The Singapore Government has backtracked on its previous decision to name the World War II exhibition, “Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacy”, which has spurred strong reaction between Singaporeans in the past few days, choosing to rename it as “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies”.
When Minister for Communication and Information Yaacob Ibrahim opened the exhibition “Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies” on Wednesday (15 February), he explained that the Government had designed this exhibition to capture the dark days of the Japanese Occupation, and remind Singaporeans never to take for granted our peace, harmony and sovereignty.
He stressed that the decision made was far from expressing approval of the Japanese Occupation, saying, “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.”
And said that “we should call it what it was” while noting that others say that Syonan was a painful fact of history.
According to the Minister, the name of the exhibition reflected the time in Singapore’s history when the country 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’,” he said.
However, the Minister acknowledged on Friday that 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,” he stated.
Dr Yaccob said that 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,” the Minister apologised.
He said after deep reflection on what he had heard, the government finally decided to change the name of the museum to honour and respect the feelings of those who suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation.
The Minister said, “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.”
In a separate statement on Friday night, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said he deeply appreciated and full supported Dr Yaacob’s decision.
Mr Khaw said the exhibition is an important reminder that Singapore must never take peace and sovereignty for granted. “It is a good exhibition and I will be visiting it with my Sembawang residents,” he said. He said some of them have parents or grandparents who were killed during those dark days.
“My own maternal grandfather died of starvation and for lack of medical care while in hiding,” he added. This was why the earlier name provoked such a strong reaction among a segment of the population, he noted.
He said: “It does not mean that we should strike ‘Syonan’ out of our vocabulary but using it to name the Gallery can unintentionally cause hurt.”