A revisionist death in Singapore

Terence Chong
Asia Times Online

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the first opposition party candidate to be elected a member of parliament in Singapore, died of heart failure on September 30, aged 82.

The passing of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s best-known opposition politician, may not have been psychologically seismic enough to prompt Singapore’s middle classes to search their souls, but it did offer an insight into how Singaporean institutions simultaneously constructed and sanitized his life for national memory.

Certainly, the manipulation of personal narratives by the state and its apparatuses is not new, a nation-building process that constructs heroes and demons for citizens to revere and despise. To this end, the way the Singapore media and some members of the government chose to interpret the live and ideology of JBJ, as he is fondly referred to, is a reflection of how it sees opposition politics, society and, ultimately, the Singapore nation.

Reading through the numerous media reports of plaudits and memories that various prominent people have of JBJ, and the way his death was covered, it is clear how he was posthumously reconstructed: as a fighter, a man of idealism and passion, and one who never gave up no matter how insurmountable the obstacles or opponents.

Comments in the national broadsheet, The Straits Times, included quotes from the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP), one lawmaker observing that “He was like the Chinese doll, the bu dao weng – you knock him down, he comes back, you knock him down, he comes back up again.”

Another PAP parliamentarian noted, “I have admiration for people like him, a person who never gives up, a person who suffered for his convictions, and who goes down fighting all the way.” Why he needed to be knocked down over and over again, or go down fighting, was expediently left out of the reports.

A columnist of the same newspaper noted that “when both your friends and political enemies use the same descriptions of you, you can be sure they are true. In Mr Jeyaretnam’s case, sincerity, tenacity and courage are words many have used to describe him.” Other words that could have been cited include social justice, human rights, martyr and PAP hegemony, but you didn’t see them used in the media.

In a way, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s silence about JBJ’s death has been the most honest reaction so far. The mutual dislike between the two men was real, with Lee infamously promising to leave his rival on “bended knee”. Lee’s lack of a condolence message may seem uncharitable to some, but it is, at least, a dignified stance and more importantly spares JBJ’s family and Singaporeans a public display of crocodile tears.

Of course, if the construction of JBJ is but a careful cherry-picking of the man’s beliefs and actions, then his persona may have been turned into an ideological site to fulfill a specific purpose. In Singapore’s politics, despite the country’s economic success and material affluence, the one nagging concern amongst citizens and politicians alike has been the price of that success.

Political apathy, ignorance of national history, over-dependence on the state, and crass materialism winning out over idealism have all been perennial tropes in countless public forums and conferences dealing with local politics. The flight of talented Singaporeans overseas, adding to the estimated 150,000 already abroad, is another side-effect of economic success.

JBJ had always been the embodiment of idealism, but he was often portrayed as naive and full of rhetoric against the better-grounded, pragmatic and dependable – and ruling – PAP. As an idealist, JBJ was seen by the authorities as unsuitable for the technocratic demands of modern-day governance. It was precisely the authorities’ response to his idealism and passion for what he believed in that made him a walking, talking reminder for Singaporeans to stay out of politics. As the embodiment of idealism, he was deemed politically irrelevant.

Now, after his death, when his response is no longer possible, this embodiment can be fashioned for the purpose of nation-building. It was never the case that JBJ was irrelevant, rather he was inconvenient. Now that the negative connotations that came with his idealism are purged, leaving only opaque words like sincerity, tenacity and courage, the man can now be rehabilitated for national memory. We can now co-opt his idealism and passion for our own agenda.

And so we sanitize him. We speak of him as a fighter, but not what he fought for – pluralist democracy, human rights and press freedom. We speak of his great struggles, but not what he struggled against – PAP hegemony, authoritarianism, the use of punitive lawsuits in politics and so on. He was a fighter in a vacuum; he struggled against the unspoken; and JBJ is well on his way to becoming an abstract museum artifact in the halls of our national memory.

All nation-building projects are exercises in cognitive dissonance on a grand scale. Cognitive dissonance comes about when one’s beliefs do not match reality, resulting in a modification of these personal beliefs because reality is harder to change than beliefs. And so too with nation-building: historical events and personalities cannot be totally erased, but they can, and often are, redefined and reinterpreted to match the beliefs and values of dominant interests.

If this were to happen to JBJ, then Singapore’s loss would be aggravated. We would not only have lost the man, but also his values. We would have allowed his life, his struggles, and his beliefs to be redefined and reinterpreted by the very institutions he confronted.


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