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“It was the most meaningful and enjoyable NYE’s countdown I ever had in my life yesterday,” said one participant at the Hong Lim Park Countdown organised by the Singapore Democrats, the first of its kind in Singapore.
There were no big-name artistes, no strobe lights and glittering costumes. But it was a night of fun tinged with sadness; of grim reality mixed with hope. It was one of those events that allowed participants to share the pride of being part of cause that would take us well beyond 2008.
Tribute to JBJ
One focus of the evening was the tribute to the J B Jeyaretnam. Speakers — some invited, some impromptu — spoke of JBJ’s lion-heartedness and his passion for democracy. Mr Ng Teck Siong who chairs the Reform Party spoke of how the late founder and leader of his party always spoke up for society’s poor.
Veteran oppositionist Mr Jufrie Mahmood, recounted his days with Jeyaretnam and said that the best way to continue JBJ’s legacy was to ensure that we pushed hard to free Singapore from the clutches of the Lee family.
Financial activist, Mr Tan Kin Lian, said he regretted not knowing JBJ. He told the audience that he had misunderstood the man until he read Jeyaretnam’s books. He spoke of the sacrifices Jeyaretnam made and said that they should not be in vain.
Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam also paid tribute to his father, adding that Singapore remains in the grip of authoritarianism while its rulers create the myth that it is an economic miracle under the PAP. Speaking as an economist, he said Singapore was already a success at the time of its independence, way ahead of its neighbours. He cited other East Asian economies such as South Korea and Taiwan that have flourished both economically as well as politically. But this cannot be said of Singapore.
Change and opposition unity
Other speakers called for continued efforts to open up the country. National Solidarity Party president, Mr Sebastian Teo, called on all Singaporeans to do their part and to make 2009 politically significant.
Echoing his call for change was party colleague and former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Steve Chia, who recounted how the PAP changed Parliamentary rules to limit the number of written questions a member could ask in one sitting after the NCMP asked one too many for the PAP’s liking.
A couple of speakers such as prominent blogger, Mr Ng E-Jay, and film producer, Mr Ho Choon Hiong, called for greater opposition cooperation to present a united alternative to the PAP. (Read Ng E-jay’s speech here.)
SDP chairman, Mr Gandhi Ambalam, then stepped up to say that the Singapore Democrats stood ready to work with anyone, including all political parties and NGOs, to bring about democratic change.
He reminded the audience that while the SDP was committed to change through democratic elections, it was the PAP that made it impossible for change to be effected through the ballot box by continuing to manipulate the electoral process. He added that over and above taking part in elections, nonviolent action was necessary to bring about reform so that the people can exercise their right to vote freely and fairly.
The arts community also had its say in the evening. Writer, Singapore Literature Prize winner and gay activist, Mr Ng Yi-Sheng, captivated the audience as he recited a poem from his collection. The cool night air did nothing to obscure the poetic anguish of Mr Ng’s writing.
One day they will come for us:
the foolish ones, the intellectuals.
One day we will burn
like scrolls in Alexandria.
One day they will break down the gates
of our black box operas and ateliers.
Rip the masks from our faces
and the angklungs from our hands.
they’ve sacked a museum,
outlawed an Aztec epic.
They’ve dynamited an Afghan Buddha,
a Dutch Madonna,
censored a film.
the Khmer Rouge just called;
they want to take your photo.
The revolution must always devour
her brightest children.
Tonight you may sleep with them,
eat of their festivals, drink of their mooncake,
engineer their Moscow mausoleums –
but never forget:
One day, they will come,
a mighty parade, in a stadium built of our bones.
Open your mouth and sing:
it has always happened,
it has not happened, yet.
Artist and activist Mr Seelan Palay urged the audience to get involved in social and political activism in order to bring about change. His impassioned speech called on everyone not to idly sit by while reform was urgently needed.
In his speech Mr Ho Choon Hiong defended the use of ciivil disobedience as a political tool. He reminded tose listening of Mr Martyn See’s defiance of the Films Act which ultimately led to the easing of curbs to the production of political films in Singapore.
Ms Jaslyn Go, the evening’s co-MC with Mr John Tan, spoke defiantly of standing up to the Government despite the threat of political retaliation. Her valour earned her a round of appreciative applause.
Also present were Singapore People’s Party chairman Mr Sin Kek Tong who had to leave early.
Following the speeches, an unmistakable message was sent from the ground up — literally. Participants helped to light up a giant display of candles spelling the words “FREE SINGAPORE”. Camera flashes were seen from the windows of the nearby Furama Hotel which overlooked the park.
Minutes later, fireworks exploded over the Marina Bay. As the pyrotechnics faded from the sky and merrymakers made their way home, many filing through the Speakers’ Corner, the candles continued to burn. The message will not be extinguished.
Poignantly, a few homeless folks appeared in the shelter of the adjoining Community Club. Out came their plastic bags and cardboard boxers, as they bedded in for the New Year. We trudged over with our Democracy Dogs and buns. “No, no, two is enough, I can’t finish all of these and they’ll be wasted,” one of them said in Hokkien as he gratefully accepted the food.
Soon a few more showed up and ate with us in the wee hours of New Year’s Day. One stuffed a few buns into a small plastic bag and rode away on his bicycle. As our ministers toast another year of bountiful earnings, for these Singaporeans 2008 doesn’t look very different from 2009.