Allen vs the World

The distraction of debate: Syonan Gallery and the war on sensitivity

People like to assume that our government is a retarded, low-functioning mess of an organisation that can never seem to get anything right. But as a believer of the existence of a hivemind-like system of ideas that is used to subtly control the thoughts, ideas and actions of it civil servants, and is extended to the general popular vis-à-vis the education system, I consider many ‘failings’ of the establishment to be more intentional than accidents. Narratives crafted by media outlets to be consumed by the mass public are limited by word count, and the type and intensity of the content that are palatable to the everyman. While heavy discussions and in-depth debate may be good to have, occasionally, sometimes we just like to read lighter news to have some brief knowledge an issue we are not so interested in. When a single issue contains several problematic elements, by having the media focus on one of those debates and having everyone engage in that debate only, it distracts the public from unwanted discussions that may have paradigm shifting results as compared to the ones we are currently having.

The single dominating debate on the Syonan Gallery, an exhibition on the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during the Second World War, has been on the name of the gallery. ‘Syonan’, Singapore’s given name by the Japanese (much like how Singapore is British’s name to Singhapura, Temasek, Singapura, but that’s a debate we are being distracted from all the time too) is considered offensive and insensitive by a lot of people. Their defence for their point, much like Singapore’s defence during the Second World War, is brittle and at times almost non-existent. People died in the Holocaust and we still name exhibitions after the Holocaust – because the purpose of a name is not to be politically correct or sensitive. It is to invoke history and memories, and what better word to invoke the JO than the name Syonan? Sure, it is painful, but history has never been a bed of roses, nor has memories been lack of injustice and misery. I’d even argue that having such a display, and being so blunt with the naming of the exhibition shows nothing but utmost respect for those memories, it shows a willingness to confront that pain, that dark past and acknowledge that part of history that broke us as a people… except it doesn’t really do that.

Here is where things get messy. Is this actually a meaningful debate or is the selection of this debate intentional by the state and media? The Syonan Gallery naming controversy seems like the perfect controversy for a country like Singapore to have – it generates a lot of buzz, creates a lot of noise, but ultimately has no impact on society or how we view our history whatsoever. Regardless of which side you are on, every argument seems to function on the basis that the JO was a period of darkness and suffering, and we fight solely over whether revisiting those memories with a powerful word that harks back to that history is appropriate or not. Ask any historian or friends who study history out there, and they will tell you that is a silly argument that does not even need to exist. What does need to exist, are discussions on other stories that happened during the occupation. Stories about the Japanese that are not about oppression, pillage and rape, stories about the people that are not about unity, suffering and loyalty, and stories about the imperialists that are not about stupidity, irresponsibility and weakness. The omission of these stories from dominant public discourse is necessary to craft that single narrative we all study in our younger days in Secondary School in a subject disguised as ‘history’. At the end of this saga there will be no changes to the Singapore Story that we all know and remember from our most impressionable years. And worse, as memory deteriorates the single narrative becomes single paragraphs, single sentences and single phrases, when adult Singaporeans attempt to explore the intricacies of the idea of what it means to have been occupied by the Japanese as Syonan-to, the debate will never leave the orbit of the core message of ‘common suffering’. The tales of betrayal and backstabbing along racial lines that are results of decades of class divide and envy will never be told. The illusion that a proto-nation of Singaporeans abandoned by the British to fend for their own, and formed a coalition to resist and repel the Japanese in solidarity will never be untangled and deconstructed. The deep-seated factionalisation of different groups within that rebellion, from communists to British loyalist to Chinese loyalists will never be explained and properly explored. And that is because we have been cultivated within the system, and when we attempt to conjure any sort of meaningful criticism against the dominant narrative, our imagination is being bounded by those seeds planted during the pseudo-history days that have grown into ivy walls of restricting additional knowledge and thoughts from entering and leaving those boundaries.

It is time to stop talking about the name and focus on the issue. The end goal of debates to come out of this exhibition is not discuss whether the Syonan Gallery has honoured and respected the memories of those who suffered during the occupation, at least in the way we know of it within the restrictions of the single narrative, but whether it has provided anything more for the public to have a better understanding of what the JO was also about. And those stories are not meant to destroy our solidarity; the fabrics of nationalism are not so thin that they can be torn apart by the weakening of an illusion of common suffering. But it will help the everyman grow in his ability to think, to sympathise with historical circumstances, and become more critical beyond what their educational cultivation has taught them to be. I will be heading down to the Gallery next week, and perhaps I will return with insights to share it with everyone on how we can look at the same facts and figures, but come up with different conclusion on matters just like how I have tried to do in this piece. And when you do see something different, something beyond the single narrative, remember: you are not crazy, you are not inciting conflict, you are not spouting conspiracy – you are thinking. And being able to think after graduating from our school system is a hard thing to do, but it is doable. Try, and you may succeed.

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