Explainer: The big hullabaloo over the naming of Syonan Gallery

Photo: National Library Board

70 years on since the events of World War 2, Singaporeans in general have pretty much adopted a “forgiven, but not forgotten” mentality for the war crimes inflicted by the Imperial Japanese Army.

We’ve all been drilled from young through history textbooks that the Japanese Occupation was a Very Bad Thing, and some of us even have living relatives who lived through the dreadful Syonan years. Old wounds were unsurprisingly reopened when it was announced that there would be a WWII exhibition with the very name Syonan Gallery.

An exhibition showcasing the brutality of the Japanese Occupation with the name Singapore was given during that very dark period? And on the very site where the Japanese laid down the terms of surrender to our former British masters?

The controversy that erupted over the naming was to be expected, and it’d be foolish for the National Library Board not to expect as such. Let’s break it down to understand why:


Events leading to creation of Syonan Gallery

Photo: National Library Board

Back in February 2016, the Former Ford Factory along Upper Bukit Timah Road – the (in)famous location where the British officially signed the papers of surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army – had closed its doors in preparation for a revamp to create a better experience for visitors to learn about the history of Singapore during the WW2 era. In that one year, the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) made a public call for donations of historical archives of the war period, asking for photos and documents which miraculously survived the years, leading to the recent opening of Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies. It’s a permanent exhibition too.

Origins of the name “Syonan”

Japanese soldier bayonetting a victim of atrocities carried out by Japanese forces during WW2.
Japanese soldier bayonetting a victim of atrocities carried out by Japanese forces during WW2. Photo: Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons

Alright folks, brief history lesson time:

In the aftermath following Singapore’s surrender to the Japanese, Singapore was renamed Syonan-To (昭南島), which means “Light of the South”. What follows right after is the massive culling of Chinese citizens present in Singapore, spread over two weeks under the orders of General Tomoyuki Yamashita to weed out “anti-Japanese” elements from the island.

No, the atrocities didn’t stop there. Various torture schemes were implemented to try and extract information from potential spies working against the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). Examples include jumping on a victim’s stomach – which would be painful as it is – after forcefully ingesting the victim with water to his stomach’s maximum limit (we flinched  a little while writing this line), or the ill-treatment of prisoner-of-wars.

Besides war crimes, various basic necessities were scarce. Students who attended schools were forced to learn the Japanese language and bow in the direction of Japan during morning assembly. Civilians too are required to bow to any Japanese soldier passing by or risk getting beaten up and taken away.

Lt.-Gen. Yamashita (seated, centre) thumps the table with his fist to emphasise his terms – unconditional surrender. Lt.-Gen. Percival sits between his officers, his clenched hand to his mouth. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Of course, depending on the sources read, you may or may not know that communications within and between the IJA and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) is just one big fuckup. As one source Shadows of War by Mike Johnson reveals, an excerpt from General Yamashita’s diary states how he wanted his troops to “behave with dignity.” Needless to say he never succeeded – considering the mental state of soldiers given the license to kill anytime and anywhere.

Thus, the name “Syonan Gallery” was chosen as – quoted from The Straits Times in the words of NLB after consulting historians and its advisory panel – “no other name captured the time and all that it stood for.”

Why it is that polarising?

Photo: National Library Board / Facebook

Of course, a lot of Singaporeans disagree with the choice – citing the idea that it is “insensitive”, with some suggesting sarcastically that the government should complete the joke (the name coupled with its opening day) by inviting a “lunatic fringe of the Japanese ultra-right to officiate the opening of the museum,” as quoted by TheOnlineCitizen.

Majority of those who found a huge fault with its name claims that it digs and opens up old wounds with memories of the multiple tragedies, atrocities and indiscriminate massacres which have occurred throughout the period.

To quote statistics, approximately 50,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaya were mass-murdered in the “Sook Ching” – meaning Purge through Purification in Mandarin – Operation alone.

Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim states that the name has also drawn polarising reactions from survivors of the Syonan-To period, with some feeling that “the name legitimises the occupation, while others among them say that Syonan was a painful fact of history, and we should call it what it was.”

Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, tour the exhibition. Photo: National Library Board

He also added that “the reactions show us how indelible an imprint those 3½ years had left on their lives and on Singapore.”

Thoughts of the name on our side? Well, history is what it is, and no country can ever wash off the stain of WW2 no matter what. Syonan-To will forever be remembered as the turning point of all Singaporeans, so it serves as an excellent reminder for what has been sacrificed to overcome that dark age.

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