Sunday, 27 July 2014

Philip Jeyaretnam: SG50 guest list will include naysayers

Lawyer and writer Philip Jeyaretnam believes that even the cynics and dissenters have a role to play as Singapore reflects on its ever-changing sense of identity amid preparations for the country's 50th birthday next year. The 50-year-old, who is co-chairman of the SG50 committee driving the culture and community events for the celebrations, tells Maryam Mokhtar why it is important to rope in these naysayers. He also relates how the political activities of his father, the late opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam, helped shape his sense of being a Singaporean.
The Straits Times, 26 Jul 2014

Among your best-selling books is First Loves, the story of a Chinese boy growing up in Singapore in the 80s. If you had to tell a story about our country through a protagonist, how do you think it would have played out?

I feel like I'd written that story. With First Loves, the protagonist Ah Leong is in many ways a sort of everyman figure. He's also something of a blank slate.

He is a young boy, very naive, and encountering the real world and finding the rough edges, bumping up against them, trying to get through them.

So many of those stories in a way explore Singapore but, of course, that was back in the 80s.

What would Ah Leong be like today, more than 30 years on?

Maybe I need to write that story, that's probably the best way of answering your question. (Laughs)

We celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday next year and a major focus this year is to get Singaporeans to reflect on our country's journey so far. How would your committee help us do it?

Many of the things the committee supports - some of the books coming out and the arts events to be held - will reflect on the last 50 years as well as where Singapore is today, plus where we're going and where we should be going.

As people reflect and participate, the sense of engagement will grow. And when they are engaged, there is a lasting impact which will go beyond 2015.

The starting point is celebration. What are we celebrating? We are celebrating the people who have made Singapore.

That leads to the idea that it has to be ground up. It is not just having big events but a celebration for people to take part in. That's the major thrust.

But at the same time, it is an opportunity for reflection, which is both retrospective and prospective.

One looks back at the last 50 years and one looks forward - whether it's the next 50 years or the next decade. That's where many of the projects are very thoughtful. Anyway, that's also very much what the arts is about.

The arts is about writers who will interrogate what the nation is about, who does it belong to and where is it going? The same thing applies to artists, dramatists and so on.

Many of the projects will provide that opportunity. For example, the National Arts Council has a project in which all the Cultural Medallion and young artist winners will contribute a new piece of work loosely linked to the SG50. And the Institute of Policy Studies has 50 books coming out.

Why is it important to reflect?

Because unless you do, it's very easy for fault lines or cracks to develop.

The process of thinking about your society and your place in it helps to bind you to that society. Even if one is saying something different from the mainstream, the very act of reflecting brings one closer to the society.

So when we talk about the celebrations being inclusive, they're also going to be diverse. Some celebrations will be more questioning, some will be just pure fun.

At an SG50 media conference earlier this year, you talked about engaging the nation's cynics as well in the celebrations. Why is it important to include them?

Singapore belongs to everybody. It belongs to the cynics, the critics, the dissenters and the exiles just as much as it belongs to the businessmen or the people in government.

So it is very important that the celebrations engage people as a whole. For example, when writers take part in next year's Singapore Writers Festival in the context of SG50, I'm sure it will spark conversations which are not only celebratory but also questioning.

It won't be all rah-rah and "how wonderful we are". It will also look at what it means to be Singaporean, whether we're headed in the right direction or not. I think we've grown up and are mature enough for that to be part of our celebrations.

What were some important events that shaped your sense of what it means to be Singaporean?

My childhood was different.

On the one hand, I had a privileged childhood. Both my parents were lawyers and we lived in a bungalow.

But because my father (the late Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, former chief of the Workers' Party and later, co-founder of the Reform Party) was an opposition politician, I had opportunities, which I might not otherwise have had, to meet ordinary people.

I can remember, at age eight, going to the Metal Box Company strike in 1972 (a three-day strike by 750 workers over a new salary scale) in Upper Bukit Timah.

I would do constituency walkabouts with my dad, follow him up and down the blocks of Telok Blangah and Radin Mas, so my sense of the nation was very much shaped by that as well. Some of the one-room flats then were pretty grim. That took me out of my shell, my comfort zone and made me feel very much a part of Singapore.

I would attend my father's rallies, listen to him speak, watch people put him on their shoulders and ferry him around.

I appreciated how dedicated my father was and how people responded to him. That made a big impression on me.

You were born in 1964 and are almost the same age as our country. You've grown up just as our nation has progressed. How has your perception of the Singapore identity changed over the years?

The biggest change has been this - our identity as a global city. But let me also put in a little bit of a longer historical context.

Singapore in the 1970s was a lot less global. It was a time when if you think about the physical geography of Singapore - even the sea - whenever people built anything they'd be looking back into the land. It was only later that people began to look outward.

There's also the people.

Today, Singapore has so many people other than the traditional Singaporean communities, and that in itself has brought us to this stage - where one of the issues for our own sense of ourselves is: Do we see ourselves first and foremost as a global city like London or New York? Or do we have some other conception of ourselves?

For me, when we consider this question, we shouldn't just think back to the 1970s, which I think tends to lead people into a sense of angst; they're worried because it seems so different from what things were like then.

But if you think back to the 1930s, further back to the 1890s, in many ways Singapore was already a global city.

You had many people from different places coming to Singapore - people such as Sun Yat Sen and Ho Chi Minh. These revolutionaries would have come to Singapore and found it a welcoming place because it was open.

When we think about what Singapore is, what Singapore is meant to be, if you think about Singapore in this longer period of time, it actually does make cultural sense for us to be a global city.

There were some 11,000 suggestions from the public on how to celebrate SG50. What are some ideas that left a big impression on you?

There's quite a few. One came from Siti Azmirah, 28, who suggested a giant potluck with neighbours while celebrating the nation's birthday.

This fits with a project planned and led by the Singapore Kindness Movement, which is spearheading a movement to encourage people to lead and organise Let's Makan potluck sessions.

The aim is to build neighbourliness through the sharing of home-cooked dishes and to broaden the circle of friends in neighbourhoods over time.

When you organise something or are involved in the organising of it, you take ownership of it.

Have you ever initiated a small celebration of your own for National Day?

When I was 21, I was back in Singapore on holiday (he was studying law at Cambridge University in England). I thought why not have a National Day party? It was quite unusual at the time.

Most of the friends I invited went "What's this?" when I asked them to dress in red and white (laughs). I suppose, strangely, I've always been a patriotic sort of person, but I also thought it would be fun.

Was it a success?

It was moderately successful.

It's reminiscent of the ground-up community celebration ideas the SG50 team is encouraging. Do you hope to see something similar in some of the community programmes?

It's very much something that I hope will happen and this potluck in the neighbourhood is an example. If you look at the United States and its celebration of the 4th of July, people do exactly that. They have barbecues and it can be with neighbours or friends.

I think the more this idea catches on, the better. It's something Singaporeans overseas have begun to do. Some embassies will host events, but even if there's no embassy, you could have your own National Day party.

You turned 50 this year. Has it also been a point of reckoning for you?

One way of looking at growing older is that you reach a point where you can express your true self more. A lot of one's youth years involves dealing with expectations and internalising many of those expectations.

So the middle age can often be more productive and more creative in the sense of expressing yourself. You've gone past the self-consciousness and the fears of youth and are able to see things more clearly as you have more experience.

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