Syonan Gallery renamed: 'Never any intention to cause pain'

Workers covering the Syonan Gallery signage at the Former Ford Factory on Feb 17, 2017.
Workers covering the Syonan Gallery signage at the Former Ford Factory on Feb 17, 2017. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
ST VIDEO: LIM SIN THAI
Workers removing the signage for the gallery at the Former Ford Factory in Upper Bukit Timah Road last night. Other signs carrying the old name have also been removed or covered.
Workers removing the signage for the gallery at the Former Ford Factory in Upper Bukit Timah Road last night. Other signs carrying the old name have also been removed or covered.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Name change welcomed by Chinese community members whose families were targeted during WWII Occupation

The decision to remove "Syonan Gallery" from the name of a new World War II exhibition space came about because of the strong reaction it provoked.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday that Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies will now be called Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies.

In a statement, he said that over the previous two days, he had read the comments made on this issue and received many letters from Singaporeans of all races.

"While they agreed that we need to teach Singaporeans about the Japanese Occupation, they also shared that the words 'Syonan Gallery' had evoked deep hurt in them, as well as their parents and grandparents," he said.

"This was never our intention, and I am sorry for the pain the name has caused."

NO INTENTION TO CAUSE PAIN

While they agreed that we need to teach Singaporeans about the Japanese Occupation, they also shared that the words 'Syonan Gallery' had evoked deep hurt in them, as well as their parents and grandparents. This was never our intention, and I am sorry for the pain the name has caused.

MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION YAACOB IBRAHIM

He added: "I have reflected deeply on what I heard. We must honour and respect the feelings of those who suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation."

  • Khaw supports move to change name

  • Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday that he deeply appreciates and supports Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim's decision to remove the words "Syonan Gallery" from the name of the World War II exhibition.

    Mr Khaw, who is also the Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, said the exhibition captured the dark days of the Japanese Occupation and is an important reminder, especially to young Singaporeans, not to take peace and sovereignty for granted.

    "It is a good exhibition and I will be visiting it with my Sembawang residents," he said. "Some of them have parents or grandparents who were killed during those dark days. My own maternal grandfather died of starvation and for lack of medical care while in hiding.

    "These personal sufferings and losses form deep scars in us. That is why the initial naming of the exhibition gallery provoked such a strong reaction among a segment of the population. It does not mean that we should strike 'Syonan' out of our vocabulary, but using it to name the gallery can unintentionally cause hurt."

The gallery, which opened on Wednesday as part of events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore to Japanese occupiers during the war, is housed in the Former Ford Factory building in Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Dr Yaacob said yesterday that when he opened the exhibition, he had explained that it was designed to capture the dark days of the Japanese Occupation, and remind Singaporeans never to take for granted their peace, harmony and sovereignty.

"Far from expressing approval of the Japanese Occupation, our intention was to remember what our forefathers went through, commemorate the generation of Singaporeans who experienced the Japanese Occupation and reaffirm our collective commitment never to let this happen again," he said.

The minister also noted that the word "Syonan" had been used before to factually describe this difficult period.

For instance, in 1992, for the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, an exhibition at the National Museum was titled "When Singapore was Syonan-to". But the latest exhibition, he said, provoked a "strong reaction".

The decision to change the name capped more than a week of debate about the issue.

When signage with the words "Syonan Gallery" were seen during a media preview of the gallery on Feb 9, critics pointed out that it was insensitive and that it glorified the Japanese occupiers.

The National Library Board (NLB) later said that the signs had not yet been completed. When the exhibition opened on Wednesday, the signs read "Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies, An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory".

During the opening, Dr Yaacob highlighted the courage and humanity showed by Singaporeans during the war. He teared up as he recounted how some Chinese handed water to prisoners of war and were slapped for it, and how Malays gave shelter to Chinese neighbours targeted by the invaders.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the name of the exhibition "has understandably caused strong reactions", but added: "We cannot erase our history or bury the past. The exhibition is a reminder of a traumatic period in our history and the suffering our pioneers experienced when Singapore lost its freedom and even its name."

Dr Yaacob said yesterday that the contents of the exhibition remain unchanged. "They capture a painful and tragic period in our history which we must never forget, and which we must educate our young about," he said. "It is vital for us to learn the lessons of history, and reaffirm our commitment never to let this happen to Singapore again."

Last night, many Singaporeans, including netizens, the heritage community and members of the Chinese community whose families had been targeted by the invaders, expressed their support for the name change.

 

Businessman Daniel Teo, 74, whose granduncle was the war hero Lim Bo Seng, who was tortured by the Japanese and died in prison, described the news as "wonderful".

 

Mr Teo was one of those who wrote to the authorities asking for a change. He said it would not have felt right stepping into the compound and taking foreign visitors to the exhibition.

"My elders had suffered during the war, and Syonan glorified the might of our invaders. So the name Syonan Gallery had hit me very strongly," he added.

Mr Tan Aik Hock, chairman of the Singapore Lam Ann Association and council member of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, said he had received more than 10 letters from members whose relatives had experienced the war.

On the renaming, Mr Tan said: "This is a good ending. The Government has been decisive after realising it wasn't an appropriate name."

The gallery was previously named Memories at Old Ford Factory. It was closed for a year-long revamp ahead of the 75th anniversary. It now features many new archival materials, including contributions, such as a Syonan Labour Department labour identity booklet, from the public.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'Naming of gallery: 'Never any intention to cause pain''. Print Edition | Subscribe