouk for the honouring of ‘our music heroes’—pop music personalities and groups of the 1960s to eighties; specifically Singapore Indian and Malay ‘pop’ heroes were celebrated at the Causeway Point Shopping Mall, and ‘Xinyao heroes’ at Vivocity’s Amphitheatre. A Vintage Car Grand Prix and Concours was also organised to ‘relive the thrills of our motoring heroes.’ Certainly, the organisers spared no effort in drawing public interest.


Hot on the heels of the Singapore HeritageFest is a five-month long exhibition at the National Library (18 July-31 December 2008) on the legacy of Tan Kah Kee (1893-1967) and Lee Kong Chian (1893-1967) Singapore’s two most well-known philanthropists remembered particularly for the support they gave to the field of education.

The extensive highlight given to heroes could suggest that Singapore society is acutely conscious of its model citizens. Another extrapolation that can possibly be drawn from the HeritageFest programme is that the liberal attitude taken in identifying heroes bespeaks of an open-minded and inclusive society that values individuals from all walks of life, and deeds both monumental and modest.

However, the almost compulsive tagging of heroes in the HeritageFest could arguably point to the opposite: the shortage of outstanding citizens whose contributions to society Singaporeans of today find meaningful and worthy of celebration. Indeed, the introduction to the exhibits, after declaring the aim of celebrating the heroes of Singapore, proceeded to assure its visitors: ‘Yes, we do have heroes in Singapore.’

We do have heroes in Singapore?

The HeritageFest exhibition identified a swathe of heroes of Singapore that included the mythical boy who used his ingenuity to save his community from attacking swordfish, only to be killed by the ruler who was afraid that he would pose a threat; the social and educational reformer Dr Lim Boon Keng (1869-1957); the Nanyang artists of the 1950s; the first team of cabinet ministers of Singapore; the Civil Defence Force, which was called to action in the collapse of Hotel New World (15 Mar 1986) and of Nicoll Highway during the building of the MRT lines (20 Apr 2004); the Singapore Armed Forces, for its sterling rescue and rehabilitation work in areas of Acheh hit by the tsunami on 26 December 2006; the medical personnel who braved the 2003 SARS epidemic to tend to the sick, in particular those who lost their lives in the course of doing so.

If the coverage still did not ‘hit’ on a hero that one would like embrace, there was a list of recipients of Singapore’s National Day awards on a computer to scroll through. And in Someone Like You: Titans Of Our Times, (National Heritage Board, 2008) ‘lesser-known heroes of Singapore’ such as samsui women, convicts from India brought to Singapore by the British for their labour, Professor Ernest Monterio who stopped the outbreak of polio in Singapore with vaccination in the 1950s, are featured for the edification of the young. It is hoped that readers would be particularly inspired by the story of Zubir Said, the composer of Singapore’s national anthem who went against his father’s wishes for him to join the civil service and instead devoted his life to music. The prospect of a Singapore ‘culinary hero’ was also held out (Straits Times 17 Aug 2008).

Heroes in a continually immigrant society

This liberal approach taken in Singapore’s search for heroes it could call its own, reflects its desire to build collective pride in its citizenry, but the task of finding such individuals is not a simple one. It is not that Singaporeans are a distinctly less heroic breed than members of other nation-states. The historical and present-day immigrant nature of the society simply makes pinning the accolade ‘Singapore hero’ on individuals a potentially hazardous affair. Lieutenant Adnan who died heroically at the hands of the invading Japanese soldiers in the Second World War, and legendary actor and director P. Ramlee (1929-1973) cannot be missed out in any list of Singapore heroes, but they are also revered as national heroes in Malaysia as well. After all, Singapore and the Malay peninsular once had a conjoined history, and until 1965, a destiny as one nation as well.

A national hero by definition has not only to be exclusive, but he or she also has to be home-grown. The celebration of the achievement of the first Singapore team to scale Mt Everest in May 1998 was somewhat dampened when it turned out that a key leader of the expedition was then a permanent resident with Malaysian citizenship. In a familiar reprise, but reflecting the changing demographic profile of recent migrants, Singapore’s first Olympic medal in 58 years was won by a team of women all of whom were born and grew up in China. While this in no way diminishes the respect their dedication and talent deserves, their becoming ‘new Singaporeans’ to be groomed for that very purpose cannot but check the embracing of their achievement as a moment of spontaneous, unadulterated national pride.

Singapore heroes and the colonial baggage

If Singapore as an immigrant society has made identifying heroes a complex matter, the country’s colonial past compounds the complexity. Anti­colonial struggles have been a reliable staple for hero production. Gandhi (1869-1948) and Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) had diametrically opposed views about how to get rid of the British, and even the type of independent India they envisaged, but both men are indisputably key figures in the pantheon of India’s national heroes. The Philippines takes great pride in Jose Rizal, often recognised as Southeast Asia’s earliest nationalist hero, even though or perhaps because he was executed by the Spanish, and his cause of getting rid of colonial rule was not to materialize until half a century later. Indonesia’s military refer to the War of Independence (1945-1950) against the Dutch after the Second World War to argue for their subsequent special role in politics.

Singapore did not have to fight a war as such to gain its independence from the British. Yet this fact alone cannot explain the dearth of anti-colonial heroes in the country. Malaysia similarly gained independence largely through a process of constitutional negotiations with the British. However, there has been reassessment of aspects of the country’s history with the rise of Malay nationalist sentiments from the 1970s. Maharaja Lela (executed 1877), a key plotter in the killing of James WW Birch (1826-1875) the first Resident of Perak, had hitherto been cast as a villain: scheming, power-hungry and backward-looking, but was rehabilitated as a hero, with a road and key mass transit station named after him in Kuala Lumpur. Similarly, roads that were previously named after colonial officials took on the names of Malay leaders.

The importance of retaining Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) as the founder of modern Singapore has been well expounded on by Singapore’s first generation of leaders. It was deemed imperative that investors had to be assured that the newly independent country would retain the capitalist economy which the British had built; Raffles also served as an ethnically ‘neutral’ founder who not one of Singapore’s ethnic groups could claim exclusive rights to. These reasons have not changed in the more than forty years since the country attained full sovereignty in 1965.

In recent years, Raffles has had to make some room for William Farquhar, (1770-1839),the first Resident of Singapore, who oversaw the building of the trading post in its early years. “Who really ‘founded’ Singapore?’ has emerged as a question posed to students in recent history text books. As part of critical historical thinking, students are to consider whether Raffles, Farquhar or John Crawfurd, who signed the 1824 treaty by which the island became a British colony was most deserving of the honour. There is no question however that it was a colonial official who ‘founded’ Singapore.

When Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong suggested in 2006 that illustrious Singaporeans should have public places and streets named after them, a letter to the press supported this call, suggesting that the names of ‘lesser’ officials such as MacRitchie, Chief Engineer of Singapore (1883-1895), after whom the country’s oldest reservoir has been named since 1922, should make way—for ‘a monarch or governor’ (Straits Times 21 Dec 2006). Another reader promptly took issue with this, contending that MacRitchie was far from being a ‘lesser’ official, for CM Turnbull’s History of Singapore 1819-1988 calls him ‘one of the municipality’s most farseeing officials’, while Charles Buckley’s Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore cites a minute he wrote forecasting the water needs of Singapore in the 20th century (Straits Times 21 Dec 2006).

Playing hide and seek in the Singapore History Gallery

As early as 1999, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had proclaimed: “Our country needs national heroes. Some of the first-generation leaders who fought for our independence and built up Singapore can be conferred the stature of our ‘national heroes’. We shall do this at the appropriate time.” (Straits Times 5 Dec 1999). With the passing of leading members of the first generation government leaders E.W Barker (1920-2001), S Rajaratnam (1915-2006) and Lim Kim San (1916-2006) there have been moves to honour the cabinet ministers, who have come to be hailed as ‘The First Ten’.

However, Dr Lim Hock Siew, one of those who fought for Singapore’s independence, Barisan Socialis leader and veteran political detainee would argue that such delicacy in embracing national heroes was unnecessary. He had thundered unequivocally in the 1996 eulogy he delivered: ‘Lim Chin Siong is a hero. A national hero. A legend in the history of the struggle for independence. Not only to get the British out, but the capitalists out.’ (Singapore National Museum, Exhibit 82 VII).

This tribute to Lim opens the video clip on the life of Singapore’s most significant founding member of the People’s Action Party whose left faction was hitherto largely obliterated from mainstream Singapore history as a legitimate political force. The clip was largely narrated by his friends. Its inclusion, one and a half years after the National Museum of Singapore reopened in December 2006 was reported in the press. The museum director explained that the video was ‘a result of feedback from visitors who wanted to know more about Mr Lim, …they felt the history of Singapore’s fight against British colonialism, which led to self-government, and later independence, should mention his contributions’ (Straits Times 9 July 2008).

However, it came to my attention in December 2008 that the video recording was not to be seen at its usual location in the large and bright penultimate exhibition room on the post-Separation period. Without any fanfare, has been significantly reduced in length, and ‘looped’ with the video clip featuring an interview with Fong Swee Suan, former trade union leader, PAP founder member and comrade of Lim Chin Siong. Fong’s video has in turn been moved from the exhibition room on the 1950s to an easily overlooked wall in the smaller and easily by-passed room on trade unions.

The HeritageFest’s list of possible heroes is an expansive one. Yet it scrupulously excludes certain groups of individuals. The proffering of alternative nominees as national heroes that has been articulated by those who would find its list inadequate and unsatisfactory constitutes a challenge to mainstream understanding of desired values and goals, a hankering for a different Singapore. Lim Chin Siong’s prominent absence, then presence, and then not quite absence nor presence in the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore reflects precisely the state of play on what is allowed, but also what cannot be defensibly omitted in the politics of historical representation in the country today.

A former colleague of Siew Min and Hui Kian at the History Department, National University of Singapore, Hong Lysa is currently researching on Singapore history and history writing on her own steam. (Jun 2009)

4 thoughts on “Hankering for National Heroes”

  1. all this hankering for national heroes, when added to the plethora of countries/ideals/things tangible and intangible we are frequently called upon to emulate, reminds me of one of our national pastimes – copying other people.

    which reminds me of a documentary series on local TV a few years ago called “Extra-ordinary People”, featuring exceptional everyday Singaporeans~

    it’s as if

    (1) being unheroic is a mortal sin. in that case, i’m sorry for being just ordinary.

    (2) that we should all be looking to copy our national heroes or all other types of heroes, instead of finding ways to be heroes in our own ways, by our own definitions.

  2. Maybe one can consider the personalities featured in this issue as ‘heroes’ – Samad Ismail, MK Rajakumar or even the rest of the Fajar 8?

    National Library’s efforts to revive pioneers could be seen in the Lim Boon Keng exhibition/book launch of 2007 and the recent tie-up with ISEAS on David Marshall.

    Another ’source’ to look at is the Trailblazers series shown on CNA, a collaboration between MOE and MDA last year.

  3. Not to mention that a hero often needs to take the road less travelled. With a top down mentality that clamps down on those who choose the road less travelled, who, I ask, will dare to be a hero? It’s a contradiction in elites’ ethos within Singapore.

  4. From my Toilet Library:

    There’s a fun, inexpensive publication in all Popular Book Stores called “Pioneers of Singapore”–Builders of Our Land (Asiapac Publication). It should be obligatory reading in our National Eduction school syllabus. Nice illustrations for kids, well balanced biography of 32 pioneers from all races. Brilliant. I have it in my toilet reading rack, more enjoyable than the Straits Times.

    Unfortunately, many of these illustrious people and their highly educated descendants, during the 1950s, founded political parties, to contest the PAP.

    Maybe PATHS NOT TAKEN should be mandatory reading for Singapore historians. Why was this book about Singapore, spearheaded in Australia and not Singapore? Also in my toilet rack, but requires more concentration, so perhaps not lavatory but verandah….

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