In just four days, Minister for Communications and Information (MCI), Yaacob Ibrahim, was involved in two controversies. So, it wasn’t exactly a good week for the experienced minister.
Dr Yaacob is of course not new to this. In 2013 he caused some unhappiness when he introduced new legislations which many saw as curbing speech online. No minister who is in the job long enough will avert such controversies, given the glare of public scrutiny on them.
Still, two such incidents in one week – with the second one in particular stirring deep emotions among some members of the public – are not too common.
The first occurred on 13 February. Speaking at a dialogue with students, Dr Yaacob spoke for the first time on the elected presidency, which had undergone some changes recently. The next election, which is to be held in September, is a “reserved election” which only Malay candidates can contest.
Dr Yaacob was asked if the “reserved election”, so-named because it is reserved for a particular racial community, was “mere tokenism”.
In his response, Dr Yaacob urged Singaporeans to give it a chance, and that the “Government might change its mind and decide that this reserved election doesn’t work.”
“You never know,” he added.
It was all fine up to this point – and then Dr Yaacob, perhaps in his enthusiasm in defending the scheme, said something which made some people upset. The bottom fell out, so to speak.
He said even as the elected presidency election was reserved for designated racial groups, it still must be based on meritocracy.
“Even for the elected president,” he said, “you don’t just pick up somebody from Geylang Serai – the person must qualify, the person must earn the respect of all Singaporeans.”
Wait a minute.
“You don’t just pick up somebody from Geylang Serai”?
What is wrong with the folks in Geylang Serai?
You mean only folks in say, District 9 or 10, are worthy to be presidents?
Unsurprisingly, the minister’s remarks drew criticism, especially online, with some expressing regret that the minister apparently was “looking down” on people from the Geylang Serai area.
Dr Yaacob, for his part, has chosen – perhaps wisely – not to further comment on the matter.
Still, it does raise question about his worldview on the Malay community, and the people of a geographical area in particular.
Has an elitist mindset taken root so deep within members of the ruling party that they do not even bat an eyelid in expressing such elitist viewpoints?
The second incident which involved Dr Yaacob was, of course, the naming of the former Ford Factory to “Syonan Gallery”.
Being the minister for MCI, Dr Yaacob was directly responsible for the naming of the gallery, which is located in Upper Bukit Timah Road.
The name “Syonan” – which means “Light of the South” in Japanese – was forced on Singapore by the Japanese during the 31/2 years’ occupation of the island during the Second World War. As such, the name is synonymous with the atrocities visited on the population of Singapore then, which many of our older folks still have deep memories of.
So you can understand when they expressed unhappiness, and even shock, that the Government – and the MCI specifically – would use such a name to represent a gallery which, incidentally, was set up to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese.
Indeed, why on earth would anyone think the name “Syonan” would be an appropriate one in this instance?
The Government seemed to have stood its grounds despite the outcry from the public.
Dr Yaacob himself stressed, at the gallery’s opening on 15 February, that the use of the name “does not express approval of the Japanese occupation.”
“Far from it,” he said. “It remembers what our forefathers went through, commemorates the generation of Singaporeans who experienced the Occupation, and reaffirms our collective commitment never to let this happen again.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also defended the use of the name, and said that “we cannot erase our history or bury the past.”
The outcry, however, persisted, despite the Government’s defence of it.
Then, suddenly, the very next day, the Government did a u-turn.
The name “Syonan” would no longer be used for the gallery, it announced in a statement. Instead, it will be renamed to “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies”.
In announcing the change, Dr Yaacob accepted and recognised that the incident had “evoked deep hurt” in some people, “as well as their parents and grandparents.”
“This was never our intention,” he said, “and I am sorry for the pain the name has caused.”
He explained that he had “reflected deeply” on the feedback he had received from the public in the days leading up to the u-turn.
“We must honour and respect the feelings of those who suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation.”
By the evening of 16 February, workers had already removed the signage at the building.
It is good that Dr Yaacob has apologised for the anguish caused, and recognised that the Government perhaps should have thought through the re-naming exercise. Nonetheless, Singaporeans are glad that the name has now been removed.
It is of utmost importance that the sufferings of our forefathers, sufferings which can never be erased no matter how long ago they occurred, are never forgotten, or belittled.
To use a name forced on us by our oppressors is unconscionable, no matter how well-intentioned. It betrays all that we, our forebears, have gone through.
In the same way, let us also not belittle our own citizens, whether they live in Geylang Serai or elsewhere, and look down on them.
Being president is the highest honour in the land – and it is something which should be opened to any and every Singaporean. Unfortunately, the way the Constitution has been changed, vis a vis the Presidential Election Act, it has made the elected presidency a reserved one for elites and the privileged of our society.
Let s hope Dr Yaacob, and his colleagues in Government, will remember these things – that we are all Singaporeans, no matter where we live, and we all have shared memories, including those of our older folks, and we should all see each other as equal, and respect everyone and be sensitive to their experiences, even if they were from another generation.