By James Gomez
Today we gather to commemorate JB Jeyaretnam and his political work which have become symbols for the principles of democracy in Singapore. Over the last 40 years, whether as an individual, a civil society group member or an opposition party politician one way or another we would all have come across or had some direct contact with JBJ if we had embarked on a democratic project. Now that JBJ is no longer with us, it is important that we consolidate and build on some of his achievements and plot new democratic opportunities as Singaporeans.
My first direct contact with JBJ was in 1988 when as President, of the Philosophy Society and a first year undergraduate at NUS, I invited him to speak on Political Freedoms in Singapore on campus — it was 21 years ago. NUS had a set of bureaucratic procedures that had to be negotiated if you wanted to invite opposition figures to speak on campus. These bureaucratic processes do not make inviting opposition parties representatives onto campus easy. At the same time, the main challenge was staff members and fellow undergraduates who practiced self-censorship and tried to undermine or withdraw support when inviting opposition figures on to campus to speak. Nevertheless the few of us involved in the organization of this talk succeeded, and JBJ spoke to a full house at Lecture Theatre 11 and the talk was reported on the front page of the NUS student union newspaper.
In the years following I had other contact occasions with JBJ. We had conversations over writing styles and article submissions to the Hammer at his office in the former Colombo Court building. I followed his campaign in the 1991 general elections attended his walkabout and rallies. In the later part of the 90s, like many Singaporeans, I too bought a book or two from him as he began his island-wide book selling effort to clear his bankruptcy arising from politics.
Seeing that this was a solitary effort, in 2001, I, through the Think Centre, had the opportunity to organize with several others the Save JBJ Rally. We had to navigate red tape at the various national licensing authorities and eventually managed to pull the event off. The challenges of organizing the Save JBJ Rally is a matter of public record as it was reported in the media and have since been analyzed in academic writings on Singapore politics. Because of the interaction with JBJ it was quite natural that several of us from the Think Centre trooped over to the Worker’s Party where he had been the Secretary-General for over 30 years.
Work abroad kept me away from Singapore but in 2003, it was my pleasure and privilege during one of my trips back home to prepare and deliver the citation for JBJ when he received the Think Centre’s Human Rights award. When JBJ passed on in late 2008, I was again abroad and like many others penned a tribute on my blog and joined the Facebook page set up to commemorate him.
Since JBJs passing, there have been several initiatives to commemorate him, institutionalize his democratic legacy and acknowledge his contribution to the democratic cause. These efforts are being undertaken by those who have known him and worked closely with him and also by others who find it symbolic to evoke his name as a democratic ideal.
At the same time, we have also begun to witness hurdles to efforts to commemorate JBJ institutionally while others try to cast aspersions on his political work. Given the nature of Singapore political system and its impact on political culture there will always be some who will try to cast JBJ and his democratic efforts in negative light.
The only way to combat this is to ensure democratic values, ideas, efforts and institutions are constituted in Singapore and to show up those who would paint democratic principles and democrats in unflattering ways. Seeing all of you here today, I am confident that institutionalizing JBJ as a democratic symbol in Singapore will not be a problem moving forward.
I want to end my tribute to JBJ today by sharing with you two updates. One, I like to inform you that I have chosen not to renew my Workers Party memberships which lapsed on 31 Dec 2009. Two, that some of us, inspired by JBJ, had submitted an application to the Registrar of Society in late April 2009 to set up a political association called Singaporeans for Democracy. It is approaching 9 months since we submitted our application and we are still waiting to hear from the Registrar about the outcome. Nevertheless we have been actively following up on our application in the last months by calling up the relevant officers at the Registrar for updates. In our last call to the Registrar office last week we were informed that the results of our application will be known in two weeks — that is mid January 2010. I hope to make more information publicly available as soon as we hear from the Registrar.
I was like many of you, saddened by JBJ’s demise. But I am also someone who prefers to look ahead. JBJ has done good political work and this is something we need to build on. More importantly the tone of the struggle needs to be borne in mind. If you want to take on the PAP, it should never be on a bended knee. That much I have learnt from JBJ.
(Adapted and developed from my tribute to JBJ written on 1 October 2008 and delivered as a speech on 5th January 2010 on JBJ’s birthday commemoration at Speakers Corner.)