From ‘Lack of respect at war memorial’, 1 Sept 2012, article by David Ee, ST
KEEP-FIT enthusiasts have attracted controversy by leaping up and down the steps of a memorial for soldiers killed in the two world wars. The 20-strong group congregates on Thursday evenings at The Cenotaph in Esplanade Park.
War historians and other commentators have criticised their choice of workout venue, saying the memorial is “sacred ground”. “It is a solemn site and should be used responsibly,” said history professor Brian Farrell from the National University of Singapore.
…The keep-fit enthusiasts have been working out at The Cenotaph as part of a training regime organised by Journey Fitness. Group member Ngo Tien Leok felt that the memorial’s central, public location gave them every reason to use it, especially as land is scarce in Singapore. The 38-year-old IT manager said that he does not consider the site sacred, adding: “I’ve not been through a war. I don’t feel a connection to it.”
…Associate Professor Kevin Blackburn, who teaches history at the National Institute of Education, felt Singapore could do more to make people aware that war memorials are sacred. For example, wreaths could be laid all year round. “Singapore tends to downplay some of its monuments,” he said.
Mr Ben Pulham, who co-founded Journey Fitness, said he had no idea that the structure the group was using was actually a war memorial. Asked if he would change the training venue now that he knew, the 31-year-old said he probably would not.
“We saw another group doing the same thing,” he said. “We’re celebrating life by encouraging people to be active, that’s my take on it.”
Well that’s the whole purpose of a memorial isn’t it, to remind future generations who’ve ‘never been through war’ (or never will) that our country had its share of martyrs, or that we even HAD wars. Nobody’s asking tourists or joggers to bow their heads in gratitude or forcing anyone to lay flowers at the Cenotaph’s base and weep like war widows, but using the Cenotaph steps as a free gym under the excuse of ‘land scarcity’ is like a hurdler leaping over headstones in a cemetery because he has nothing else to practice on. In a previous post, some Rock of Ages churchgoers decided to use the Kranji War memorial for an ‘Amazing Race’. Well at least the recently completed (and smugly successful) Diner En Blanc didn’t make the memorial grounds their ‘secret location’.
The article above also mentioned a ‘rock music’ fashion shoot at the Civilian War Memorial in 2009, which would make sense if you were doing a ‘Thriller’ theme. And then there’s this, people taking the same place for a Kenko Fish Spa.
Do we hold anything sacred outside our handheld devices anymore? Have our hallowed grounds become playgrounds for tourists and ‘keep-fit’ enthusiasts? Will the Cenotaph become part of a celebrity magician’s disappearing monument act? Will couples continue to make out beneath the names of those killed in war? Before we had joggers, our colonists adopted a sternly reverential, but condescending, attitude towards the treatment of the newly erected Cenotaph. In 1922, the structure was ‘desecrated’ by ‘scores of NATIVES sprawling on the steps in almost every conceivable posture of inelegance‘ (A CLASSIC line that I’m tempted to use on people who slouch on chairs). It also wasn’t a place meant for ‘half clad coolies’ and ‘TRAMPS’ and any suspicious activity, be it even STEPPING FOOT on it, would be dispersed by policemen (Today we have half-clad desecrators of a different sort altogether). In the 1940s, some locals were particularly picky over the sarcophagi design, expressing ‘abhorrence’ over mobs of hawkers and loiterers squatting on the steps. Today, only historians lament the abuse of those sacred steps, and they don’t even sound local. I wonder how many of us today even know what this Cenotaph is about, other than something important that’s not the statue of Stamford Raffles, the Merlion, or Marina Bay Sands.
The suggestion of laying wreaths habitually in memorandum of the fallen wouldn’t work. Other than the rain and humidity dashing the tributes making it look like like a florists’ wagon crashed into the structure, the gifts would probably get stomped upon by people doing squat-jumps or stolen by cheapskate lovers. I would suggest a ‘Memorial Day’ holiday to make remembrance of unsung war heroes who, unlike many today, have something to give up their lives for. This would be perfectly aligned to PM Lee’s ideal of ‘Hope, Heart and Home’, attributes which our glorious dead embodied in more ways than us lucky bastards can ever imagine. Instead of hothousing kids in tuition classes, parents could take their kids ‘memorial hopping’, and impress upon our children that life wasn’t all rosy in the past, even if it means making up stories about some granduncle who was badass enough to skewer an entire platoon of Japs with a bayonet before blowing himself up and bringing an entire tank squadron with him ala Medal of Honour, a time when the word ‘brave’ meant the will to charge at the enemy, not ask the prettiest girl in class out for a date in Gardens by the Bay.
Are the words ‘Our Glorious Dead’ not obvious enough to alert people like Ben Pulham that this is no ordinary piece of granite in the park? Should we change the inscription to ‘In Dearest Memory of Soldiers who Died in War’? One could argue that you can respect the dead by making a ‘celebration ‘out of their sacrifice. After all, another inscription does say ‘They died so we might LIVE’, like how some families honour the departed by slow-dancing at their wake. I mean, nobody’s going to stop you from attaching balloons on your dead relative’s coffin, provided he was a professional clown. If one may consider brutal training regimes and marathon running as ‘a celebration of life’ and a reason to run riot over the Cenotaph, then anything goes really. By defining ‘living’ so loosely rather than out of reflective indebtedness, why stop at jogging all over the monument? How about shaking your bon-bon and singing ‘Living Da Vida Loca’ on the steps? Halloween is also coming up, by the way.
Labelling cenotaph-hoppers ‘Keep-fit’ enthusiasts is an understatement when referring to members of groups like Journey Fitness. According to the company website, you can enroll for a package that includes a ‘lactate test’ and ‘fuel efficiency’ test, which makes me wonder if this is a club for humans or cyborg hamsters. This being the Seventh Month and all, perhaps it’s better to be safe than sorry and not mess around with the Cenotaph, whether you’re a lactate-producing adrenaline junkie or a random loiterer. You wouldn’t want to hear the wails of dying soldiers and muffled gunfire while doing your burpees on its steps.