Minister for Communications and Information, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, said it was understandable that the name Syonan Gallery has issued strong reactions in the community.
The new museum space is operated by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS).
Speaking at the official launch of the revamped museum on Wednesday (15 February), which was held in the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the Minister stated that some older Singaporeans who lived through the Japanese Occupation feel that the name legitimises the occupation.
While, he noted that others say that Syonan was a painful fact of history, and that “we should call it what it was”.
He later noted that during the Japanese Occupation, Singapore lost not only its freedom, but also its name.
According to the Minister, the reactions reflect the indelible imprint left by the 3.5 years of Japanese Occupation on Singapore and its people.
He said, “Younger Singaporeans did not have the same indelible life experience as their parents and grandparents. But I hope this gallery will give them a sense of what it was like to live through that dark period, and inspire all of us to build and defend our nation.”
However, Dr Yaacob added that using the name Syonan does not express approval of the Japanese Occupation.
Instead, he stated that 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 Minister explained how the way of life in the country is being challenged by a host of threats, from increasingly dissonant voices to terrorism.
He said that the battle of Singaporeans has changed from battling for land to battling for heart, mind and will.
“These threats are very present and may already be here. They may be a cyber attack or a terror threat, or perhaps the spreading of misinformation or disinformation. How can we ensure that we are resilient enough – and committed enough – to respond to these threats, and to recover quickly when crises strike?” Dr Yacob said.
The Minister also said that one way is to draw inspiration from the stories captured by the National Archives and in the new Syonan Gallery: War And Its Legacies exhibition. He said that Singaporeans could see their ancestors banding together during the Occupation to help one another survive.
Dr Yaacob recounted oral history interviews which spoke of how some Chinese handed water to prisoners of war and were slapped for it.
He also told a story of Malays giving shelter to Chinese neighbours targeted by the invaders.
The Minister also described how local volunteer group Dalforce and the Malay Regiment fought the Japanese, despite knowing it was a losing battle.
He stressed that the true test of having learnt the lessons of war is that “we live lives of courage and of resilience, every day, today”, noting that community and harmony do not “magically come about” just because various people are thrown together.
“Instead, differences, even irreconcilable ones, need to be overcome. People have to “stay united” and turn diversity into a source of strength,” he said.
He stressed that the gallery is a reminder of how precious the country’s sovereignty is.