Naming & Renaming of the gallery
15 February is marked as Total Defence Day in Singapore, coinciding with the date 15 February 1942 where the British forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese forces during World War 2. The Old Ford Factory is a National Monument of Singapore, as it was the site where the surrender took place.
The gallery at Former Ford Factory used to be called, pretty simply, “Memories at Old Ford Factory”. In 2016, the gallery underwent a year-long revamp. And when the gallery reopened on Total Defence Day this year, it was initially renamed as “Syonan Gallery”. The choice of this new name caused quite a stir in Singapore.
“Syonan” was drawn from the name “Syonan-to” – which was the name given to Singapore by the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation. This caused a lot of controversy, which you can read more about here and here.
Most of us who grew up in Singapore would recognise the word ‘Syonan’ immediately from our History lessons in school. So without further explanation, we knew the gallery was a museum focused on Singapore’s years under Japanese Occupation – which I’m guessing was the point of the chosen name. But as most have argued, a name like “Singapore War Museum” would serve the same purpose – minus the controversy. So after much discourse, just two days after its opening, it was announced that the name of the gallery will be renamed to “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: Wars and its Legacies”.
What’s inside the gallery?
The gallery was arranged in a easy-to-follow chronological order. As we entered the gallery, we were immediately greeted by the word “WAR”.
We watched news reels, where the British reassured Singaporeans that Singapore was well-prepared for war. People in Singapore at that time believed it to be an ‘impregnable fortress’ (a term I recall vividly from my History textbooks).
But reality soon set in, with graphic recounts of civilians being shocked by bombs that kept dropping and the ‘headless bodies’ they saw lying along the roads.
There were stations for visitors to listen to oral interviews and watch news reel to gain three different perspectives on Japanese aggression, British defence, and the civilian perspective.
Following the chronology, we arrived next at the Surrender Room.
The 4 year old kid may not have understood much so far, but he was quick to notice the British flag and white flag placed by the corner of the room and questioned, “Why are the flags like that?”
Many of us have probably seen photos of the scene in the surrender room many times in our History and Social Studies textbooks. So what was more interesting to me was the transcript of the conversation at the surrender scene.
And the script of the last radio broadcast by Sir Shenton Thomas made on 16 February 1942.
As we moved along the gallery, we were almost immediately struck by how “(VIII) The Japanese army will afford protection to the civilian population” was a false promise. What greeted us next was the exhibit on the notorious Sook Ching Operation – the ‘cleansing’ operation carried out by the Japanese to get rid of Chinese whom they deemed to be anti-Japanese.
Chilling photos of the Chinese male population gathering at screening centres, unaware of what awaits them, were on display.
We saw items from the time representing those who cleared the screening.
As well as pictures of the mass graves, unearthed after the war, that represented those who failed the screening. And we listened to narratives by survivors who cheated death via various methods such as faking death or escaping by swimming away while ‘bullets ricocheted above’.
We then came to the POW section, where visitors could learn about life as a Prison-Of-War.
Through sketches secretly drawn by a former police inspector interned at Changi Camp and Sime Road Camp.
And narratives from ex-POWs which were recorded in this interactive station.
We then moved on the the section on Nipponisation, which showed how civilians were forced to abide by rules imposed by the Japanese during the years of occupation.
Items on display showed how people had to hold an identity booklet issued by the Syonan Labour Department.
And wear armbands that authorised them to trade.
And ration cards were used to control the purchase of chandu (opium) – which a lot of people were addicted to at that time.
In the middle of the Nipponisation section was a station called “Choices”. Visitors could choose to play one of three characters.
And when presented with various scenarios, we could decide our course of action: To conform or to rebel.
And we would see the consequence of our chosen action.
The 4 year old was visibly upset by the end as he realised he kept getting beaten by the Japanese soldiers.
So he moved on to check out the exhibit with a basket of eggs. Which was to illustrate the severity of the inflation during the Japanese Occupation using the price of eggs as an indicator.
During our History lessons, we all learned about ‘Banana notes‘ – the currency that was used during the Japanese occupation. The name ‘banana note’ came from the picture of the banana on the 10 dollar bill.
And our History lessons taught us that the banana notes become worthless in the later years of the occupation due to inflation caused by over-printing of the currency.
I thought the egg display was a great way to drive across how staggering the inflation was. As the price of the eggs went from $0.50 at the start of the occupation (Feb 1942) to $432.60 at the end of the occupation (Sept 1945).
And we came to the end of the war and the surrender of the Japanese.
News reels and photographs depicted a sense of euphoria among the people as the Japanese surrendered and the British returned.
And guess what. Everything I said was just HALF of the gallery. The other half of the gallery was dedicated to post-war events. Which I didn’t really get to see because the kid had totally ran out of patience.
I took a quick peek and there were exhibits that showed Singapore’s recovery after the war. And went on to highlight events like Hock Lee Bus Riot.
I guess I need to visit the gallery again, sans the 4 year old. Unlike other museums / galleries in Singapore that we visited, ‘Surviving the Japanese Occupation: Wars and its Legacies’ was less interactive and engaging for young children. Which was expected given the solemn nature of the gallery. But there was much to be learned especially by older children which would complement what they are learning in History or Social Studies lessons in school. Listening to the numerous narratives by survivors, watching news reels and seeing actual items used during the Japanese occupation years would help the reality of the events sink in much faster than reading about them in textbooks.
Information on Former Ford Factory:
Address: 351 Upper Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 588192
Getting there: Buses 67, 75, 170, 171, 173, 178, 184, 961 (Click here for MRT to bus connections)
Mondays to Saturdays 0930 – 1730
Sundays 1200 – 1730
Admission Fee: $3 per entry *
* Free admission for:
All Children under 6
Singaporeans and permanent residents
Singapore student pass holders
Museum Roundtable members
Official Website: Homepage
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