TL;DR – Lest we forget. Never again.
Let’s get some things straight first. There isn’t a Syonan Memorial. Neither is there a Syonan Museum. Whoever thinks that there is should get their facts right before criticising. But there is indeed a Syonan Gallery. It’s a permanent exhibition in the Old Ford Factory about the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.
Why the name, Syonan Gallery?
Because on 15 February 1942, the British forces in Singapore formally surrendered Malaya (including Singapore) to the Japanese. And yes, the surrender was signed at the former Ford Factory. That began three years and eight months of cruel occupation by the Japanese Imperial Army.
During that time, Singapore was renamed Syonan-To (昭南岛), the Light of the South and ‘To’ refers to island. To a generation of Singaporeans, that name brings back memories of hardship and brutality, pain and suffering.
That’s why the decision to call the exhibition the Syonan Gallery has hit some raw nerve. Some people think that it’s insensitive of the government to name the exhibition Syonan gallery. There are also some who think that the name is an endorsement of the period, and glorification of the Japanese atrocities.
No. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The National Library Board (NLB) explained that after consulting historians and its advisory panel, it “decided that no other name captured the time and all that it stood for”.
Here’s more from NLB on the rationale behind the naming decision,
“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.”
It is to serve as a reminder to all Singaporeans beyond that generation who lived through the Japanese Occupation of the atrocities that befell Singapore. It isn’t just to ensure that we don’t forget the facts. It is to regularly elicit rage and sorrow from Singaporeans today and generations to come.
Because it’s not enough that we remember what happen, we MUST constantly feel it in our hearts and guts the revulsion against being subjugated. That’s the only way we can remain committed to never letting it happen again. That’s why it’s a good thing that younger Singaporeans have reacted so strongly against the name. It proves that there are younger Singaporeans who have taken the effort to remember.
What other countries do
While we do need to feel the rage against such atrocities, we shouldn’t let our anger cloud our judgement. Names are powerful things. Rather than being politically correct and avoid the name, we should face it squarely in the face. Just like how the Germans have decided to face up to their tainted history.
In April 2003, the Germans started constructing the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, in an area that served as the administrative center of Hitler’s killing machine. In 2005, sixty years after the end of World War II, it was inaugurated and open to the public.
Did the Germans mean to endorse and glorify the Holocaust by using it to name the memorial? Clearly not. It was the Germans reminding themselves to never let something like that happen again.
And it’s not just the Germans. There is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Does that mean that the USA is glorifying and endorsing the Holocaust? Yes, Trump’s President now. But the Museum was built in 1993, long before Trump became a thing.
The Holocaust Museum’s stated aim is to be “a living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.”
If anything, now, more than ever, Americans need to visit the Holocaust Museum, to learn the lessons of history, to fully understand the atrocities of the past, and be committed to never let that happen again.
Facing our past so that we can prepare for our future
And so it is with the exhibition at the Old Ford Factory. The full name of the exhibition is Syonan Gallery: War And Its Legacies.
It’s meant to serve as a reminder of the time when Singapore was Syonan-to. As PM Lee described it, the gallery documents the “horror and viciousness of the Japanese Occupation, and the suffering and bravery of our pioneers”.
Hopefully, Singaporeans for many more generations to come will continue to have such strong reactions to the name Syonan. And more importantly, hopefully those reactions will motivate us to never forget our history, and learn from them.
“It remembers what our forefathers went through, commemorates the generation of Singaporeans who experienced the Occupation, and reaffirms our collective commitment never to let this happen again.
“The true test of having remembered and learnt the lessons of war is that we live lives of courage and of resilience, every day, today. Far beyond having a strong defence force, we need to all do our part to build community, and to build harmony.”
If we can do that, then, we will have a fighting chance to make it to SG100 as an independent and sovereign nation.
Updated 2017.02.17 @8:28PM
Editor: Looks like the G is listening and listening actively. In just 48 hours or so, they have made a decision to change the name from Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies to Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies. Well, you know how we feel about the name, but I guess there’re many people out there who prefer a gentler and subtler way of reminding ourselves of those dark days in the past.
This is one of those cases with no absolute right or wrong, just different opinions and views. On the more positive side, we can say we at least have a Government who’s willing to listen and fix things.
Here, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacab Ibrahim’s statement just out,
When I opened the exhibition “Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies” on Wednesday, I explained that we had designed this exhibition to capture the dark days of the Japanese Occupation, and remind ourselves never to take for granted our 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.
The name of the exhibition reflected the time in our history when Singapore was forcibly renamed “Syonan”. We have used the word “Syonan” before to factually describe this difficult period. For instance, in 1992, for the 50th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, we held an exhibition at the National Museum, titled “When Singapore was Syonan-to”.
But this particular exhibition name provoked a strong reaction. Over the past two days, I have 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. This was never our intention, and I am sorry for the pain the name has caused.
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. I have therefore decided to remove the words “Syonan Gallery” from the name of the exhibition, and name it “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies”.
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. It is vital for us to learn the lessons of history, and reaffirm our commitment never to let this happen to Singapore again.