Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, 1926-2008
I was a young intern in The New Paper the day I found myself interviewing him in 2001.
Actually I didn’t mean to. I had just finished doing a story at Somerset when somebody literally barked into my ear: “MAKE IT RIGHT! Make it right for Singapore!”
He was selling his book of the same title (Make It Right For Singapore) on the streets. The man was bankrupted, but man, you should have seen the fire in his eyes and heard the fervor in his voice.
I called back to the office, and the duty editor said it might make an interesting story to ask him how’s he’s doing. I was nervous, because it was like interviewing a lion, albeit a very old one. JBJ was classical fire and brimstone, except that his anger was directed towards the PAP.
Anyway, I plucked up enough courage to talk to him and sure enough, he snapped back when he found out I was from SPH. Those eyes! He had a deep mistrust of local reporters, because of all the things that had been written about him in public.
To cut the long story short, he refused to say anything significant or newsworthy. I went back to the office relieved, but man, my editor asked me to write an article anyway. Honestly, I don’t remember what the story was about – probably an observer’s piece on JBJ’s latest activity and how he was so resistant to talk to the press.
The story was edited, laid out, but killed just before we went offstone. I was never told the reason why, but you can probably guess lah.
Anyway, that one brief meeting left a very deep impression on me. Here was a man who had taken a very difficult path despite the opportunity not to. Passion ran…no make that raced through his veins.
His eyes glowered because he had a message to tell people, but most people just ignored him and his book, walking past as if he wasn’t worth their time. He thrust his book at them, but he could have been invisible to them. Now I couldn’t look away, I was simply enthralled by the man’s sheer presence and his stubbornness at proving a point to whoever would listen.
Depending on who you talk to, he was either a great politician or a flawed one. You can read the Wikipedia entry on him here.
But here’s why I’ll admire him far more than most living PAP politicians today – the man had guts and the PAP was obviously annoyed by how much of it he had.
Now you don’t have to agree with the man’s beliefs and ideas, you can simply be in awe of his incredible stamina and his personal belief that he was doing the right thing for his fellow men.
That’s what PAP seriously lacks – politicians who impress people with their verve. What we see today are mostly cookie-cutter guys. Very smart, very capable, but so colourless like the white uniform they like to wear. There are those rare few like Lim Swee Say or Khaw Boon Wan who are instantly popular, but man, look at the rest. They really personify…pardon the pun…”political correctness”.
Local politicians today may spend a lot of time talking to their constituencies and trying to help their ward, but they have little idea what it means to be a politician in the public eye. A politician needs to excite the people, take a little risk, enjoy hordes of people crowding around him/her. Ours prefer to be administrators and be part of a structured system.
Now the PAP’s response is that “Surely you want upright, non-corrupt politicians with a proven track record”. Yeah, nobody said we didn’t want such guys. But can our politicians impress like JBJ did even when he was at his lowest?
Rest in peace, JBJ, one day, somebody will come and take up your cause again. I forget things too easily, but I’ll never forget the day I looked into your eyes and saw the grief and anger towards Singaporean’s apathy. Thank you for trying your best.