A War, A Name And What It Means

Once upon a time, a sunny island was captured and renamed “Syonan-To”, or “Light of the South”. The war ended, but the people never forgot. So much so that hue and cry ensued when its government opened a history exhibition and called it “Syonan Gallery”. The people were told that the past cannot be buried – and it would be a reminder that peace and harmony must be treasured.

The End.

But not quite.

In a surprise move, Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday that the name of the World War II gallery space at the Former Ford Factory building would be changed. In a plainly worded statement, he said:

"Over the past two days, I have read the comments made on this issue, and received many letters from Singaporeans of all races. 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."

– Statement on “Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies”

Here are 2 things we believe the government has learnt from this saga:

• Ah Gong and Ah Ma feelings must be respected

Public consultation is a process, not a panacea. The original name of “Syonan Gallery” was apparently selected in consultation with history academics, museum guides, students and parents – intended to mark a specific period in history. But Ah Gong and Ah Ma still were very upset when it was announced.

Ah Gong remembered how his father was taken away by Japanese soldiers, and how Ah Ma’s sister went out one day and never came home. And if their friends were alive, Ah Gong and Ah Ma believed they would say the same things.

We aren’t sure what exactly was said that made the government changed its mind.

Maybe they dug deeper in their history books and remembered the Blood Debt Rally. Maybe they remembered the time when Ah Gong, Ah Ma and the government, rallied together at City Hall on 25 August 1963 to demand compensation from the Japanese government for wartime atrocities. 120,000 people.

Whatever it is – not many of our Ah Gongs and Ah Mas are around anymore, but the goverment realised their feelings matter – and must be honored.

• It’s okay to admit you’re sorry

For once, the government called a spade a spade. It did not defend itself to the grave (as it usually does its policy moves, however erroneous), split hairs, or tell us it was for our good. They were sorry, and they added no caveats.

The main point about this whole saga is not about a u-turn. The main point is that here you have a significant minority who felt deeply hurt by the name Syonan Gallery. They either suffered the terror of the Japanese Occupation personally or they had family members who did. The government could either have said we would lose face if we changed name; or it could decide we are honour-bound to respect the feelings of this group of Singaporeans. It chose to do latter.

When you’ve made a mistake, admit it. And then rectify things. In this case, the right thing to do was to change the name. And there is no shame in that.

Now we await the questions that will be filed in Parliament. Our money’s on WP MP Low Thia Kiang, and his passionate speeches, delivered in Mandarin.

The End, for now.

This post was first published over at Thoughts of Real Singaporeans on 18 February 2017. It is reproduced with permission.


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