"Syonan Gallery" controversy (2017)

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The refurbished gallery's signboard. Photo from The Straits Times.

On 9 February 2017, the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) announced that the newly revamped exhibit at the former Ford Factory will be renamed the Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies.[1][2] The name sparked debate for being insensitive and “glorifying” this era of  Singapore’s history.

History of the former Ford factory[edit | edit source]

The facade of the former Ford factory. Photo from Roots SG.

Ford factory & Japanese Occupation (1941 - 1980)[edit | edit source]

On 15 February 1942, the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in the Ford factory board room.[3][4] During the Japanese occupation, Nissan took over the premises to assemble Japanese military vehicles.[5]


Ford resumed manufacturing after the Japanese occupation. The Ford assembly plant at Bukit Timah was active until 1980 when it closed due to Ford’s diversification plans.[6]

National monument & exhibition space (2006 - 2016)[edit | edit source]

Reports and proposals to restore the former Ford Factory into a war exhibition surfaced as early as 1996 and 1997.[7][8] However, the building remained dilapidated in the year 2000.[9][10] On 15 February 2006, the former Ford factory was officially gazetted as a national monument.[11][12] The building housed a permanent exhibition and was opened to the public the next day.[13]

Refurbished permanent exhibit (2017)[edit | edit source]

The replica of the boardroom table on which Singapore was surrendered to the Japanese. Photo from PSD Challenge.

In 2016, the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) announced that Memories at Old Ford Factory gallery will be temporarily closed for a year-long revamp.[14] The plan was to develop a more updated and interactive exhibit.[15] The gallery was slated to be opened to the public on 16 February 2017.[16]

Exhibit highlights[edit | edit source]

The new exhibit retained a replica of the board room table where the surrender documents were signed. It also boasted more multimedia displays and oral history recordings.[17] The new exhibit has 4 sections centred around the following themes:[18]

  • Pre-war Singapore and the history of Singapore’s Ford factory
  • The fall of Singapore and Japanese aggression
  • Singapore during the Japanese Occupation
  • The aftermath of World War II

Negative public reception[edit | edit source]

Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies[edit | edit source]

First revised sign for Syonan Gallery
The first revised sign of Syonan Gallery. Photo from Channel NewsAsia.

The permanent exhibit at the former Ford Factory received a new name to accompany its new look.[19][20] The exhibition was renamed as Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies.[21] The name was poorly received due to its insensitivity.

General public[edit | edit source]

The general public was split in their views. Some welcomed the name change while others mentioned that it was a “ridiculous name that glorifies the occupiers of the war”.[22] The descendants of war hero Lim Bo Seng remarked that it “would not have felt right” to step into a compound the name “Syonan Gallery”.[23]

Name Profile Comments Refs.
Garry Bor A member of the public The word “Syonan” carries a negative and painful meaning, especially for those who experienced the occupation. [24]
K Nadarajah A member of the public who lived through the war He mentioned that “... enough time has passed'.' [25]
Andrew Fong A member of the public The new name sheds attention on the “important and dark period of [Singapore’s] history” rather than glorifying the Japanese Occupation. [26]

History enthusiasts[edit | edit source]

Several history enthusiasts have mentioned that the name choice suggests a commemoration of a dark event in history.[27]

Name Profile Comments Refs.
Kwek Li Yong Founder of heritage civic group My Community The Japanese renamed Singapore “Syonan-to” (Light of the South) during the occupation. Hence, the word has a negative connotation.
Jerome Lim Heritage blogger on The Long and Winding Road While the name had negative connotations, it was “a good way to jolt those who are less aware of the horrors of the associated with the war. [28]
Kevin Tan Heritage expert and law professor The new name suggests a celebration of the period.
Yeo Kang Shua Executive member of the Singapore Heritage Society The new name was an improvement from the old name. [29]

Name revisions[edit | edit source]

Workers covering the Syonan Gallery signboard
Workers covering the Syonan Gallery signboard. Photo from The Straits Times.

Minister for Communication and Information Yaacob Ibrahim decided to remove “Syonan Gallery” from the name after reading the comments about the issue over 2 days. He apologised for the hurt caused.[30]

Overall, there were 2 revisions to the gallery’s name:

Date Changes made Revised name Refs.
15 February 2017 Signages were tweaked to include the following sentence:

“An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory”

Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies - An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory [31]
17 February 2017 The name “Syonan Gallery” was completely removed and taken down within 12 hours. Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and Its Legacies   [32][33]

Tan Fong See, a retiree who lived through the Japanese occupation, could not bring himself to step into the exhibition but welcomed the name change. He remarked that the name change was “a good move” as “many people did not like the Syonan name."[34]

Official responses[edit | edit source]

Current signage for the gallery, named Memories at Old Ford Factory.
Current signage for the gallery, named Memories at Old Ford Factory. Photo from Roots SG.

National Library Board (NLB)[edit | edit source]

The NLB shared that the original name came from focus group discussions with history academics, museum guides, students and parents.[35]

They added that “Syonan” was deemed appropriate as it is an “easily recognisable” historical term.[36] After consulting historians and its advisory panel, there were “no other names that captured the time and all that it stood for”.[37]

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong[edit | edit source]

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed his support of the name “Syonan Gallery” in a Facebook post dated 15 February 2019. He remarked that the name is a part of Singapore’s past no matter how tragic.[38] In his own words:

“... 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."[39]  

Yaacob Ibrahim (then Minister of Communication and Information)[edit | edit source]

At the official launch of the gallery, Yaacob Ibrahim acknowledged that the name “Syonan Gallery” has “evoked some strong reactions in the community”.[40] He mentioned that some older Singaporeans who lived through the Japanese occupation felt that the name legitimises the occupation. He remarked that “calling it as it was” was important.[41] However, he clarified that the name was not an approval of the Japanese Occupation.[42]


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  29. Zaccheus, Melody. “Syonan Gallery: Revamped war museum's name sparks questions”. The Straits Times. February 10, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
  30. Zaccheus, Melody. “”Syonan Gallery" renamed; Minister Yaacob Ibrahim apologises for pain that name caused”. The Straits Times. February 17, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
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  33. The Syonan Gallery name change saga: A timeline”. The Straits Times. February 18, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
  34. Seow, Bei Yi. “Visitors welcome name change of WWII gallery”. The Straits Times. February 19, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
  35. Zaccheus, Melody. “Syonan Gallery: Revamped war museum's name sparks questions”. The Straits Times. February 10, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
  36. Zaccheus, Melody. “Syonan Gallery: Revamped war museum's name sparks questions”. The Straits Times. February 10, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
  37. Zaccheus, Melody. “NLB explains rationale behind naming new museum Syonan Gallery; name had sparked debate”. The Straits Times. February 10, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
  38. Chew, Hui Min. “Syonan Gallery exhibition at the Former Ford Factory is a reminder of a traumatic period in Singapore history: PM Lee”. The Straits Times. February 15, 2019. Accessed 11 November 2019.
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  41. Zaccheus, Melody. “Signages of Syonan Gallery in former Ford Factory tweaked”. The Straits Times. February 15, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.
  42. Zaccheus, Melody. “Signages of Syonan Gallery in former Ford Factory tweaked”. The Straits Times. February 15, 2017. Accessed 11 November 2019.