The following was written and published on 6 October 2008, about a week after Mr JB Jeyaretnam had passed away.
It was about 7.30 in the morning of September 30th when my phone rang. “Have you heard?” my friend asked. “Heard about what?” I replied. “JB passed away,” he said, referring to the veteran politician Mr JB Jeyaretnam. My response was, “What? Are you sure?” I asked. “I just heard it on the radio,” he said.”Oh my god,” was all I could manage.
Thus began a week of sadness for me – and many Singaporeans. Over the period, however, that sadness was to turn into even deeper disappointment when later I read the Prime Minister’s “condolence” letter to the two sons of Mr Jeyaretnam. Gerald, my colleague at The Online Citizen, was so upset by the letter that he posted an immediate response on his blog. I too was extremely upset but I told Zheng Xi, the Chief Editor on TOC, Gerald and Leong Sze Hian that I would not dishonour the memory of Mr Jeyaretnam by engaging in and posting a rebuttal on TOC of the PM’s letter. I told them that there will be a time for that later.
For the moment, however, it was a period of mourning and this period should be dedicated to honour Mr Jeyaretnam. We should not be distracted by a self-serving and self-glorifying “letter of condolence”. To do so would have dishonoured the memory, work and life of Mr Jeyaretnam. Those who had destroyed – or tried to destroy – Mr Jeyaretnam do not deserve the attention or time which we should devote to honouring him.
They agreed. This is the reason why TOC did not respond to the PM’s letter.
That night I went to the wake at Mount Vernon. When I visited the funeral parlour and stood beside the coffin of Mr Jeyaretnam, the first thing which came to my mind was, “He finally is able to rest in peace.” It was the same thought I had when my father died. He too had to struggle the latter part of his life – with medical illnesses.
“Have a good rest, Mr Jeyaretnam,” I said silently. “You deserve it after all that you have done.” I said a prayer to God then, something I hadn’t done in a long while. “He has devoted his life to fighting on the battlefield. Please give him his just rewards.”
The next few days were quite a blur to me – having to think about how we should cover his death on TOC. It is thus an immense help to me that Zheng Xi and Mervin Lee, especially, were there to provide support in what we needed to do. Mervin was tireless in covering Mr Jeyaretnam’s wake and the subsequent vigil.
Seeing the many many bouquets of flowers at the wake brought some solace. I was heartened that so many remember Mr Jeyaretnam. There were flowers from Tang Liang Hong and Tan Wah Piow, both of whom had to leave Singapore in earlier years. Flowers from the opposition parties, the Singapore Parliamentary Society, various businesses and individuals. There was also a bouquet from the Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and his wife.
More than a thousand people attended the service at St Andrew’s Cathedral. The eulogies by Kenneth and Philip Jeyaretnam were touching, revealing things we never knew about their father. It was during the hymn, Abide With Me, that tears finally flowed down my cheeks. It was one of my father’s favourite hymns. It brought me back to a time when my dad passed away. Perhaps it was then that I empathized – truly – with Mr Jeyaretnam’s sons and what they must have been feeling.
Abide with me.
I did not go to the cremation at Mandai Crematorium as I had to prepare for the vigil which was to take place that same night. The vigil was a last-minute thing. I was a little disappointed that no one had announced any public event to commemorate Mr Jeyaretnam’s passing. When Melvin Tan informed me of his Facebook group in honour of Mr Jeyaretnam, I asked if he would like to co-organise a simple vigil with me. Jacob George, the other person responsible for the Facebook group, discussed it with Melvin and they agreed. And so the vigil was confirmed.
I didn’t want the media to be there as I felt the vigil would be for those who cared enough to turn up and spend a quiet evening remembering Mr Jeyaretnam. And as it turned out, the media didn’t show. But 200 people did. They brought flowers and candles. Chinese, Indians, Malays, Caucasians. Young and old. Singaporeans and foreigners. It lifted my spirits somewhat that so many took the time to pay their respects and to give their thanks.
At 8pm, we all gathered and observed a minute of silence.
It was at the vigil that hope stirred in my heart, for I met several people who spoke with me and whose words were encouraging. A teacher, who said that she never read anything about Mr Jeyaretnam prior to his death, except from the mainstream media, confided that she realized she has been misled all these years about the man. “Only after his death did I go online to see what people were saying,” she said. “It was only then that I realized what they said about him is not true.” I replied, “It is sad, isn’t it? The way our society is.” She said that she will teach her students about “looking at both sides” and to find out for themselves the truth of things before believing them.
A young couple, with a daughter of about 8 years old, came quietly. They approached the makeshift shrine, lit candles and stood in silence. They then proceeded to a corner of the field, unfolded a small piece of canvass and sat down. I approached them and thanked them for coming to the vigil.
A group of friends too came prepared with groundsheets. I offered them a “I will walk with you” badge made by Isrizal, a friend of mine. They loved the badges and asked me for more. The lady in the group enquired if I would take donations. I thanked her but said that no, we were not collecting donations. The group stayed the next two hours.
I walked around the small crowd talking to those present. Many were appreciative that we were holding the vigil. Some even called friends to pay a visit. That was why we extended the vigil by half an hour (it was suppose to end at 10pm) so that as many people as possible could pay one last tribute to Mr Jeyaretnam.
At 10.30pm, we called the vigil to a close. Our initial plan to place the flowers at St Andrew’s Cathedral had to be aborted when we found that the church was closed. So, we took the flowers down to Kallang and released the flowers into the river.
On Sunday, I went down to Speakers’ Corner for the NTU student protest against media censorship in the university. Four students took the stage to express their dissatisfaction about the school’s policy. About 80 to 100 were there to lend their support to the students’ protest.
I cannot recall such a public protest in recent times by students. I applaud them for standing up for what is fair, what is right and what is necessary.
Mr Jeyaretnam would have been proud of the students – doing exactly what he has spent his entire life trying to get Singaporeans to do. To stand up for what is right.
On Saturday, while on our way to Kallang to dispose of the flowers, the radio was running a report on Mr Jeyaretnam’s funeral which had taken place earlier in the day.
It reported that those at the cremation spontaneously sang the National Anthem when Mr Jeyaretnam’s body was being cremated.
It filled me with great pride that Singaporeans would do that.
Indeed, whatever names or titles we may give the Lion of Singapore, he is first and foremost a Son of Singapore.
And there is no greater tribute to a man who remained unbowed till the very end in the face of sometimes vicious and relentless attacks from his enemies for over three decades – just for having a different opinion.
Mr Jeyaretnam is at rest now. It is up to the rest of us to carry his work further – and to truly honour him by living up to what he has taught us.
To persevere, even if the odds seem insurmountable.
To not bend to the seduction of money, as if that’s the only thing we live for.
To always be compassionate to the less-abled in society.
To live a life of service to our fellow men and women.
And above all, to not bow to the evil that men can do – in whatever guise they may come in.
Majulah, Mr JBJ!
We mourn your departure.
But we will honour your legacy.