Don’t let cultural tourism fade into the background

Today Online 14 Oct 13;

The Formula 1 race and Changi Airport’s strategic overhaul to reposition itself amid intense competition are timely and welcomed efforts to boost the Republic’s aspirations to become a choice hub and destination.

However, Singapore has a lot more to offer. Our historic war-remembrance sites do not pale in comparison with Gallipoli, the Normandy beaches and Pearl Harbor.

The collapse of Fortress Singapore was a seminal event of the war in the Asia-Pacific — Winston Churchill called it “the worst disaster and the largest capitulation” of the British military in history.

In a global conflict that ended imperial colonialism and changed the world order, the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces — which were smaller in number — is a compelling story.

In Kranji, the silent pathos of the rain-washed gravestones of British, Anzac and Gurkha soldiers speak of the immeasurable horrors experienced by the sons, husbands and fathers of people in the Commonwealth, who served what may now seem to be anachronistic notions of hegemony, God and country.

And often overlooked is the Japanese cemetery in Ang Mo Kio — the largest of its kind in South-east Asia — where 10,000 Japanese soldiers, including Field Marshal Terauchi Hisaichi, and civilians lie buried in mass graves. The reprisals following the surrender of the Japanese are testimony to the suffering endured by the casualties from both sides.

Cultural tourism is different from consumer tourism. It is about remembering and honouring the past.

Pilgrimages to historic war sites are undertaken so individuals may assimilate the meaning of events that have led their tribe and culture to the present.

The sunken ships off Pearl Harbor are not so much a tourist attraction as they are shrines to the American war dead and a “boundary marker” for when their country entered the most lethal war in history — one that eventually claimed more than 400,000 American lives.

Singapore has a lot to offer the cultural tourist. The coastal guns at Fort Canning and submarine tunnels off Labrador Park all have stories and secrets waiting to be told to a larger audience.

Likewise the maladaptive responses of the British, which led to the surrender of Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival to General Tomoyuki Yamashita at the Old Ford Factory, also offer important lessons in history to people of all cultures.

Tourism mainstays like the Merlionand the Chingay parade — as supported works of the Singapore Tourism Board — have been effective in attracting the tourist dollar. But we should also consider our cultural and historical attractions.

Asia has no shortage of glitzy malls, but the experience offered by Fortress Singapore is about human catastrophe, historic pivots and poignant narratives. Few cities in Asia have a better story to tell than how the “empire” was lost in seven days.