Danger in keeping only positives from the past

The Elgin Bridge, constructed in 1929 and named after Lord Elgin.
The Elgin Bridge, constructed in 1929 and named after Lord Elgin.PHOTO: ST FILE

Since the independence of former colonies, efforts have been made to cover up many nations' colonial past (Give Elgin Bridge more meaningful name, May 24). Examples of these efforts include the renaming of Calcutta and Burma.

A few years ago, the University of Cape Town and Oxford University had to deal with the legacy of Prime Minister of the Cape Colony Cecil Rhodes' actions in Africa in the 19th century.

The past is in the past and people of that time acted according to the situations of that time. The danger lies in each generation changing interpretations of the past based on current standards of what is right.

Should racist terms be removed from the works of Rudyard Kipling? Should it have been removed in the 1960s, the 1990s or the 2010s?

I suggest an alternative. Instead of renaming Elgin Bridge, perhaps the negative aspects of Lord James Bruce Elgin's actions at China's Old Summer Palace, or Yuan Ming Yuan, should be reflected there in full.

Perhaps even the actions of his father, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin - who looted the Parthenon Marbles, or Elgin Marbles, from Greece - could be included.

When we preserve only the statues and the stories of the positive aspects of an era, people in the future get only half the picture and may think those days were all positive.

My grandfather was born in the 1920s, and the burning of the Yuan Ming Yuan had a big impact on him throughout his life despite it happening a generation before his time. The current older generation would have grown up hearing their parents and grandparents talk about it. It was not a meaningless foreign event to Singaporeans.

When we preserve only the statues and the stories of the positive aspects of an era, people in the future get only half the picture and may think those days were all positive.

We need to showcase the negative aspects as well, so that future generations can judge for themselves based on their own view of history.

Sng Woei Shyong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2019, with the headline 'Danger in keeping only positives from the past'. Print Edition | Subscribe