Naming of WWII gallery

Use of 'Syonan' brings back painful memories

Before and after workers removed the word "Syonan" from the sign at the Former Ford Factory along Upper Bukit Timah Road in February.
Before and after workers removed the word "Syonan" from the sign at the Former Ford Factory along Upper Bukit Timah Road in February.PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Before and after workers removed the word "Syonan" from the sign at the Former Ford Factory along Upper Bukit Timah Road in February.
Before and after workers removed the word "Syonan" from the sign at the Former Ford Factory along Upper Bukit Timah Road in February.PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO

As night fell on Feb 17, a group of workers started tearing down a large sign along Upper Bukit Timah Road bearing the words "Syonan Gallery".

The World War II exhibition was given a new name - Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies.

The name of the new exhibition at the Former Ford Factory building had been the subject of a week-long debate. The public had protested against it, arguing that it seemed to glorify a painful period in Singapore's past.

When the Japanese occupied Singapore during the war, it named the island Syonan-to or Light of the South.

The exhibition, managed by the National Archives of Singapore, which is overseen by the National Library Board (NLB), replaced an earlier exhibition called Memories at Old Ford Factory, which closed the year before.

As news of the new name spread, netizens, war survivors, the heritage community and many Chinese whose families were targeted by the Japanese invaders, protested against the choice. They said the choice of a name used by the Japanese aggressors would cause great distress to war survivors.

  • 110,000

    Number of people who have visited the Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies exhibition.

    40,000

    Average yearly visitorship to the exhibition before its revamp.

A flurry of letters hit the forum pages of newspapers, and many posted their views on social media.

Meanwhile, signs were put up at the building depicting the fuller name of the gallery, and indicating that it is within the Former Ford Factory. The NLB said that earlier signs saying just Syonan Gallery were not completed.

When the exhibition was launched on Feb 15, the signs read Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies, An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory.

At first, political leaders supported the name, but later reversed their position. Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, while acknowledging the strong reactions, stood by the name, as did Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In a Facebook post on the day of the launch, PM Lee noted that the name "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."

Days later, on Feb 17, however, Dr Yaacob issued a statement that the name would be changed.

He said that he had read comments on the issue and received many letters from Singaporeans of all races, some of which said the words Syonan Gallery evoked deep hurt in them, as well as in their parents and grandparents.

He apologised and said this was never the Government's intention, and that the feelings of those who had suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation must be honoured and respected.

The move was welcomed by many. Descendants of war heroes such as Lim Bo Seng said it would not have felt right stepping into a compound and exhibition bearing such a name.

According to the NLB, 110,000 people have since visited the Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies exhibition.

Average visitorship to the exhibition before its revamp was 40,000 people a year.

Its spokesman said the National Archives has collected about 2,000 feedback forms for the exhibition so far, and that most of it has been "generally positive". On top of the exhibition, the National Archives has also organised three talks relating to the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline 'Use of 'Syonan' brings back painful memories'. Print Edition | Subscribe