by Tan Wah Piow
A photographer visited the former Ford Factory at about 5pm on Tuesday 14 February and successfully recorded the evidence of signages carrying the offensive word ‘Syonan’. The most prominent was the signage on the brilliant white wall by the entrance worded ‘Syonan Gallery’ in large built-up characters, and underlined in small characters ‘War and its legacies’. The rest of the white wall was left blank giving prominence to the Syonan’s brand.
Elsewhere were other carefully designed signages, built no doubt with some costs and thoughts to advertise the SYONAN brand. Syonan means “Light of the South” – and Syonan-to is the name for Singapore, given by Japan at the time of the invasion.
Once it was made public, the SYONAN branding backfired. To a large section of the population, it was a glorification of the Japanese Occupation. The problem was compounded by the choice of 15 February as the date for the opening of the Gallery, which was the anniversary of the Japanese invasion. Together, it amounted to a celebration of Japan’s victory.
By 5pm, 14 February, it would be too politically damaging to withdraw the brand. With the Syonan’s brand featured prominently in at least five locations in the vicinity, someone dreamt of an idea, however ugly it might appear aesthetically, to install thin metal signage “FORMER FORD FACTORY” on the remaining part of the white wall.
In the last minute rush job, the niceties about choice of fonts, material and style to compliment the original brown and expensive looking Syonan signage was ignored. The end result tantamounts to filling the remaining white wall with graffiti overnight to draw public attention away from the offensive brand. Installing the huge Former Ford Factory signage is as silly as putting up a huge sign announcing ‘This is the Great Wall of China’ on the Great Wall of China!
As part of the continued spinning, it is now reported that the works were incomplete by the time of the opening of the Gallery. It was as though telling the people that the Syonan brand is sited on the ground of the larger heritage brand of the Former Ford Factory would make a difference to assuage the anger of the populace. Somehow the PAP continues to believe that people in Singapore are gullible all the time.
Unfortunately, this is how politics work in Singapore – when a bad decision is made – whitewash if you can. If you can’t, say something confusing.
Yacob Ibrahim, the Minister for Communications and Information did just that. At the opening yesterday, he said ‘The name of the permanent World War II exhibition, Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies, does not express approval of the Japanese Occupation’. He missed the point. The question is, why of all names, it had to be Syonan; and of all days, it had to be when Japan invaded Singapore, and not when they surrendered. Is this done to tell Japan that Singapore, unlike China, is more forgiving about the atrocities committed during the war?
At one time Singapore was trying to mimic the Israelis to instill a sense of national purpose and oneness as a nation. Surely the Israelis would not name their museum ‘TheThird Reich’ and have their Information Minister explain to the population later that the name did not express approval of the Nazis. Neither would an Israeli Prime Minister write on his Facebook claiming that naming a museum The Third Reich, and adopting the Swastika for the museum brand were done the remind young Jews the horrors of life under Hitler.
Meanwhile, one of the establishment’s loudest trumpet, the roving Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kasukan said ‘this is a controversy over nothing’. It might be nothing for him, but not for those who cherish the memories of the 50,000 who died.
It is certain that further work is ongoing at the site to dilute the Syonan brand. But why not simply renamed it The Singapore War Museum?
Once that happen, there can be a proper substantive debate of what ought to be included in the displays.