The Straits Times says

Putting dark days in proper light

The Former Ford Factory is a historic building that was less known here. But alas, because of the naming of a gallery there, it is on the lips of many people for the wrong reasons. An expression of public angst greeted the use of "Syonan" for the gallery themed War and its Legacies, at the revamped war museum. Many Singaporeans reacted with fury over what they saw as the implied legitimisation of the blackest period of the nation's history: Singapore's invasion and occupation by imperial Japan during World War II.

During the years of the Occupation (1942-1945), Singapore was renamed Syonan-to. It is thus associated with the unmitigated horror of those times - from the ritual, everyday mistreatment of Singapore's residents to dramatic expressions of racial hatred, as in the Sook Ching massacre of the Chinese. The name given to the island by the Japanese meant "Light of the South" but it actually inaugurated a period of utter darkness.

This is why passions were aroused so strongly by what many felt was a misguided choice of a name for a gallery that ought to draw people to the premises where British forces had surrendered abjectly to the Japanese. Quite apart from recalling the suffering of their forebears, the exhibition there could provoke reflection on the ways a small nation might defend itself. People took this for granted when they were under British rule. The global extent of Britain's power had ensured that the sun would never set on the British Empire. But Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, reversed that fact of colonial geography swiftly.

Many Singaporeans fought bravely during the conflict despite the odds against them. The death toll was great as they and the colonial rulers were just not adequately prepared for an invasion. That is a lesson that successive generations should not forget. Regrettably, that message was overshadowed by the controversy caused by the ill-conceived naming of the gallery. The authorities' somewhat belated explanation that the signboards for the gallery were "incomplete" when reporters were first shown around failed to convince many or assuage their unhappiness.

Thankfully, the public angst has now been acknowledged. Yesterday evening, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said the gallery will now be called Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies. He also apologised for the pain the earlier name caused.

The new name helps make clear the gallery's purpose. Clearly, the exhibits do not glorify the Japanese Occupation. Instead, they shed light on many dimensions of a period of Singapore's history unparalleled in deprivation, cruelty and pain. It should serve as a poignantly stark reminder of a time when Singaporeans were at the mercy of events and foreign powers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'Putting dark days in proper light'. Print Edition | Subscribe