Nations need heroes, but who should they be?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 15, 2014

Two unexpected personalities guest-starred in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech at a press conference at last December's Asean-Japan commemorative summit.

The Japanese TV and manga superhero Kamen Rider, he said, "has become a hero amongst Indonesian children", after an Indonesian version called Bima Satria Garuda (Bima the Garuda Warrior) showed on TV there last year.

And Doraemon, the tubby blue cartoon cat once dubbed an Asian hero by Time Asia magazine, has endeared himself to children all over Asean, said Mr Abe.

It was a heartwarming moment, a display of Japan's soft power at its best.

But less than two weeks later, Mr Abe made the provocative move of paying respects at Yasukuni, where convicted war criminals are enshrined along with other Japanese war dead. A diplomatic row predictably ensued. Yasukuni is a perennial sore spot with Japan's neighbours, who have voiced outrage at what they see as the lionising of war criminals and Japan's militaristic past.

Every nation needs its heroes. It is part of the myth-making process that creates a nation's history and culture.

Yet there are heroes, and there are heroes. That is something that has become uncomfortably clear in recent weeks, following Indonesia's decision to name a navy ship after two marines behind the 1965 bombing of MacDonald House that killed three and injured 33.

Indonesia's defence has been that the two men were made Pahlawan Nasional - official National Heroes - after they were convicted and hanged in 1968, and the navy traditionally names ships after the country's heroes.

But the parallels between the naming of the KRI Usman Harun and the Yasukuni shrine visit, as well as the friction both have caused, call for deeper reflection on how a nation constructs and honours those it deems heroes.

First of all, who a nation considers its heroes holds a mirror up to the nation itself and the narrative it is trying to construct.

In a Facebook post this week, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong contrasted the national values inherent in the Indonesian ship naming with the new package to honour Singapore's pioneer generation, asking: "How do these acts guide the present generations in the two cities?"

It is a contrast that can be seen in Indonesia's own criteria for awarding the title of Pahlawan Nasional. Some of these criteria espouse noble ideals like coming up with great ideas that support the nation's development, or producing work that is beneficial to public well-being.

But there is also one criterion which celebrates those who have engaged in armed struggle to develop national unity, which is where things get tricky. On the battlefield and in many former colonies' road to independence, acts of courage and loyalty often did not come without bloodshed. Weighing a moral victory against the price of that victory can sometimes be contentious.

But the unhappiness stirred by the KRI Usman Harun and the Yasukuni shrine visit suggests that the scales are heavily tilted in both cases. In the former, which took place during Confrontation, the two marines posed as civilians when they planted the bomb at MacDonald House. The attack killed and injured innocent civilians, although Indonesia and Malaysia were not officially at war.

As Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has pointed out, the attack was part of a "campaign of terror" contrary to the laws of war. Both men were tried in Singapore and sentenced to death for their crime, a decision later upheld by the Privy Council in London.

Similarly, among the dead interred at Yasukuni are men convicted by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, including for the murder and mistreatment of prisoners of war and massacre of civilians.

Some may argue that historical narratives, especially of episodes that evoke national grief and trauma, can never be reconciled among the parties involved.

How then should the parties behave? One view, expressed by some Indonesian leaders in the past week, is that it is every nation's sovereign right to decide who it honours as heroes.

However, this is not a debate over sovereignty - which is undeniable - but over another word that has appeared repeatedly this week: sensitivity.

Rather than a chest-thumping brand of nationalism, would it not reflect better on a country's greatness of spirit if it shows sensitivity to victims, to those who lost their lives, to their families, to the fact that other countries have their own national memories?

For cultural symbols, as Bima Satria Garuda and Doraemon have shown, transcend borders. They can bring people together as "heart-to-heart partners", as Mr Abe said in describing these icons, or they can divide. In the spirit of Asean and the friendly bilateral ties between Singapore and Indonesia, why bring up a symbol that divides?

Beyond who a nation chooses to honour, another point for introspection is how it chooses to recognise its heroes.

Some observers have said that the decision to make the two marines National Heroes in 1968 was more political than anything else, in response to the domestic situation in Indonesia at the time.

A state-driven, top-down process of anointing so-called national heroes raises questions of whether these heroes are those who people truly celebrate for embodying the best among them, or are tools for other political purposes.

It can also emphasise a monolithic view of history, smoothing out any ambiguities. With the passage of time, this can either lead to national amnesia of other perspectives or tie a country's hands in ever revising its historical narrative.

These are questions I have been asking myself, even as today marks 72 years after the fall of Singapore to Japan, another traumatic period in this city-state's past.

I am glad Singapore does not have the practice of designating official national heroes, though the move has been debated in the past and there are avenues for state recognition of those who contribute to the nation. It opens the space for people's dialogue and consensus on who to honour among them and how this can be done. It also acknowledges that heroism need not come with a big H and can emerge in myriad forms.

As Singapore's first culture minister, the late S. Rajaratnam, said in 1991: "So where are Singapore's heroes? Let me tell you where they are. They are in the 21/2 million people who created this big and wonderful city; people of many races, many languages, many cultures."

Perhaps the way forward in these times is for the parties involved to downplay the brassy big H of Heroes and History and look instead to the quieter, more sensitive small h of heroism and histories.

Bridging divides and healing the wounds of history may not make you a Hero, but it is no less heroic.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 15, 2014

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to