Sorry for Syonan

Feb 18, 2017 08.00AM |
 

by Bertha Henson

I WAS about to write about the much-condemned Syonan Gallery when news broke that the G had changed its mind about the name. I was going to say that my father would turn in his urn if he knew about the name.

First, he would have said it was really Syonan-to, not Syonan. Then, he would have said it was not the Light of the South but the Dark of the Night. Finally, he would curse and swear at the historians and members of the advisory panel which the National Library Board (NLB) said it had consulted before alighting on the name.

Seriously, the NLB’s rationale for the name is no rationale at all. It merely reiterated the importance of remembering that period. It did not say that it had considered alternatives and discarded them. It merely stated that “no other name captured the time and all that it stood for”.

Nor was the public outcry about burying or erasing the past, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to when he weighed in on the matter. What people were asking for is some sensitivity to those who would rather not remember how they had to use banana money and watch kith and kin die while Singapore was so grandly named Syonan-to. No one would object if the gallery was called simply Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

What people were asking for is some sensitivity to those who would rather not remember how they had to use banana money and watch kith and kin die while Singapore was so grandly named Syonan-to.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim had defended the name when he opened the exhibition on Wednesday: “Some among older Singaporeans who lived through that dark period feel that the name legitimises the Occupation. Others among them say that Syonan was a painful fact of history, and we should call it what it was.” It was not, he said, about glorifying or legitimising those years.

He repeated this in his statement last night but there were also these lines: “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.”

He said the Syonan term had been used before in an exhibition called When Singapore was Syonan-to. There was no problem then. I can’t think why anyone would object to the phrase – it is accurate and factual. But sticking Syonan onto the word Gallery simply makes it too glamorous-sounding.

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I read reports in mainstream media (MSM) which quoted old-timers saying that it was fine to name the gallery Syonan and I wished my father was alive to say something different. I have also heard others who say that it was a good way to enthuse young people because it sounded so intriguing. Far better than Memories of Old Ford Factory. If so, then we aren’t quite honouring our forefathers, are we? We’re just interested in getting young people on board.

I had thought about how easy it would have been simply to bow to public opinion and rework the name instead of coming to its defence. After all, this was not about reversing policies or opposing fundamental tenets.

In fact, we even have the politicians and NLB saying that they had expected the public outcry. Why do it then?

In a nod to the public outcry, the signs were tweaked before the grand opening. The new signs now reflect its full name, Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies and include the phrase, An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory.

And it will be changed again.

No one would object if the gallery was called simply Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

Said Dr Yaacob: “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.”

Yes, the exhibition is a lesson of history and for the G, this episode is a lesson on communication. I can only think that the NLB, historians, advisory panel and whoever else was involved in picking the name simply didn’t have the pulse of the people. It is distressing.

I applaud the G for making the change. It takes courage to admit and rectify mistakes, especially right after putting up a defence. My father would applaud this too.

 

Featured image BritishSurrender by Wikimedia Commons. (CC0 1.0)

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