Sunday, February 19, 2017

Syonan Outrage

via NLB
On February 15, Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies, a revamped permanent exhibition of World War II memories was opened on the exact same date the Japanese surrendered its occupation of Singapore. What pissed some people off was the new name chosen for the exhibition: Syonan.

The World War II exhibition is not new. Originally it was called "Memories at Old Ford Factory" which held an archive of memories about Singapore's wartime occupation by the Japanese. After a year long revamp, it reopened with I guess a more "exciting" experience of artefacts and memories of that dark period in Singapore history. The location of the exhibition is rather significant. It was the same Old Ford Motor Factory where the Japanese signed the surrender documents.

Anyway, the grief over the new name Syonan was because during the Japanese occupation, Singapore was renamed Syonan-to. During the 2 1/2 years, many people were massacred. The National Library Board (NLB) which picked the name said that it "decided that no other name captured the time and all that it stood for" despite being aware it "could evoke strong emotions". They were right!

Addressing the outrage over the chosen name, the prime minister said that "We cannot erase our history or bury the past. The exhibition is a reminder of a traumatic period in our history and the suffering our pioneers experienced when Singapore lost its freedom and even its name."

Speaking to reporters later, Dr Yaacob noted that this was not the first time the name “Syonan” had been used in an exhibition. “In 1992, on the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, we held an exhibition at the National Museum titled When Singapore was Syonan-to,” he said.

You know "when Singapore was Syonan-to" and "Syonan Gallery" are really not the same, Dr Yaacob!

On Friday, in a change of heart or perhaps they were sick of the complaints, it was announced that the exhibition has been renamed Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies out of respect for the people who suffered under the Japanese Occupation.

Thank goodness common sense prevailed! Sayonara Syonan. Isn't it nice when the government admits its mistake and rectifies it immediately?

For me, my outrage had more to do with my lack of education in Singapore history. I'm almost embarrassed to admit this but up until the Syonan gallery name public outcry, I've never even heard of the name Syonan. I'm not kidding.

I studied Singapore history in primary school. A very romanticized version of how Singapore was founded by Sang Nila Utama. Back then we were called Temasek. Sang Nila Utama from Palembang landed on our island and saw a lion and he named our island Singapura which means Lion City. We also studied about Singapore under colonial rule and also a romanticized version of how Sir Stamford Raffles founded modern Singapore. I think we covered the Japanese occupation when I was 11 and 12 years old. However, some fools at MOE (Ministry of Education) decided it would be a great idea to teach history and geography of Singapore in the mother tongue. In my case, it was Chinese and I probably slept through the once a week lesson. Honestly I doubt my Chinese language teacher covered anything on the Japanese occupation. She was pro Communism and often spent her time telling us how great Communism was. I know it sounds strange to say the word "communist" and "communism" but back then in the old days (yes, I'm very old) such things existed in Singapore. My teacher also warned us not to tell anyone she talked to us about communism because she said she could get arrested. I wonder what happened to Mrs Lim?

Where was I? Yes, I was trying to explain my ignorance.

My mother was a teenager during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore(1942 - 1945). Yes World War 2 people. She used to tell me stories about that period. And by the way, she never once uttered the word Syonan. To hide from the Japanese soldiers, she and her siblings would run to the hills to hide among the forestry. She also said that she had no rice to eat and had to eat a lot of tapioca. As a result, her legs swelled up. My mother told me a lot of half-truths and alternative facts during my childhood. But for some reason, I believed that eating a lot of tapioca would give me swollen legs. As such, I avoided tapioca as much as possible. My mother said that she had to get married during that period as being married offered her so called protection. Anyhoos, she was match made with my father and ended up having 9 children (I'm number 8). So the Japanese Occupation was in a way responsible for me being in existent. Irony.


Anonymous said...

i don't think it is ignorance. i think it is being a teenager. as with your Mom, what you learned when you were a teenager, was in addition to you being aware at the time of only your feelings about yourself. teens and children are self centered, i think for mostly self preservation. it is a good thing that now you are adult, you can see the past with different eyes. your Mother can help.

Jane McLellan said...

Very interesting. I guess we all learnt something.

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