Capturing the dark times of Singapore's war years

Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies also offers "more relatable personal experiences".

LOCAL oral history accounts and memoirs as well as everyday objects during the Japanese Occupation years are a major feature in the new permanent exhibition at the Former Ford Factory.

Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies will replace Memories at Old Ford Factory, after a year-long revamp. It was officially opened on Wednesday, the date which marks the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 1942. Despite the controversy over the exhibition's name, Syonan Gallery - which some quarters say "legitimises" or "honours" the Japanese name for Singapore during World War II - the National Library Board stressed that the building itself is still called the former Ford Factory, as it was gazetted as a National Monument in 2006.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, who officiated the exhibition opening, points out that the name does not express approval of the Japanese Occupation but remembers and commemorates the generation of Singaporeans who experienced it.

The actual exhibition itself offers a systematic overview and captures the dark times of 1942 to 1945. It is organised into four zones: pre-war Singapore; the Fall of Singapore; Becoming Syonan, which records Japanese propaganda and also local accounts of how the people suffered under their rule; and Legacies of War, which shows the immediate post-war environment. Over 400 items and personal records were donated by the community last year when a public call was made.

Where information panels in an exhibition normally carry only "official" accounts, the ones in this exhibition are interspersed with local anecdotes and accounts recorded by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

"It makes the information a lot more approachable and engaging, as the presentation of history is not just based on dry facts but more relatable personal experiences as well," says Fiona Tan, assistant archivist at NAS.

One of the key donors to the exhibition, Lim Shao Bin, took the opportunity to start collecting artefacts related to the war when he was studying and working in Japan in the 1980s. Now in his 50s, he first collected postcards, but later amassed Japanese maps which he has donated to the National Library.

One of them is displayed in this exhibition - a Japanese "spy map" of the 1930s, which marks 83 key locations of interest including government and commercial buildings. An accompanying booklet had photographs of the locations. Mr Lim says that he started collecting from Japanese sources because he wanted to find out why Japan started the war. "I've made new discoveries along the way, but I haven't reached a conclusion yet," says the Pacific War researcher. His view of this exhibition is that it offers a more balanced view of the war compared with the previous exhibition which had more British-centric views and sources.

"To me, this was a war between two empires - the British and the Japanese - and Singapore was caught in the middle," he says.

  • Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies is exhibiting at 351 Upper Bukit Timah Road. Opening hours are 9am-5.30pm, Monday to Saturday and 12pm-5.30pm, Sunday. Admission is S$3 but free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents, student pass holders and Museum Roundtable members.

Key highlights of the Syonan Gallery exhibition

  • Lim Kheng Jun enlisted in the Chinese Military Officers Academy in 1939, and trained in China as an intelligence officer. In 2016, he responded to an open call for archive materials and brought along his graduation yearbook.
  • Japanese Intelligence Map of Singapore, donated by Lim Shao Bin to the National Library. The map and its accompanying booklet with photographs were documented by Japanese informants before the war. This enabled the Japanese army to spare commercial buildings with Japanese interests from attacks during the invasion.
  • The Japanese military commissioned prominent Japanese artists to paint scenes of war and newly conquered territories. They are known as senso sakusen kirokuga - war campaign documentary paintings. Two were donated by Taka Sakurai, an officer with the propaganda department of the Imperial Japanese Army, in 2006 when he visited the Memories of Old Ford Factory exhibition.
  • Donated by Wong Yew Fook, these medals were given to him in 1945 for his service in Dalforce - a special unit formed in December 1941, comprising a mixed group of Kuomintang and communist Chinese determined to fight a common enemy.

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