A statue is not just a statue.
Recent controversies, from Charlottesville to Sydney and Seoul, have underlined how these monuments are often proxies in the battle over what people remember.
“Any form of commemoration is necessarily controversial,” said Dr Kevin Tan, a legal expert and president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore. There will be winners and losers, with some in and others out.
“Statues are even more problematic,” he told The Straits Times, “because they are usually larger than life, physically personify the person being commemorated and act as natural magnets for opposition.”
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Certainly, statues of Confederate generals in parks and university campuses across the United States have attracted controversy as symbols of racism.
The Confederacy was made up of 11 southern states that broke away from the US in the 1860s to preserve a way of life that included slavery. Many of these statues have since been moved, but plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee triggered a fatal clash between white supremacist groups and their opponents earlier this month.
Asia, too, has its statue battles.
In South Korea, these have been used as weapons against the downplaying of Japanese war crimes. One comfort woman sculpture was put up in Seoul opposite the Japanese embassy in 2011; another was installed opposite the Japanese consulate in port city Busan last December, so angering Tokyo that it recalled its ambassador.
The issue of comfort women – mainly Koreans forced or recruited to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II – still festers. Many Koreans are unhappy with the agreement their country signed with Japan in 2015 to settle the issue. Victim groups, in particular, say Japan’s apology did not go far enough.
In the lead-up to South Korea’s National Liberation Day on Aug 15, comfort women statues were installed on five public buses in Seoul, where they will remain until the end of next month.
In Asia, statues have also been deployed by countries against a common former wartime enemy.
In 2013, China put up in north-east Harbin city a statue of Korean hero Ahn Jung Geun, who had shot dead a Japanese colonial official. This was at the suggestion of then South Korean President Park Geun Hye.
In Taiwan, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was knocked off his pedestal and decried as a despot after his Kuomintang lost the 2000 presidential election to the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
While smiling statues of Mao Zedong, who defeated Chiang in the Chinese civil war, still occupy pride of place in cities across China, an army of some 250 of Chiang’s clones have been shunted to a quiet park in Taoyuan in the north of Taiwan.
Some Chiang statues left in prominent places have become casualties of politics – many are defaced each year and at least one was recently “beheaded” in tit-for-tat attacks.
In April this year, a former Taipei city councillor cut off the head of a statue of Japanese civil engineer Yoichi Hatta in Tainan, a southern DPP stronghold where Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945 is fondly remembered by residents generally. Hatta was credited with designing waterways that contributed to agricultural development.
A pro-independence group took revenge by hacking off the head of a Chiang statue in Yangmingshan on the outskirts of Taipei days later.
“The transition of justice has not been completed,” lawyer Lai Chung-chiang told Agence France- Presse. Despite being a democracy, remnants of authoritarian rule, like Chiang’s statues, still stand, he added.
MOST STILL STANDING TALL
1 Jakarta is one Asian city with a taste for statues. Its first president, Sukarno, in power from 1945 to 1967, commissioned many statues with themes like liberation and revolution and was himself immortalised in statues. For instance, the Welcome Monument, featuring a man and a woman waving hello in the centre of a traffic circle, was built in 1962 to mark Jakarta’s hosting of the Asian Games.
2 In India, colonial-era statues can be found in “a graveyard of statues” in its capital Delhi, The Wall Street Journal reported. Statues of British kings like George V, who ruled from 1910 to 1936, and forgotten colonial officials stand amid trees in Coronation Park.
3 A large statue of Confucius in flowing robes was put up in 2011 at the National Museum of China. The presence of the Chinese sage near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square sparked talk of Confucianism regaining favour in Communist China. But a few months later, the Sage disappeared, said to be carted off to a less conspicuous spot.
4 North Korea is so good in making giant statues – just look at its statues of leaders Kim II Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. It has even spun off a business in exporting statues, the BBC reported last year. Large statues made by Korean artists in a style called “the statement of the obvious” have found clients in African nations from Angola to Togo.
5 The statue of Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore, should not be removed, Dr Albert Winsemius advised Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The Dutchman, chief economic adviser to the Singapore Government, said the statue would be a symbol of public acceptance of the legacy of British rule in Singapore and could have a positive effect.
Over in India, the statues of “Dalit Queen” Kumari Mayawati, former head of Uttar Pradesh state, are quite untouchable, even if controversial.
As the state’s chief minister from 2007 to 2012, she had drawn flak for spending millions of dollars on memorial parks with life-sized statues of herself, as well as those of elephants, the symbol of her Bahujan Samaj Party. The party is supported by the Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in India’s caste system.
But statues of Dalit heroes like Ms Mayawati are a source of pride for the caste. It is feared that any bid to remove them may spark unrest.
In Australia, as in the US, recent spats over statues have put the spotlight on the battle over memory.
For example, the role in Australia’s history of British explorer James Cook, honoured with a statue in Sydney, has been questioned by those who objected to the “damaging myth” inscribed on the statue saying Cook discovered the territory in 1770. According to the Historical Dictionary Of Australian Aborigines, published in 2010, Aboriginal people had first arrived in Australia at least 60,000 years ago.
Last Friday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected calls to alter memorials.
“All of those statues… are part of our history and we should respect them and preserve them,” he said.
But executive director James Grossman of the American Historical Association, referring to the removal of the Confederate statues, was quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying it is not about changing history. “You’re changing how we remember history,” he said.