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Purging the Past
False news is in the news. Preachers of alternative truth are everywhere. But just as insidious as news creationism is the trend to purge the memory of unpleasant facts, and to judge the past entirely in terms of the values of the present.
Singapore is a place not normally seen as squeamish about its colonial past. The city still rejoices in streets and buildings named after such colonial figures as Stamford Raffles, Henry Keppel, Thomas Shenton and Cecil Clementi. So it was something of shock to learn that the organizers of an exhibition commemorating the sufferings and experiences of Singaporeans during the Japanese occupation, 1942-1945, surrendered to demands to change its name from “Syonan gallery” to the prosaic “Surviving the Japanese Occupation.” The exhibition was timed for the 75th anniversary of the British surrender of the city to Japanese.
Some protested that the name offended those who suffered during occupation. Syonan (Light of the South) was the name that the Japanese gave to the city after they conquered it. It briefly replaced Singapura, the Sanskrit name (Lion City) given it by Srivijayans from Sumatra in the late 14th century, before which it was known by the Malay name Temasek.
It is hard to see why use of the name Syonan in its historical context is insulting to the memory of those who suffered, a period fundamental to formation of the character and attitudes of Lee Kuan Yew, whose toughness and survival skills were forged during those years, including a period working for the Japanese news agency.
But Singapore seems merely to be following a trend in the west. Yale University is in the process of changing the name of a building named after John C. Calhoun, vice-president of the US from 1825 to 1832 and for decades after a key figure in national politics. His crime: defender of states’ rights and hence of slavery in the southern states. That he was a product of time and place, that he was widely admired for his patriotism, principles, intellect and consistency now counts for nought.
On that basis it is time also to tear down all monuments to the likes of slave-owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and various esteemed figures involved in wars against Native Americans.
Likewise at Oxford University in England there has been an ongoing push to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist and mining magnate in southern Africa. Rhodes left a huge sum to support Rhodes Scholars, of whom there have been more than 7,000 (including former President Bill Clinton) and some 90 are added every year. If they don’t like the association with Rhodes, honor surely demands Oxford end the scholarship and give away the money.
It is especially alarming that intolerance of facts which do not fit certain beliefs and prejudices are found at major universities. They are also suppressing publication of books with opinions that need to be addressed or rebutted. Only this week the big US publisher Simon & Schuster cancelled publication of a book by right-wing Greece-born British journalist Milos Yiannopoulos, till then an editor at Breitbart News, the organ of Donald Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon.
Loathsome though many doubtless find Yiannopoulos’s views, the axe came because of an interview he had given some time previously suggesting that “there are certainly people who are capable of giving consent at a younger age" than the law allows. He was referring to sexual relations, in this case between men. (He is gay).
The reaction against Yiannopoulos, by all accounts a thoroughly despicable troll, was nonetheless a reflection of widespread paranoia in the US about so-called pedophilia – sexual relations between persons where one is under the legal age of consent.
This says far more about the stupidity and unscientific nature of much US law than it does about morality. What is a heinous crime in the US is no crime at all in much of the rest of the world. In the US the “age of consent” varies between 16 and 18, an absurdly high level which in practice is only occasionally enforced by vindictive parents or institutions.
Some but not all states modify the laws by reference to age differences between the consenting parties. In Germany and some other European countries, the age is just 14, and most other countries 15 or 16.
But rather than look at the facts – the age of puberty, actual practice, social history, etc – a major publisher joins the clamor to silence Yiannopoulos generally. It is a surrender to political correctness and populist prejudices. It was Voltaire after all who famously said he disapproved wholly of what a political opponent said, but that he would defend to the death his right to say it. Free expression of ideas, and defense of the right to express them, are central to democracy. They were central to democracy when Yiannopolous was blocked from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this year. When Yiannopolous’s right to speak and to publish is eroded, everyone suffers.