It is quite something to be in a room full of white-haired men and women, to watch them all greeting each other like the old friends that they were, and to realise: These were the ones who showed up. These were the ones who were lithe and eager young Malayans 50 years ago, who thought and talked about politics and showed up for meetings and rallies, in an age before cell phones or Facebook or the Public Order Act.
Some of them were also the ones who were arrested and/or detained under the Internal Security Act in 1963 and thereafter.
The occasion was the book launch for The Fajar Generation two Saturdays ago, and since then this video of a speech made at the event by Dr Lim Hock Siew --- Singapore's second-longest detainee to be held without being charged --- has been making the rounds.
I don't know what I expected when I decided to attend the book launch, other than to get my hands on a copy of the book. But hearing Dr Lim and others speak, and looking around at all the white-haired and still energetic individuals in the room, I couldn't help wondering --- in a rhetorical fashion --- why I was one of the youngest people there and where all the young people today were. Just a few nights earlier at a screening organised by MARUAH, I'd seen Burma VJ, which captures how in 2007 independent Myanmar journalists, monks and ordinary people all showed up, in the streets, where it mattered, at tremendous risk to their own lives.
During the question and answer session that followed, someone asked Dr Lim what he thought it would take for young people in Singapore to be politically active again. His answer was short: "Remove the Internal Security Act." That's certainly part of the problem, contributing to the culture of fear, but after 50 years, I think it's going to take more than that for a real political culture to germinate afresh in Singapore.
Edited to add (14 July 2010):
The video of Dr Lim's speech embedded above has been banned by the Singapore government. On 12 July 2010 the filmmaker Martyn See was ordered to take down all digital copies of the film on YouTube and on his blog. If you haven't seen it, a transcript is available at Barnyard Chorus. (Don't even get me started on why the speech in one medium is banned and not in another. As former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong says, censorship is evil.)
Labels: Singapore stories