Honouring a friend
“This month, 7 years ago, a dear friend of mine passed away,” Dr Chee said. The crowd grew sombre. “I want to read to you the letter that I wrote to him, and I want to dedicate this rally speech of mine in honour of him and his memory.”
Holding the letter, Dr Chee began: “Dear Mr Jeyaretnam…” The crowd erupted in loud applause for Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, fondly known as JBJ, who became Singapore’s first opposition Member of Parliament since independence when he won the Anson by-election in 1981.
Dr Chee recalled “how bitter we felt, sitting in [JBJ’s] rented apartment” after the 1997 elections.
“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 savoury Indian vadai and the Earl Grey you served,” Dr Chee added. At JBJ’s apartment, Dr Chee also saw a copy of Nelson Mandela’s book “The Long Walk to Freedom” on his coffee-table. “Once in a long while, there comes a man who achieves greatness without having to cause the suffering of others,” JBJ had said then.
On another occasion, Dr Chee had been driving along Serangoon Road with JBJ, who wanted to stop to pick up flowers. “I asked you what the occasion was. You said it was your wedding anniversary, and that your late wife Margaret would have liked the bouquet.”
As Dr Chee traced his own memories of JBJ, it became apparent that it was not the big public affairs of JBJ as Parliamentarian or fiery opposition politician, but these small intimate moments that were so precious to Dr Chee.
And there were many of them – like the time they prayed together for strength and sustenance, or the time he had to explain to JBJ that a bagel was “an American version of the vadai”, or when JBJ bought a pink bear for Dr Chee’s daughter who could not pronounce his name and so called the soft toy “JB Bear”.
But there were also many difficult moments.
Once, “seeing you so despondent made my own morale wobble – but I know you were feeling depressed and anxious because of yet another lawsuit,” Dr Chee said. “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!”
The crowd cheered.
Dr Chee also recounted how JBJ’s “worst nightmare” had come true when he was found guilty of defamation again and had to vacate his seat in Parliament for the second time. Acknowledging that they sometimes had disagreements on what decision to take, nevertheless “we always knew that we were locked in spirit, and that we would always remain true to each other and what we believed in.”
Reflecting on JBJ’s passing, Dr Chee concluded: “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!” Cheers again rang loud and long as Dr Chee ended his speech.
After the rally, The Online Citizen (TOC) spoke to 7 audience members to get their views.
Except for 1 Mandarin-speaking interviewee who said that she could not understand Dr Chee’s speech at all, the 6 other interviewees were touched by Dr Chee’s heartfelt tribute to JBJ. A rally-goer, Calvin, mentioned he liked that “[Dr Chee] takes it that JBJ is not just a fellow patriot, but more like a friend, so it brings forth a very endearing, emotionally charged message that the voters could relate to.”
To some, this speech was also important in terms of acknowledging the historical context and key players of Singapore’s struggle for greater democracy.
Mr Muru said: “This is the first time I’m hearing this, and it shows that both men – Dr Chee and JB Jeyaretnam – are really willing to sacrifice. They have sacrificed a lot for the democracy of Singapore. And I believe their fight will go on.”
Another rally-goer, Ng Yi-Sheng, felt that Dr Chee’s message resonated with him “because it provided a very human glimpse on what it was like to struggle for human rights in the 1980s”.
The emphasis on democracy also resonated with rally-goer Audrey, who said, “I think [the speech] is very good because it’s brought back to the basics of how democracy has all started. It’s something that’s really insightful to see how they’ve really stuck to their belief, how much [JBJ] has gone through especially for his bankruptcy.”
“To me, the underlying message of [Dr Chee’s] conviction towards democracy speaks more than any of the policies that his party is talking about – because it’s the leader that makes the difference. And then from there, with a good leader, everything will fall into place.” she added.
A slightly different perspective was offered by Billy, who said he was a bit disappointed as he had hoped for a longer speech that “covered more things”, although he was still “moved and touched” listening to this “life story of one of [Dr Chee’s] good friends”.
In a similar vein, Irene Oh pointed out that while what Dr Chee said about JBJ was inspiring, it may not have resonated with many people. “I was standing at the back and the audience wasn’t really responding to it,” she said. “I think local political rallies tend to talk about local issues like upgrading or [how] MPs need to speak up for the people.” Still, for herself “this is particularly poignant, reminding us what democracy is really about,” she added.
After the queue had finally dispersed after one-and-a-half hours, TOC spoke to Dr Chee himself, to find out why he had chosen such a different approach for a rally speech, focusing entirely on JBJ without highlighting any of SDP’s proposals or even calling on people to vote for the SDP.
Dr Chee paused.
“For once I’m having difficulty finding the words I want to express… After 7 years, I still remember him and [remember] struggling with him, I feel very honoured to have this opportunity to at least commemorate…” he said, trailing off again.
Finally, he said: “You know, JB didn’t live in an era where there was social media. And because of that, he couldn’t get his word out. I just felt that he desperately wanted to let Singaporeans know about their rights as well. And he lived his whole life doing that. So in his absence, I want to just carry on that torch and continue to let it burn bright.”
In stepping back from the cut and thrust of the usual rallies, Dr Chee also reminded the audience of JBJ’s fiery spirit which he hoped to carry on. It was a fitting, masterful tribute to Mr JB Jeyaretnam from Dr Chee – two men who pushed for more democratic freedom in Singapore, who were criticised and marginalised by many, who were made bankrupt from lawsuits, and who just never gave up.