Another perspective on the naming of Syonan Gallery

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Dr Ho Chi Tim, instructor at the Historical Department of National University of Singapore, tried to explain what has caused the use of the name ‘Syonan’ for the new exhibition at the Former Ford Factory.

Dr Ho posted a letter on his Facebook page, narrating his view on the current issue of ‘Syonan’ term which has spurred strong reaction between Singaporeans in the past few days, causing the National Library Board (NLB)  to rename it as ‘Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies’.

Dr Ho, a member of Advisory Panel to revamp the former Memories at Old Ford Factory, stated in the beginning of his letter, “I must state clearly that I am not speaking for my panel colleagues or for the National Archives of Singapore, and am presenting my views in my personal capacity as a historian of Singapore.”

He wrote that those against the naming, believe ‘Syonan’ represented 3½ years of pain and suffering, hence, ‘Syonan’ is unacceptable as a name.

Dr Ho explained there was support for the now discarded ‘Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies’. Reasons given were its appropriateness to headline an exhibition on the complexities of wartime experiences, ‘Syonan’ was a historical fact and a key term to focus visitors’ attention squarely on wartime conditions and their legacies.

Another Perspective

Dr Ho offered another perspective on the issue. First, he explained that there is a tendency to see historical research as either for or against the perceived state-sponsored narrative known as the Singapore Story.

This is formed by assumptions, that Singapore history is too short to be studied. This has discouraged younger Singaporeans to study Singapore history professionally and stunted efforts to collect and to gain access to archival records.

With the above in mind, Dr Ho felt the original title was apt. ‘Syonan’ has been used before, ‘emblazoned’ on publicity materials for earlier exhibitions and covers of publications.

“This might have created my blind-spot,” he said, “though the outcry from those who did not personally experience war was unanticipated.”

Dr Ho said some of the comments were ‘misleading’, perhaps misinformed by the initial reporting that did not give any information as to the exhibition’s contents and purpose, which further fed public outrage.

Attempts to give contrast to the use of ‘Syonan’

Dr Ho explained, “As I understand it, the original title reflected the exhibition’s intent to build on existing approaches to the Japanese Occupation in Singapore history.”

“This is done by showcasing unpublished archival records and the rich oral histories in the National Archives of Singapore, and exhibiting public donations of historical artifacts.”

An entire new section on the legacies of war and occupation has also been added, which attempts to gives contrast to the use of ‘Syonan’. “These were ignored almost completely by the media, the scholarly community, and heritage enthusiasts,” he said.

These efforts were meant to add depth to existing perceptions of the Japanese occupation by illustrating the diversity and complexities of wartime experiences.

‘Syonan-to’ associates with trauma and suffering

Representations of wartime Singapore in school textbooks emphasize personal hardships and the climate of fear imposed by the Japanese. This is reinforced by National Education initiatives such as Total Defence Day.

Here, ‘wartime Singapore’, or ‘Syonan-to’, becomes associated with trauma and suffering. It refers to acts of courage and resilience to survive, and serves as a reminder to be self-reliant, Dr Ho said.

In many ways, the new exhibition name, ‘Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and Its Legacies’, harkens back to this particular understanding, Dr Ho wrote.

As uncomfortable as it may be, ‘Syonan’ represented for some communities a marker in a broader anti-colonial movement, as seen in the inception of the Indian National Army in wartime Singapore and other budding nationalist movements. These movements had an impact on late colonialism and decolonization in Southeast Asia and South Asia.

More subtly, ‘Syonan’ was a period of innovation as people learned to deal with disruptions arising from the deprivation of basic goods and services and social dislocations such as the death or the incapacitation of breadwinners.

Those tough conditions informed attitudes to social life and economy that continued into post-war Singapore. Two brief examples are the elevated role of women and youths in post-war Singapore society; and, until today, the older Singaporean’s no-wastage rule when it comes to food.

Deeper appreciation of wartime experiences

‘Syonan’ then is not just a simplistic reference to pain and suffering. It becomes this uncomfortable wedge giving insight into a multifaceted past, from which we can understand, not judge, how individuals made difficult decisions to take care of themselves and their own in trying circumstances.

Especially for the Singaporean who has no first-hand experience of wartime conditions, this understanding of ‘Syonan’ may be more relevant than distant reminders of trauma, suffering, resilience and survival, which over time could become less effective.

This understanding asks current and subsequent generations of Singaporeans to address that uneasy discomfort with ‘Syonan’, and to arrive – through reflection and reasoned discussion – at a deeper appreciation of wartime experiences, Dr Ho implored.

He said that the dropping of ‘Syonan’ has soothed ruffled feathers. Along the way, it has reinforced the Singapore Story presentation of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore history, and confirmed the entrenchment of echoed memories in a generation of Singaporeans who did not personally experience war.