The Japanese invasion of Singapore on this day in 1942 and the occupation that followed remain an incomparable moment of anguish in the nation's history. The invasion destroyed the myth of perpetual security under the protection of a major power. Colonial rule turned the island into what the British proudly called the "Gibraltar of the East", an impregnable military fortress. Just as the British-held Rock, strategically located at the entrance of the Mediterranean, had withstood sieges in the past, people believed Singapore would never fall. Yet ultimately, it took just 15 minutes for British commanders to realise they had no choice but to surrender to the "Tiger of Malaya", Japan's Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita.
The rampant Japanese forces who had marched down the Malayan peninsula put paid to that great folly and to many of those who had believed in it. The invaders replaced the colonial myth with an imperial lie of their own - namely, that they had arrived in Singapore to liberate it from colonialism. In reality, the Japanese sought to replace unwanted British rule with theirs. In the process, the Japanese broke down many of the structures of a society created by British colonialism. Consequently, all suffered: coolies, rickshaw-pullers, traders and property owners. They learnt the hard way that the Japanese were no liberators, as underscored by the egregiously barbaric Sook Ching massacre, which targeted the Chinese.
By the time the Japanese departed in 1945, they had left Singapore a far more ethnically polarised society than even British divide-and-rule policies had been able to devise or achieve in more than a century. This is a period of the nation's past that should not be forgotten. Young Singaporeans know the times only from a distance, which is natural. Also, theirs is a globalised existence, one in which the legacy of calamities unleashed by a country on Singapore cannot be held against the inhabitants of that nation in perpetuity.
This is correct. Young Japanese today cannot be made accountable for what their forefathers did in Nippon's transgressive name. The issue now is not about forgiving, for no one can forgive vicariously on behalf of others who are long gone. The challenge is to keep remembering what had taken place so that myths are not propagated and a dreadful past is not denied. That remains relevant as there are sections of Japan who still want to rewrite history, for example, by furthering the myth that the country was cornered into a world war and that its worst atrocities, like the Nanjing Massacre, never happened. That would be akin to revisionists elsewhere denying the full horror of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The dilemma of globalisation is to not hold history against others and to achieve peace while at the same time not forgetting history so that nations can avoid repeating the terrors of the past.