The day I met JBJ

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.

12 Replies to “The day I met JBJ”

  1. interesting perspective. :)indeed i hate the gag on the local press on opposition politicians. was also a young intern then in 2002 at ST and was quite sad to see a nice interview piece with Chiam being removed…and an editor’s note that they can’t use it. duh.

  2. Wow Ian Tan, i admire your frank remarks….what a day it must have been to be in the eyes of the firece lion….


    Its a sad day lah….u only realise and miss something when its lost, i was browsing the net and came across interesting remarks, which JB would have been proud to read if he was alive…especially that of Eric’s…..hahaha

    i read a lots on the net, but Ian Tan, your comments was very astonishing. It must have been scary to interview him, media being his biggest flaw at that time, but thanks for your frank opinions. He is a great man.

    The most interesting thing about him is that, he fought alone,….not even getting support from his sons, being a core anti government, he had his ideal principles, of which his sons are not tagged into and left alone to pursue their own interest with his support.

    Great man.

  3. The opposition has lost a determined fighter. My condolence and sympathy…. However, I’m sure JBJ in heaven would not want us to stop fighting the PAP. Let’s continue JBJ’s fight to stop the dominance of 1-party politics in Singapore. Let’s strive to bring true democracy to Singapore by encouraging Singaporeans to vote for pluralism in our politics. Feel free to join me to continue the fight at

  4. I admire you and praise the Lord for your contribution to fight for us – the poor and oppressed. As part of the poor & oppressed group, there are many things we cannot do and for this I sincerely apologise. I strongly believe you have fought a good fight and finished the race and kept the faith. Thank you JBJ, God will bless your soul. For the righteousness you have lived your life and for fighting for our welfare, we honour and respect you.

  5. I recalled during my youthful days in the 70’s,I submitted an application to be a member of the WP.He
    was so kind enough to send me a note inviting me to meet him in his office.I love his beautiful signature
    on that piece of paper,but unfortunately I never kept
    it as I disposed everything I had and left for a gree
    -ner and freer pastures.Here is my piece of music composition for him:
    Thinking to myself today
    I’m sorry you went away
    I’m feeling sad but what can I say
    I miss you.Holding back my tear is not fair
    Trying hard not to care,but the broken hearts
    you have us shared,I still miss you.
    My condolences to his loved ones and may I day meet
    again in His presence in Haeven.

  6. Hi Ian, I enjoyed reading your post. I’m not a trained writer or journalist but for what it’s worth, it’s well written. Somehow you’ve managed to combine both objectivity and subjectivity into one single piece. Regards.

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