ON HIS visit to Japan last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong could hardly have been accused of pandering to his hosts.
Twice in two days, he spoke frankly about the long shadow that Japan's World War II record cast on its relations with some of its Asian neighbours 70 years on.
Once, he did so to a room full of Japanese businessmen during the Nikkei Conference. He spoke about his uncle who was "taken away and never came back" and how, as a 10-year-old, he had seen a mass grave being dug up beside his school.
Mr Lee's Japanese interviewer, a journalist, shifted in his seat as he admitted to being "struck" by his guest's "candid comments".
Of course, the PM remained diplomatic and was never drawn into finger-pointing. Singapore, he said, was an example of a country that chose to close accounts and forge constructive relations with Japan. His larger point was that all countries should face up to history and move on.
Many will find Singapore's approach to the issue unacceptable.
After Mr Lee's comments were published, I received an e-mail from a Singaporean, a Mr Pang, who asked if the war issue was indeed behind us.
"Is it really closed? The Government could have closed the issue. But have the Singaporean people closed the issue?" he wrote.
At the Nikkei Conference, I was seated beside a South Korean - a former senior politician and the boss of a major newspaper. I asked about the conspicuous absence of South Korean speakers. He cited strained relations after controversial remarks by Japan's leaders on its history.
He then expressed surprise that South-east Asian nations like Singapore were not more outraged each time there was a quarrel over, say, Japanese textbooks.
"Asia needs to place more emphasis on history," he insisted.
I understand the sentiments held by Mr Pang and the South Korean I met.
Indeed, many Singaporeans, especially those who lived through the war, may never be able to truly put the past behind.
But at the same time, there are good reasons why Singaporeans think about the war differently from how the Chinese and Koreans do.
The issue's salience has faded with each generation, even as the Chinese and the Koreans maintain its importance - or even amplify it - among their young.
So why is Singapore less stuck in the past, as it were?
I can think of at least four reasons. These, I argue, have little to do with what the Government wills, in a unilateral sense. They
exist independently in society, with or without official sanction.
First, the Japanese Occupation was shorter in Singapore - under four years. China fought Japan for eight years, with Beijing and Shanghai occupied for much of that time. Korea was occupied for longer. Annexed in 1910, it was freed by the Allied forces in 1945.
There are some who would add here that Singapore's wartime experience was also less brutal.
Maybe if you compared Singapore to Nanjing, that would be true. But consider this: 50,000 to 100,000 young men were killed during Sook Ching alone - a genocide against Chinese civilians here in 1942. That was 6 to 13 per cent of the total population. Total civilian and military deaths during the entire war in China hit 4 per cent of its population.
Second, unlike China and Korea, Singapore was not a nation during WWII. We had not been thinking of ourselves as one people for millennia past. That makes a world of difference in how we recall our history. When we tell the Singapore story, we are more likely to start in 1965, when we began the project of building a nation.
Indeed, there were some in 1942 who saw the invasion as just a change in colonial masters. For this group, the subsequent anger may have sprung more from post-invasion brutality than from the invasion in and of itself.
Third, the Japanese treated each race in Singapore differently. Historians agree that the Chinese suffered most harshly and systematically. That makes it harder to make the war issue a national one because the emotions evoked by the issue could vary significantly across the races.
Finally, Singapore benefited more, post-war, from Japanese investments than did China and Korea. At a time when Singapore's viability was in doubt, given its political instability and lack of a hinterland, Japanese firms came.
On a trip to Japan earlier this year, Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Grace Fu said in a speech: "It is...not an exaggeration to say that Japan had helped to lay the foundation of Singapore's industrialisation and development. This is something Singapore and Singaporeans remember well."
None of this should detract from the untold suffering of many here and in China and Korea.
And stories of the war should continue to be passed on. My father - born shortly after the war - once recounted one by his elders about a woman who was raped, killed and hung on a tree by the Japanese.
There is no reason why my children should not also be educated about what happened.
And, of course, it would be helpful if the Japanese were more contrite and gave their schoolchildren a fuller picture of the war.
At the Nikkei Conference, I met a young Japanese woman who visited Singapore as a college student and was taken aback by National Museum exhibits that said Japan "invaded" Singapore. Too many Japanese like her still grow up thinking the Japanese soldiers were knights in shining armour.
But the truth is, it is in nobody's interest, least of all our own, to dwell on the past and let the issue dominate our diplomatic agenda. Singapore's approach has been pragmatic. It is about looking to the future and securing that which benefits us as a nation.
Yet, I don't like how pragmatism seems to carry a negative connotation (read: mercenary or unprincipled). To me, forgiveness in this case can and should be celebrated as a sign of strength.
On this, I think we might learn from the late Eric Lomax. He was a British soldier in Malaya who spent time in Changi Prison after the Japanese triumphed in 1942.
Lomax was sent to build the Siam-Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway for the massive casualties it caused. There, he was caught planning an escape and subjected to endless beatings and half-drownings by the Japanese military police, but miraculously survived.
For years after the war, he kept up his hatred for his interrogators, but later in life, he tracked one of them down, and met him to tell him that all was forgiven.
His story is told in a moving book he wrote, The Railway Man, later made into a film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.
The closing line in his book reads: "Some time the hating has to stop."
It does, does it not? And it can - not just for individuals like Lomax, but for nations too.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 1, 2013
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