NLB explains rationale behind naming new museum Syonan Gallery; name had sparked debate

The new Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies, located at the historic Former Ford Factory, on Feb 9, 2017. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - The National Library Board (NLB) said it was aware that the name Syonan Gallery, which it had picked for the newly-revamped National Archives of Singapore (NAS) museum, "could evoke strong emotions".

The name choice for the museum at the former Ford Factory in Upper Bukit Timah, had sparked an active debate both online and offline with some saying that the word Syonan was fraught with negative connotations since it was the Japanese occupiers' name for Singapore during World War II.

Singapore was renamed Syonan-to by the Japanese in 1942, following the British surrender. It means "Light of the South".

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, NLB said that after consulting historians and its advisory panel, it "decided that no other name captured the time and all that it stood for".

Elaborating on the rationale behind its decision, NLB said: "The period when Singapore was known as Syonan was a very important part of our history. The new name of the gallery reminds us how brittle our sovereignty can be, as Singapore lost not only its freedom, but also its name during the Japanese Occupation.

"It is a sombre reminder not to take our peace and harmony for granted, and to appreciate the need to defend ourselves."

NLB said that the museum features voices from the darkest part of Singapore's history so that "future generations will remember what our predecessors went through".

It added that about 80 per cent of its exhibits are new, and presented in an immersive manner, in order to give voice to the country's forefathers.

The NAS also urged the public to visit the new exhibition when it opens on Feb 16 so as to learn more about the time period when Singapore was Syonan.

Some members of the public had strong views about the name choice with several calling it "insensitive" and a "ridiculous name that glorifies the occupiers of the war".

However, others such as Facebook user Andrew Fong, 34, a wealth manager, said: "The new name doesn't glorify what happened in World War II. I believe it brings people's attention to an important and dark period of our nation's history.

"We simply cannot hide from what happened and it should be used to highlight the dangers of what happens when one nation enforce its superiority over others."

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