By Farah Bagharib-Kaltz
For most of the 2000s, I worked in the Chinatown area. Every morning, I would brisk-walk down Temple Street, take the perpendicular cross to Smith Street and stroll through the silence of the early morning.
It couldn’t have been later than eight that morning along Smith Street. From a distance, I recognised his gait long before I saw his face. Despite the hunch of his back and the slight drag of his right foot, his shoulders still held up strongly – the mark of a man who had spent most of his life carrying the weight of a nation.
His footsteps were slow, and it didn’t take much for me to catch up to him. But two steps behind him, I paused, my heart pounding against the inside of my chest wall.
Who was I to speak to Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam? What would I say that could possibly express everything I felt at that moment?
But our solitude gave me courage. The courage I never mustered over the many, many times I saw him outside City Hall MRT, when I was among friends and too cool to make a public show of my stuttering – or perhaps, more so, my opposition-supporting – self.
I ran up beside him, and stuttered, “Mister J.B., sir.”
I stuck my hand out to him, perhaps a little too eagerly; I almost jabbed him in the stomach. His droopy eyelids lifted, and his lips turned up into a half-smile. He took my hand in his, his fingers wrapping firmly around the edge of my palm.
“Tha… thank you,” I stammered. He nodded and smiled, let my hand go. “Thank you,” I reiterated. He nodded again, then turned to carry on his way.
I didn’t know then what I was thanking him for. I was only 23, 24 years old at the time, and it took me a long time before I truly realised the significance of that meeting.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2011, when I stood in a sea of blue at Hougang Stadium on the night Aljunied was won, that I knew what I was thanking him for all those years ago.
His fight. He was the true personification of Mark Twain’s quip about the sizes of dogs in relation to the sizes of their fights. Sure, he was not perfect by any means (who is?) – but before Chiam See Tong was voted in, he was the lone alternate voice in Parliament. Even after he lost his place, and during the short time he held a concessionary position as an NCMP, he was always up in the face of the incumbent – never afraid to take on policies, to take on persecution, and most importantly, to take on the all-powerful.
His tenacity. Everyone can talk about how he went to prison, how he was bankrupted, how he was discredited. The stories are on the Internet; look them up. But here’s the thing: He was never silenced. He died just days before he was due in High Court to argue for a by-election in Jurong GRC, which was left with one empty seat after the death of Ong Chit Chung. Mr. Jeyaretnam was 82 years old, and still had not given up his fight against the perils of absolute power.
His faith. He was the eternal optimist who believed in Singapore. More than that, he believed in Singaporeans. And it was in this steadfast belief that he gave us ours. To understand and respect the choice of our fellow countrypeople, yet still hold strong to our own principles on what is best for our country. So that we can and will still stand together, especially on days-after like these, to carry the weight of the nation on our shoulders – as few of us as there may be right now.
On Friday, as I grappled with the disappointment that coursed through the night as Punggol East was lost; with celebrations still withholding when the Returning Officer announced Fengshan, Nee Soon, Marine Parade, and East Coast; and the collective groan at the Holland-Bukit Timah numbers, I looked out into the sea of blue at Hougang Stadium and texted a friend, only half-jokingly, that I was taking the next flight to Germany.
But I was no longer the stuttering young woman I was on Smith Street all those years ago. I was no longer ashamed, guilty, or afraid of revealing my opposition-supporting self like I was at City Hall MRT.
I looked down at The Workers’ Party flag clutched tightly in my hand and thought of Mr. J. B. Jeyaretnam. I thought of Mr. Low Thia Kiang and Ms. Sylvia Lim. Mr. Chee Soon Juan and Mr. Paul Tambyah. And yes, to a lesser extent, even Ms. Han Hui Hui. People who have a certain kind of dogged fight. An unwavering faith. A tenacious spirit. The superhuman qualities it takes to stand in opposition in Singapore, and not be silenced.
So, we too, must not be silenced. Our voices must rise above the cheers, the sneers, the snide “I told you so”. We must have faith, we must have fight, and we must soldier on. Stand behind our opposition leaders. Volunteer for them. Rise up to lead if we’re so inclined. Because if we don’t, who will? We are as democratic a country as we’ve ever been right now, but it’s up to us to make sure this is not as democratic as we’ll ever be.
Mari kita rakyat Singapura, sama-sama menuju bahagia.
Come, fellow Singaporeans, let us progress towards happiness together.