J B Jeyaretnam inspired an entire generation of Singaporeans and they will keep the fight going, says Chee Soon Juan.
I visited you one last time on Tuesday. I’ve never seen you so peaceful and contented.
This is such a change from all the years that we’ve been working together. I remember how bitter we felt sitting in your rented apartment at Orange Grove Road after the 1997 elections. The place has since been turned into swank, upscale serviced-apartments. We were drafting a letter to the United Nations to ask for the monitoring of future elections here.
It was a tedious job recounting everything that had happened: the hounding of Tang Liang Hong, the threats made against voters, and the gatecrashing of polling stations by ministers. The task was made lighter only with the delightful combination of the savoury Indian vadai and Earl Grey you served.
I remember also asking you about the copy of Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela sitting on your coffee table. You said that once in a long while, there comes a man who achieves greatness without having to cause the suffering of others.
On another occasion, my wife and I visited you at another rented house. From the outside, we could see a few of your shirts hanging by the window ledge on the upper floor. Mei said that she felt sorry that you had to do your own laundry at your age without anyone sharing those chores with you.
This reminds me of the time when we were driving along Serangoon Road and you wanted to stop by to pick up a bunch of flowers. I had asked you what the occasion was. You said it was your wedding anniversary and that your late wife, Margaret, would have liked the bouquet.
Then there was the time when we visited New York City. I was surprised when you mentioned that that was the first time you had set foot in the US. We had checked into this small hotel and struggled with our luggage along the narrow and dingy corridor. And as I fumbled for the key to open the door, I heard you mutter to yourself: “Oh Ben, what have you gotten yourself into?”
My heart sank when I heard you say that. I was feeling a little depressed myself and I was hoping to get some cheer from you. Seeing you so despondent made my own morale wobble.
But I knew that you were feeling depressed and anxious because of yet another lawsuit. As we put our weary heads on the emaciated pillows, you said that they didn’t just want to win politically but were determined to also crush us personally.
We made a pact that night that while we may not yet be able to beat them politically, we would not allow them to defeat us on the personal front.They may take away all our possessions, but they will never take away our will to speak up. And then you said that we needed to rest as “tomorrow’s another day that we have to fight.”
The next morning I came out from the shower and saw you reading the Bible.We talked a little about the Book of Ecclesiastes. Then you knelt down by the bed to say a prayer and I joined you. We prayed for strength and sustenance.
Rejuvenated, we went down to what New Yorkers call a “deli” for breakfast. I remember you asking me what a bagel was and I said that it was the American version of the vadai. You chortled and we mouthed down a couple of Ham and Cheeses. Actually, I did. You found the bagels a little too hard.
During breakfast we talked about setting up an NGO to advocate transparency and democracy in Singapore. When we came back, we had a bit of a laugh seeing how the gentleman at the Registry of Companies squirmed as he tried to handle our application for the “Open Singapore Foundation”.
After rejecting the term “Foundation”, “Institute” and a couple of others,the ROC finally allowed the use of “Centre”. Thus was born the first human rights NGO in Singapore.
We left New York and you headed south to Florida to visit your son. When you returned, you bought my daughter a little pink teddy bear. It squeaks when you press its tummy. When she was a little older, we told her who bought it for her. She named it “JB Bear” because she couldn’t quite pronounce your name.
My wife said that it was funny to think of this cute little pink bear and picture you at the same time, a big elderly man with bushy hair and your trademark “mutton chops”. You always made her jump a little whenever your voice boomed through the phone: “Is that you, Mei?”
Several months later, your worst nightmare came true. You were found guilty of defamation again and you now had to vacate your seat in Parliament for the second time. I remember talking to you on the phone after your appeal was rejected. You sounded so crestfallen.
I had asked you if you wanted to talk, but you said that you just wanted to be “alone for a while.” The next day we met for lunch near your office at North Bridge Road. We got into a heated argument. I had asked you not to continue paying the money and playing into the hands of Lee and his people.
I knew you were angry at me for saying so, but I also knew that you wanted me to be honest with you. Through the years, we have had our clashes and disagreements. But we always knew that we were locked in spirit and that we would always remain true to each other and to what we believed in. No matter how serious our disagreements, we always stood on the same side.
As you lay down to rest, democracy is not yet at hand. But don’t you ever believe those who say that your fight on earth was irrelevant and personal.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You have inspired an entire generation of Singaporeans and we will keep the fight going.
We will keep on reaching for that star in the black sky, that shimmering distant star of liberty. If we are closer to touching it, it is because we stand on your shoulders.
Your legacy and walk on earth will not only remain but it will grow. You have left a void that cannot be filled.
I think of that night in New York when we pledged not to let them defeat our persons. You’ve kept your end of the pact. They may still have the power but, boy, you sure showed them what a fighter for truth is. You leave us with honour and dignity, no one could buy you over and no one did. And even though you did not possess millions in your bank account, the treasure which you have stored is with you today and forever.
Goodbye, Ben, I will miss you.
But even as I mourn your death, I celebrate your life because it has touched mine. You have fought the good fight and now you have been called home to rest. They cannot hurt you anymore. Until we meet again, dear friend, I will always remain.
Yours in Justice and Freedom,
3 Oct 2008
Dr Chee Soon Juan is the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party.