Government Forced To Change War History Exhibition Name After Public Outcry

Japanese surrender at Singapore, 1945.
Japanese surrender at Singapore, 1945.

What is in a name?

A lot, as the government of Singapore quickly learned on Feb. 16 with the opening of the ‘Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies.’

The next day, the new exhibit’s name was changed to ‘Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and Its Legacies’ following a public outcry, particularly for not recognizing the emotions of the country’s elderly population.

Government officials were reminded that ‘Syonan-To,’ meant ‘light of the south’ in Japanese, the name used by the Imperial Japanese Army when it occupied Singapore from 1942 to 1945.  Many Singaporeans felt the decision to reuse the name was an insult to the thousands who suffered during the occupation by Japan.

The National Library Board, which oversees the gallery, explained why the name Syonan was chosen: the new name of the gallery reminds them how fragile sovereignty can be since Singapore lost not only its liberty and but also its name during the foreign occupation.

Writer Tan Wah Piow questioned why the gallery opened its doors on the anniversary of Japan’s conquest of Singapore: it is even more peculiar to schedule the opening of the Syonan Gallery on the date of the invasion. The government could just as well invite the loony fringe of the Japanese ultra-right to solemnize the museum’s opening.

Vernon Chan encouraged the government to expand the theme of the Second World War gallery: why is the image of the surrender to the Japanese more important in their memory than the image of the Japanese capitulation? Why not place emphasis on allies and pacts in a multipolar world? Why not honor their allies from the war, including the KMY, communists, British and Australians?

Experienced journalist P. N. Balji wrote that the issues illustrate that the government has failed to comprehend the sentiments of the country’s elderly population and will pay the price in the next election.

After hearing the chastisement from many citizens, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, apologized for using the name Syonan.  He also announced that the gallery will be furnished with a new name: the intent was not to express approval of the Japanese Occupation.  Rather, it was to commemorate the generation of Singaporeans who lived through the Occupation and endorse their collective promise never to permit this to happen again.

He has thought very deeply on what he has heard.  Honor and respect must be given to those who suffered terribly and lost family members, he explained.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also affirmed that the gallery will no longer be called Syonan.

Many Singaporeans of varying races suffered terrible outrages during the Japanese Occupation or had family members who did.  His colleagues and him, respect and honor these profound emotions, so the exhibition’s name has been changed, Global Voices reported.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE