BY INVITATION

Japan, Singapore, and 70 years of post-war ties

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Ties between Singapore and Japan will move forward, even as both remember what happened in February 1942.

As the world prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August, ties between Singapore and Japan are positive and mutually beneficial.

Among Singaporeans, aspects of Japanese culture have won favour, especially its food.

A poll last year by Borders Asia Market Insight and AsiaX found that Japanese food is the most popular foreign cuisine among Singaporeans.

And Japan ranks third, after Australia and New Zealand, when it comes to foreign countries that Singaporeans are interested to live in.

These good impressions flow from many decades of cooperation and cultural exchange, following the end of the war in 1945 and, with that, the end of Japan's occupation of Singapore, then a British colony.

In the 1970s, after Singapore became independent, Japan became its largest foreign investor and trading partner.

In 1980, the Singapore Government initiated a campaign to learn from Japan in terms of corporate management, labour practices and public security. Company labour unions and koban, or neighbourhood police posts, were introduced to Singapore and became institutionalised.

In the 1990s, Japanese anime, comic books and TV dramas arrived in Singapore and became popular, as did sushi and even okonomiyaki, or Japanese savoury pancake.

In 2002, Singapore became the first country with which Japan signed an economic partnership agreement.

The two countries are now engaged in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP agreement, with 10 other countries, including the United States.

War memories linger

SINGAPOREANS' perception of Japan is basically positive, but there are mixed feelings when it comes to trust. That is according to a poll on Japan of seven South-east Asian countries, conducted last year by Ipsos Hong Kong, an arm of the global research company.

Some 44 per cent and 52 per cent of Singaporeans thought that their country's relationship with Japan was "very friendly" and "somewhat friendly" respectively.

But while 36 per cent of Singaporeans regarded Japan as trustworthy, 53 per cent of them answered, "Yes, but with some reservations". War memories still seem to linger.

The 73rd anniversary of the Japanese occupation of Singapore falls on Feb 15. On that day in 1942, the Japanese imperial forces defeated the British forces in a nine-day battle and occupied Singapore.

Soon after that, Japan's forces undertook Operation Sook Ching, a Chinese term that means "purging through cleansing". Its arbitrary and disorganised screening process led to not only anti-Japanese volunteers and activists being brutally killed, but also those who were merely suspected of being anti-Japanese.

According to the Singapore Government's HistorySG online resource guide, the Japanese estimated that 5,000 to 6,000 Singaporeans were killed while local experts' estimates ranged between 40,000 and 50,000 (which may have included casualties during the Malaya Campaign). The true numbers are "unlikely ever to be known".

The point: Either way, it was a dreadful atrocity.

In 1962, Singapore demanded that Japan pay $50 million to settle the "blood debt". After prolonged negotiations, Japan agreed to pay that amount in 1967.

Blood debt was thus paid back; but there was no way to return the lives of those killed.

Remembering history

ON AUG 15 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to issue a statement in order to make sense of Japan's pre- and post-war history, and present his vision for the future.

A heated debate has already begun on what he should or should not say on that day. Mr Abe has recently suggested that he might not repeat the expression that socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama used in 1995 on the 60th anniversary of the end of the war - "feelings of deep remorse and...heartfelt apology".

Instead, he will make the statement "forward-looking" and lay out how Japan will contribute to world peace more proactively. Opposition leaders and even Mr Abe's coalition partner have expressed concerns, and insisted that the key phrase in the Murayama statement be repeated.

It is good to espouse a future-oriented vision, but that vision must be constructed on a good understanding of the past.

Historical memories must also be inclusive. Most Japanese citizens know what comfort women are and what happened in Nanjing, China. Very unfortunately, however, not many of them know what happened on Changi Beach and Punggol Beach, where many Chinese were taken by the kempeitai, or military police, and killed in batches.

The statements of prime ministers are important. But if the people of Japan do not understand what happened in Singapore between 1942 and 1945, even the most beautifully written statement would sound hollow.

Our journey ahead

THIS year, Japan is poised to learn from Singapore, which ranked second in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitive Index for 2014 (versus Japan's sixth). Singapore is friendly to business, abundant in skilled labour, and has signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries and regions which collectively produce about 60 per cent of the world's gross domestic product. It has in many ways become a model for Japan's reformist growth strategy.

The corporate tax rate in Singapore is 17 per cent - one of the lowest in Asia. Japan's government recently decided to reduce the corporate tax rate by 2.5 percentage points to 32.1 per cent, to narrow the competitiveness gap.

Singapore's two integrated resorts, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, opened in 2010 and have produced tremendous positive economic impact. The number of inbound tourists to Singapore increased from 9.7 million in 2009 to 15.6 million in 2013 and revenue from tourism similarly increased from $12.6 billion in 2009 to $23.1 billion in 2012.

Japan is planning to develop integrated resorts modelled after Singapore's. Japan can learn both positive and negative lessons from Singapore's experience.

Singapore and Japan can also tackle policy challenges that they have in common. Most notably, rapid demographic shifts have become a major challenge to both. The Japanese government is trying to ease the problem by encouraging more women and retirees to work. That strategy can produce good results for a while, but when these last reserves of human resources are exhausted, Japan will be forced to decide whether to invite foreign workers to fill the gap or let its economy start shrinking.

In 2013, foreign workers in Singapore accounted for 1.6 million, or 38 per cent, of the country's labour force. Immigration policy is highly developed and strictly implemented. Japan can also learn lessons from events such as the riot that broke out in Little India on Dec 8, 2013.

Similarly, Japan can become a model for Singapore whose society is rapidly ageing, with a total fertility rate of 1.19, now lower than that of Japan. Singapore can learn from the country with 25.9 per cent of its population aged 65 or above and with highly developed health and welfare services for the elderly.

The two countries have come a long way. They will move forward while remembering what happened between them in the past.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, where he is director of the Security and International Studies Programme.