When I was little, back then in the early 1980s, I recall my parents speaking of Mr. Jeyaretnam in admiration. I also recalled in later years, my father telling the story of when he gave a lift to Mr. Jeyaretnam one day when he saw him walking in Tanjong Pagar. I did not understand then who he was, or why he was a figure of importance in our lives. After all, I never saw him, only heard of him.
My father, like the many other Singaporeans, respected Mr. Jeyaretnam for his honest idealism. And my father did the little he could that day when he gave Mr. Jeyaretnam a lift to his destination so as to show him that a Singaporean cared; people appreciated him knowing the full personal sacrifices he endured in order to pursue the political goals on behalf of Singaporeans.
Many years on, I finally understood why people so admired him. It's the David vs. Goliath pull that draws us all in awe and hope. We dare not articulate our own opinions for fear of the consequences, so we leave it up to someone else, and hope against hope that he somehow manages to break through. And when he doesn't, we remain silent choosing to gripe behind closed doors, or through pseudonyms on the Internet.
I have no personal stories of myself to tell of Mr. Jeyaretnam. The few times I saw him were at political rallies in 1997, and at a political forum - I think it was at NUS. Once I saw him selling his book along Orchard Road. I bought the book, shook his hand and thanked him for his political work. That was all I did to show that I cared - my miserable few bucks that went towards clearing his forced-upon bankruptcy debt.
I always believed that Singaporeans never much appreciated him for who he was. So I was heartened to read the Facebook comments in a group created in his memory. Many of the comments came from the younger generation, showing a willingness to think and articulate better on political issues than those of us from the previous generation. Maybe they are sick and tired of being told what's best for them; maybe money's not all-important any longer that they are willing to sacrifice their principles and freedom; maybe they they're no longer willing to self-censor; maybe they want a say in how their country develops.
This, I think, bodes well for the future of Singapore.
Here are some comments on JBJ's passing that I came across while surfing the Economist recently. Since these posters have articulated it much better than I could, I am re-posting some here....
"Singaporeans do not deserve someone like JBJ. The majority accepted a trade off, allowing a despot to run their lives in return for economic benefits. Does not matter if the majority are aware that the despot is self serving, conceals the truth, manipulates the elections system and MSM, influences the judiciary, abuses the ISA to intimidate citizens, appoint stooges in key positions. This begs the question, what kind of people will overlook such grotesque behavior in return for economic benefits ? JBJ never did and he stuck to his principles to the very end.
He was indeed a true Patriot."
"To conceive of what JBJ meant and how he connected with the ordinary Singapore, his son, Philip Jayaretnam cites why he always took public buses whenever possible, it was perhaps embarrassed that taxi drivers often refuse his fare. And to say he did little to dent PAP's power might be premature, like Che Guevara, his image more than his ideals will be the legacy that serve Singapore's civil rights progress."
"Singapore needs more brave souls like JBJ, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I guess he'll be remembered as the heretic who preached democracy and rights while the rest of us were eating out of the PAP's hand. As for Lee Kuan Yew, he's a brilliant man, but nonetheless only human, and the demise of one of his fiercest political opponents should remind him that his time is drawing to an end, too."
"The epitaph should say "Here lies a man who fought for every Singaporean who has no spine of their own. One who stood up in face of hoodlooms, when eneryone else was ready to prostrate; one who spoke out when everyone else wagged; abd one who held the mirror when everyone else was singing paens to the Royal family." Dear Jeyaretnam! You were born amongst thankless spinessness people, would have loved to have you as one of my own countryman instead of seeing you getting wasted in Kingdom of Singapore."
Rest in peace JBJ. You will be missed.