~ By Narayana Narayana ~
Prof Tommy Koh' posted a commentary "Should Petain Road be renamed":in the Straits Times of March 20 2012.
It must seem rather ironic that the learned Prof Koh is Honorary Chairman of the National Heritage Board (NHB), while recently another official body, the National Library Board, has been assiduously involved in collecting information on old, and now mostly forgotten, vignettes of early Singapore history.
Prof Koh's piece was printed coincidentally, and one could say, strategically, before a 'dialogue to bring together French and Singapore culture and heritage professionals' that same afternoon.
The learned professor is of opinion that 'in the light of (these) historical facts, we must agree with the French community that it is inappropriate to continue to honour Petain by naming a road after him". (if one wants to split hairs, it could be argued that it is in fact expunging an already in existence name, rather than 'naming a road after him).
Some at least may find it difficulty 'to agree'.
What in fact are those 'historical facts'?
Prof Koh writes, 'The three judges were in favour of acquitting him. The jury however, disagreed and convicted him of treason (the crime of betraying one's country) and sentenced him to death, subsequenty commuted to life imprisonmment …..taking into account his contributions in the First World War".
If Prof Koh can accept that 'the French Army was no match for the Germany Army' and 'the military situation was hopeless'.is it really so difficult not to find mitigating circumstances for Marshal Petain's decision to 'sign an armistice with Germany'.which led to his subsequent impeachment. According to one source "the Cabinet (of the time) resolved to make peace with Germany".It was not his unilateral decision.
Having experienced the devastating horrors inflicted on his fellow Frenchmen through the use of 'poison gas' in The Great War, the elderly marshal's deccision to surrender could be considered in the more favourable light of wishing to spare them further suffering,and unnecessary loss of lives and destruction of property by further.resistance.
Seven decades down the road, are we here in Singapore in any position to be judge or jury to pontificate on what the ground situation was in distant France then?
At our own doorstep, there was the parallel of Lt-Gen.Percival's surrender of Singapore on Feb 15 1942. How is he to be judged, similarly or differently?
The rationale that 'the French community has been campaigning for many years to change the name of the road'.appears specious. According to one source. they number around just 9,200 (doubled over the past five years') in our population of 5 million. If that is a strong (or the strongest) argument, and acceptable, it could well open the floodgates to a host of other similar pressures, some perhaps even more reasonable.
Prof Koh gives as precedent the former 'Kling Street' being changed to its present 'Chulis Street'. As an ethnic-Indian myself, I have never found the word 'kling' being used as other than pejoratively and/or in a contemptuous context. It is in fact all but forgotten in Singapore today, but still i use in a neigbouring country.
There are numerous other significant changes that could have been trotted out if support were at all needed.
What used to be familiarly uttered (and still is) and spelt as 'Tampenis' has perhaps through 'Victorian prudery' now changed to 'Tampines'. A spell of official 'Sino-isation' was probably what changed 'Ow Kang' to 'Hougang' and even the well-known 'Nee Soon' to its present 'Yishun'. And who can forget the brief forward/'go stan' from 'Tekka' to 'Zhu Jiao' and now return to 'Tekka'.
One Straits Times' reader commented ''The argument for changing the name relates to French history and politics, not Singapore's". He is not far wrong.
With the recent emergence of Myanmar into the global spotlight, could not similar pressure be anticipated for 'Burmah Road' to be changed to 'Myanmar Road' and 'Rangoon Road' to 'Yangon Road'? And 'Ceylon Road' to be re-named ;Sri Lanka Road'? 'Amoy Street" may be yet another anomalous name.
Some names may even have hilarious side effects. I knew a racehorse owner (non-Chinese and now long deceased) who named his horse 'Cheap Buy". It happened to be a front-running horse, and the ang-moh race commentator had considerable difficulty in trying to keep the two words distinctly separate, with its vulgar connotation in dialect. The owner always denied that he had named the horse with any bad intentions, The Turf Club asked him to change the name free without having to pay the customary fee that was usually levied.
*'Kalinga' was 'an early state in central-eastern India'
Read about the man that the road is named after at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_Pétain. Henri Philippe Pétain (24 April 1856 – 23 July 1951), generally known as Philippe Pétain or Marshal Pétain, was a French general who reached the distinction of Marshal of France, and was later Chief of State of Vichy France from 1940 to 1944.
Headline photo courtesy of To Singapore blog