'IF IT'S INDULGENT, IT'S IN OUR CITY'

Last April, me and Pang had just stepped out of the City Hall MRT station in Singapore when I noticed somebody very familiar. I had flashbacks of having seen this person on TV before. Those sideburns curiously reminded me of the grainy TV reception we had in Malacca of SBC (now TCS) Channel 5 during the 80s. It took awhile for me to register that I had just walked past Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the iconic (ex-)opposition leader in Singaporean politics.

For schoolkids in the 1980s like me, our rudimentary grasp of domestic politics then amounted to merely recognising the monochromatic divide between incumbent and opposition, not along partylines as in BN vs DAP or PAS but rather between the dominant figures of the times: in Malaysia, it was DrM vs Lim Kit Siang. In Singapore, it was quite simply Lee Kuan Yew vs J.B. Jeyaretnam.

Today J.B. Jeyaretnam has been reduced to peddling his books in front of MRT stations. His most recent book, The Hatchet Man of Singapore, details the court proceedings through which he accuses Lee Kuan Yew of orchestrating to destroy him politically and economically (this quote may have contributed to the title). We had a brief chat; no retailer would stock his books so he would pop up at different MRT stations every day to sell them by hand; I bought a copy and got him to autograph it; he then permitted me to photograph him. It didn't seem a big deal for passers-by. Me and Pang casually wondered if there were any SB types around.

Photos taken, a handshake, and then we resumed our way to the screenings for the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), mildly excited by the chance meeting.

In 2001, three (Singaporean) university lecturers filmed a documentary on J.B. Jeyaretnam, tracing his biography, his involvement in the political arena, and his views on its current state The video was 17 minutes in length, and was scheduled to be screened at SIFF. Police quickly warned the lecturers that the film violated the Films Act, while the government justified the action as protecting politics from sensationalism, innuendo, and inaccuracy. The lecturers submitted written apologies for making the film and withdrew it from the Festival. It is rumored that the video tapes were confiscated. This perhaps explains why a Singaporean told Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad at the Q & A for The Big Durian screening at SIFF 2003 that: “You’ve got a lot of a balls. Coming from where I am, I don’t think this film would’ve been screened in Singapore.”

In an editorial for cult Singaporean pop culture mag Big O, SIFF festival director Philip Cheah said that Singaporeans did have the freedom of speech. “We just don’t have freedom after speech.”


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