'We did not donate but returned them to where they belong', says Briton who hands 2 colonial flags back to Singapore

(From left) Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman and the family of the late Lt-Col Geoffrey Sherman, son Nicholas Sherman and daughter-in-law Rosemary Sherman, viewing two flags in the Old Tanglin Officer's Mess at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Jan 3, 2020. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - For the Sherman family, it was a painful but necessary act of remembrance of father and daughter; for Singapore, it was a reunion with two important artefacts of its wartime heritage.

An informal but touching ceremony held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on Friday (Jan 3) saw a British couple in their 70s - Mr Nicholas Sherman and his wife Rosemary - set their eyes for the first time on two colonial flags since they returned them to Singapore in 2012.

The Union flag and the flag of the Federated Malay states were previously in the possession of Mr Sherman's father Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Sherman, who had been entrusted with them by a British prisoner-of-war during the Japanese invasion.

The flags had been taken down from their masts at Tanglin Barracks when Japanese forces attacked Singapore in 1942 and hidden in defiance of the occupier. But the flags went missing for 20 years after World War II when crates of Lt-Col Sherman's belongings disappeared en route to London in the post-war confusion.

In the 1960s, the British Royal Marine returned them to Lt-Col Sherman when his trunks were found in its depository.

Following Lt-Col Sherman's death, the younger Mr Sherman then decided to return them to Singapore.

"It's very hard to put into words," said Mr Sherman, when asked how he was feeling. "The whole visit to Singapore this week... has been very emotional. Most of all, I think of my father. This is his occasion, not my occasion."

Lt-Col Sherman organised the Japanese surrender ceremony at City Hall in 1945, and the flags were raised at his funeral in 2009 to mark his involvement in this episode of the region's history.

In a letter he sent to the High Commissioner of Singapore in London in 2012, the younger Mr Sherman wrote: "I know that my father would have been very pleased... indeed that he had done his duty to his colleagues in Singapore who entrusted the flags to him in 1945."

Today, the two flags are on display in glass casings, witnesses to the vagaries of colonialism and war. The Union flag of the then-Governor of the Straits Settlements which included Singapore, Penang and Malacca, territories represented by three imperial crowns set at the centre of the Union Jack.

The flag of the Federated Malay States features a Malayan tiger and horizontal stripes of white, red, yellow and black, the predecessor of the flags for the Malay Union (1946-8) and Malay Federation (1948-50).

A third flag - a smaller Union Jack - that was flying on the main mast at Tanglin Barracks at the time of the British surrender has been donated to the Imperial War Museum in London. "That does belong in London, because it is a Union Jack," Mr Sherman said.

Mrs Sherman said that apart from their public significance, the two flags had a private meaning for the couple as they prompted reflections of their deaf-blind daughter who died 11 years ago.

She said: "One of the ladies who was conducting the training for my daughter in a London hospital had been herself a prisoner in Changi Jail (during the war). She too had a daughter who was deaf and always attributed her daughter's deafness to her lack of proper nutrition in Changi.

"This occasion makes me reflect on our daughters and this lady as well."

It is only "appropriate" that the flags are now where they are, Mr Sherman added, rather than hanging from the roof of the Shermans' house in Britain where they were displayed following their rediscovery and prior to his father's death.

"When they came into my charge, I felt, as did the rest of my family, that it was important they be returned to Singapore. We have not donated them, we have returned them to where they originally belong," he said.

Since arriving in Singapore last Saturday, the couple has been on an "emotional" tour of Singapore's historic spots, such as City Hall and Sentosa, where there is an exhibition on the surrender ceremony Mr Sherman's father oversaw.

It was a much overdue moment for Mr Sherman, who, raised in Britain, came across his father's legacy in Singapore only when he read a 17-page letter his father wrote from Singapore dated Sept 21, 1945.

In it, the late Mr Sherman detailed to his family his experiences of the war, including the torture of prisoners at Changi Prison.

"He, like most of those from his generation, did not like to talk about the war... (In the letter) were moving stories of the torture the Bishop of Singapore suffered and the torture the ordinary members of the public suffered.

"The stories were also of the bravery of local Singaporeans who managed to smuggle food to the prisoners of war in Changi," he said.

Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, who received the couple during the visit, said the flags remind Singaporeans of "a difficult past".

"It allows Singaporeans to continue to reflect and appreciate the independence that we have today. We can learn more from the past to see where we can head into the future," he added.

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