Petain Road named after fallen French Marshal

From ‘Should Petain Road be renamed?’ 20 March 2012, article by Tommy Koh, ST, and ‘Petain Road’, 24 March 2012, My Point, ST Forum

…There is a road in the Jalan Besar area called Petain Road. The French community has been campaigning for many years to change the name of the road. I support the campaign and would like to explain why the Street and Building Names Board, under the Ministry of National Development, should consider the request favourably.

Britain was an ally of France during the First World War. In the Jalan Besar area, there are several roads which bear the names of famous generals, such as Petain and Beatty, or famous sites of battles, such as Verdun, Marne, Jutland and Flanders. In 1928, the Municipal Government of Singapore decided to name one of the roads after the great French war hero, Field Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

…At the end of the First World War, Petain was regarded as one of France’s greatest military heroes. In 1918, he was made a Marshal of France. In 1922, he was appointed as the Inspector-General of the Army. The decision by the Municipal Government of Singapore to name a road after him, in 1928, was perfectly understandable.

No one in 1928 could have foreseen what Petain would do during the Second World War. The French Army had been progressively degraded after the First World War, no thanks to budgetary cuts. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the French Army was no match for the German Army.

In May 1940, Petain, who had become the Prime Minister of France, regarded the military situation as hopeless. On the 20th of June, France signed an armistice with Germany, giving the latter control of the north and west of France, including Paris. The seat of the French government was moved to Vichy, a town located about 400km south of Paris.

On July 10, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate ratified the armistice, abolished the Third Republic, and adopted a new Constitution under which Petain, as the head of state, had near-absolute powers. The Petain government oppressed the French people and collaborated with Germany in suppressing the French resistance and arresting the Jews. In November 1942, Germany occupied the whole of France and Petain became a puppet of the Germans.

In 1945, de Gaulle’s provisional government placed Petain on trial for treason. The three judges were in favour of acquitting him. The jury, however, disagreed and convicted him of treason and sentenced him to death. De Gaulle, who had served under Petain in 1911, commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, on account of his age and taking into account his contributions in the First World War. Petain was stripped of all his military ranks and honours, except for the title of Marshal. He died in ignominy, in 1951, at the age of 95.

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. The question is whether there is a precedent for changing the road’s name.

I think I have found a good precedent. Chulia Street was originally named Kling Street. The word, ‘kling’ is derived from the word, ‘kalinga’, the name of a powerful South Indian kingdom. In the beginning, the Malays referred to all South Indians as ‘orang kling’. However, over time, the word acquired a pejorative connotation and was used to refer to the Indian coolies.

In 1918, Rev J A B Coach petitioned the municipal commissioners to change the name of the street, but his appeal was rejected. Three years later, in 1921, the commissioners acceded to the request of Dr H S Moonshi, who spoke on behalf of the Indian community.

I hope that the Street and Building Names Board will kindly consider the request of the French community to rename Petain Road. I propose calling it ‘de Gaulle Road‘, to recognise the historic contributions made by the indomitable French leader in the country’s history.

(MR LIM ENG LIAN): ‘As a Singaporean, what is important to me is the context of the name ‘Petain Road’ in Singapore (‘Should Petain Road be renamed?’; Tuesday). It seems the argument for changing the name relates to French history and politics, not Singapore’s, which links Petain Road to the person so honoured at that time. If the rationale provided in the article for changing the name is to be accepted, then shouldn’t all references to Petain in France be expunged by the French?’

I’m no expert in French history and it’s interesting how streets in Singapore are named after European  World War veterans like Foch, Kitchener, Haig and Beatty, simply because we have few folk heroes ourselves yet so many roads to cover. This, however, isn’t the first time that war history buffs have taken offence to Petain Road. Back in July 1940, someone also suggested replacing it with the name of a ‘real patriot’, General de Gaulle. In 1941, Petain as Vichy chief was harangued for his ‘negotiations with our mortal enemy’ and having Hitler as his ‘great teacher’. A traitor to his country and an anti-Semite Nazi sympathiser, this call to rename Petain Road reminds me of the outrage over a bar named Aushwitz, or a food court named S21. In France, the last little street in Tremblois bearing the name of Petain was changed in 2011, with mixed reactions from locals.  If some French may choose to look beyond the scandals and foibles of a once great man, why not us?  Just because some general went rogue doesn’t mean he should be any less remembered. Evil politicians sell more biographies than heroic ones, simply because evil people are more interesting to read about.

Taxi drivers’ nightmare aside, ‘de Gaulle (small ‘d’!)’ Road sounds rather pretentious in my opinion, more suitable for a chic retail boulevard than a street near Little India that has more shophouses than alfresco bistros or macaron boutiques. Does the average Singaporean even know, or care, if we have so many roads named after foreign generals and battles of which our children are never taught in school?  Or that we still have road names which sound too ‘Malaysian’? Interestingly, the infamous Desker Road, a few blocks down Pertain Road, was named after Andre Filipe Desker, a Dutch donor to CATHOLIC schools and CHURCHES, according to this blog with an awesome collection of road names. Desker’s descendents wouldn’t be too pleased with what his road has become associated with these days (prostitution and illegal sex drug peddling), but no one has asked for a replacement so far. Some road names were also picked in sarcastic jest; according to this 1950 article, Lavender Street (also nearby) was so named because it used to be where barrel carts containing ‘nightsoil’, or shit, were gathered.

But why is it, for all the dead white Generals, Lords and Marshals from Waterloo to Flanders, there are so few streets in the  Little India area that sound remotely Indian? The closest I could find from the area map that relates to the Indian identity include Madras St, Veerasamy Rd and a Hindoo Rd. If the likes of Tommy Koh and the French community are so insistent on taking Petain off the map for good, how about celebrating a local Indian hero for a change, like S C Goho? In 2008, we already ‘toned down the Indian identity’ of the old Tekka Mall by rebranding it as the Verge (a word with Middle FRENCH origins), and here we are fighting over which French general to take the place of a disgraced Petain, and one (de Gaulle) most Singaporeans could relate to only by virtue of the CDG airport in Paris. This is Little India/Jalan Besar, not a exhibition wing of a European Museum of World War History.

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One Response

  1. Queen St. shld be renamed Napoleon then. Just sayin’

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