On 10 February 2017, Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) unveiled the new name for the Old Ford Factory WW2 history museum. It would be called the Syonan Gallery, in memory of the name Singapore was administered as during the Japanese Occupation.
Tempers flared. According to the rising ire of detractors, the name Syonan (昭南 or “Light of the South”) was an affront to survivors of the occupation. It glorified the imperialist project of the Japanese. The minister in charge of culture disagreed. Syonan is the most appropriate name to remind ourselves never again.
Of course there isn’t a doubt that Syonan Gallery was a mistake. It’s a mistake that hasn’t been seen before in the field of cultural and historical production. To my knowledge, there isn’t a Sudentenland Museum in the Czech Republic, or a Lebensraum Museum or a Heims in Reich Museum in Poland – because competent historians and curators elsewhere know better than to name a war museum using the frame of reference of the historical villains.
But the omnishambles continue.
Yet the government claims that it is not backtracking on “Syonan Gallery” name are incredible.
Despite the fact that initial reports, navigational signage, and its URL (changed from http://nas.gov.sg/moff to http://nas.gov.sg/syonangallery) strongly indicate the entire museum was to be renamed.
But surely there has been yet another backtrack, given how the entire microsite seems to have been taken down at 1630hrs SGT, 17 February 2017. Who knows? The truth is out there!
Oh wait, is this the final flipflop? Which was sent to the mainstream media but embargoed until this evening? [ed. 840pm, 17 February 2017]
But who really to blame?
It is fashionable to blame Singapore’s perennially unpopular but popularly elected ruling People’s Action Party, and the minister nominally in charge of cultural affairs, Mr Yaacob Ibrahim.
It is more profitable to recognise that historical narratives, galleries, and memorials are artefacts produced by a network of people and professions involved in formulating, marketing, chronicalising, and critiquing culture-history.
In the context of Singapore’s cultural sector, that boils down to the central role of the curator. Or as insiders put it privately, the Curator-as-God. Or as employees at The National Gallery Singapore may put it as their operating mantra, “The Curator are Gods”. Observe the similarity in obtuse, obfuscating language accompanying exhibits at the Syonan Gallery, the Singapore Art Museum, and TNAGS. It would seem they’re written not for public consumption but for the admiration of fellow curators, whose desire to impress is only outmatched by their incapability to express themselves in grammatical English.
Feedback from both the public and internal reviewers during cold launches and previews is often disregarded because the Curator is God and knows what is best for everyone. Or as I put it previously: the Curator as God is so self-regarding, it feels that everyone will and should agree with its view and take on everything it presents.
This “principle” is illustrated from the following excerpt from the TNP’s report:
NLB said that, after consulting historians and its advisory panel, it “decided that no other name captured the time and all that it stood for”.
Reading in between the lines, one may make the following inferences:
The NLB curators decided on the name. After public pushback against the name, NLB consulted historians and its advisory panel. The historians consulted and advisory panel did not agree or advise that this was the most appropriate name (otherwise, the article would’ve said so). The NLB curators themselves decided no other name was appropriate despite feedback from historians and its advisory panel.
It is time for the Ministry of Communications and Information to review its policy on the role of curators in Singapore, to specifically rein in their powers in fields where they have no competence or advantage in competence, and to ensure they have no veto over processes and departments that should exercise oversight over them.
Vernon Chan is a freelance writer and film reviewer