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Singapore Airlines planes at Changi Airport.

A nation without monuments

Every country has its monuments, which glorify great men of the past (and less frequently, great women), commemorate battles won and lost, and represent the nation’s ideals. Even colonies have monuments, erected on behalf of the colonial power and often paid for by the subjects. When a colony declares independence, the monuments of the colonial power are often the first to be torn down. In 1776, American colonists toppled statues of King George III. After 1947, when India parted ways with the British Empire, statues of British monarchs were moved to museums or shipped off to Canada.

The now-empty pedestals in roundabouts and parks were soon occupied by statues of the new heroes of the independent nation: Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhash, Pandit Nehru. Buildings and streets likewise received new identities: Kingsway in New Delhi became Rajpath, the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay became Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. For that matter, Bombay itself was rechristened, becoming Mumbai. Just about the only thing that wasn’t renamed was the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. A larger-than-life statue of the elderly sovereign remains in place in front of the wedding-cake building, but the interior now features a museum commemorating the independence struggle.

The example of India is not unique. Around the world, political changes usually lead to a flurry of renaming of streets and dismantling and rebuilding of monuments.

By comparison, the example of Singapore is unusual. Singapore has been an independent, sovereign nation for more than fifty years, but there has been little of the renaming and reinventing of the city-state that has happened in most other former colonies. A statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore in 1819, still stands cockily over the waterfront. Most streets retain their colonial names. While there are plenty of historical markers for the colonial period and the Japanese occupation during World War II, there are no statues for Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister—even though he served for more than thirty years and was a central figure in the modernization of the city-state.1

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in Singapore.

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in Singapore.

On first blush, it might seem that modern Singapore is lacking in a sense of identity, which other former colonies have gone to great lengths to cultivate. I certainly felt that way when I visited two years ago. But on further reflection, not having statues of modern heroes all over the place is a part of Singapore’s identity. It shows that the country is open to the world—or at least the modern, prosperous parts of it. With its gleaming high-rises and booming economy, Singapore itself is a monument to Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore's monument to the Great War, which is inscribed in honor of the fallen of World War II on the back side.

Singapore’s monument to the fallen soldiers of the World Wars.

A sign on Connaught Drive, pointing to a historical marker about World War II. (The marker is located on the site of a memorial for the Japanese-affiliated Indian National Army, which was dynamited by Mountbatten’s troops after they retook Singapore in 1945.)

A sign on Connaught Drive, pointing to a historical marker about World War II. (The marker is located on the site of a memorial for the Japanese-affiliated Indian National Army, which was dynamited by Mountbatten’s troops after they retook Singapore in 1945.)

  1. C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore (Oxford, 1988), 320-21. []

Blood in the canal

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Mother India is a monumental and deeply disturbing film. (Spoilers ahead!) Released in 1957, ten years after the Partition of India and independence, the film features Bombay leading lady Nargis as Radha, the mother of a family and an archetype of Indian motherhood. When the film opens, it is the present day (the mid-fifties), and a canal has just been completed. Radha, the oldest resident of the village nearby, is given the honor of pulling a rope to release water into the canal at the dedication ceremony.

As Radha is grasping the rope and just about to pull it, the narrative shifts back to when Radha was a young woman and a newly-married bride. Most of the rest of the movie takes place in this flashback. Radha’s adult life is a series of calamities: her husband loses his arms in a farming accident and abandons the family to die alone, the village is washed away in a flood, and Radha’s baby is killed. Then when Radha’s two surviving sons grow up, Birju, the ever-rebellious younger son, terrorizes the villagers and turns to a life of banditry. Birju murders the village landlord, and in the end Radha herself wields a rifle to shoot her wicked son and end his reign of terror once and for all.

After Birju dies in his mother’s arms, the flashback ends, and Radha is back at the dedication of the canal. She pulls the rope, and water rolls through canal’s gate—red at first, then clear. And thus the film ends.

Why is the water in the canal red? Because the scene takes place immediately after the son’s death, it is clear that the red water is a symbol of Birju’s blood, shed for the good of the village. To me, the red water in the canal has a broader significance as well, and it is this—more the kin-murder—that makes the film so disturbing.

I read Mother India as a metaphor of socialist nation-building. Birju’s murdering the landlord represents land reform. In turn, Radha’s killing Birju refers to the rooting out of dissident anti-national elements to create a homogeneous socialist society. This happened on a large scale in China and the Soviet Union, and on a smaller scale in India. As in the large communist countries, the Indian government suppressed certain indigenous and other non-mainstream communities in the interest of national unity.1 India’s socialist development also dispossessed untold millions of villagers as land was cleared for infrastructural projects such as the canal that Radha dedicates. These people’s blood is also in Mother India’s canal.

  1. To be fair, capitalism could be just as destructive of non-mainstream communities. Consider the systematic destruction of Native American communities during westward expansion in the United States. []

Keeping them flying

If you use an Internet-enabled device (and if you are reading this, you do), you are almost certainly familiar with software updates. These ever-present parts of our daily lives can be annoying, because they come with increasing frequency and always seem to slow down your machine at the most inopportune time. But they do include security updates and other tweaks intended to keep your machine working in the changing digital world.

Software updates are a form of product support, a responsibility of producers to provide continued assistance to customers who have bought their product. In the digital world, product support can represent a long-term commitment. Microsoft provided mainstream support for its Windows XP operating system until 2009 (eight years after its initial release in 2001) and extended support until 2014. But XP running on some embedded systems is still supported even now, and will continue to be supported until next year, eighteen years after the OS’s release.

Long-term product support predates the software industry by decades. Car manufacturers provide support for their models, as do aerospace companies. In 1948, back when aerospace was only aeronautics, the Lockheed Star (the company newspaper of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation) reported on the activities of the Inactive Models branch of the company’s Service Engineering Group:

Among the diversified activities of Neil Harrison’s Service Engineering Group, supervised by Nels Griffith, is Inactive Models, a misnomer according to several in the department, since the so-called obsolescent type airplanes such as the Model 10, 12, 14, 18, PV-1, PV-2, and P-38 are anything but inactive.1

The engineers in Inactive Models provided technical data and specifications to the Spare Parts department to produce replacement parts for out-of-production aircraft designs being flown by assorted foreign and domestic operators. The major domestic airlines operated newer designs, as did many of the prestigious flag carriers of other nations. But second- and third-tier domestic feeder airlines used older aircraft, many of which had been bought secondhand when their original owners upgraded to newer planes. Demobilization after World War II created a glut of used planes, which had to be supported by Lockheed or other companies with spare parts. (Failing to anticipate the secondhand market, Lockheed built a prototype feeder airliner, the Saturn, but it was a flop and never entered production.)

In addition to supporting spare parts, the Lockheed Inactive Models branch designed upgrades of designs. One such upgrade was the design and installation of fire-protection features for National Airlines’ Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar fleet. Although the airline had pressurized Douglas DC-6 planes by this time, its older Lodestars were still in operation and needed safety upgrades.

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the "Buccaneer Route" of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the “Buccaneer Route” of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Other projects of Inactive Models included structural repair of a Model 10 Electra (a design of the mid-thirties) belonging to a foreign customer, and winterization of F-80 Shooting Star fighter jets.

Product support—whether it be of Windows operating systems or Lockheed planes—is a form of maintenance, which has always been a key aspect of technology. As David Edgerton argues in The Shock of the Old (2007), we need to pay attention to the use of technology across time—including its maintenance—not just the development of new things. The development of a technology is the beginning of its story, not the end. And for some technologies, like National Airlines’ Lodestars, that story can be a long one.

  1. “Engineering Highlights,” Lockheed Star (California Division), August 5, 1948. []

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