Before my grandfather passed away in 2008, once a month, my family and I would pack three small bags and make the one-and-a-half-hour drive from Singapore to my grandfather’s house in Johor Bahru (JB), Malaysia. My dad would drive, my mother calling out directions from the passenger seat with a map spread across her lap, despite the fact that GPS was fairly common by then and the drive was so familiar. My brothers and I sandwiched ourselves in the backseat and invented games along the way, stirring up enough commotion to anger our parents.
Going to my grandfather’s house once a month showed me the importance of always looking into my past. This is something that I have tried to make a part of my Yale experience, and that you should, too. In looking back, we give power to those who are no longer here and we ensure that their lives were not lived in vain.
In spite of its proximity, JB’s landscape is vastly different from that of Singapore. My grandfather’s house, a small, low-ceilinged one-floor bungalow, occupied a plot of land with a small garden, a low wire fence and a rusty metal gate that usually remained open, features in stark contrast to the securely guarded, high-rise condominiums or the dense public housing in Singapore.
Today, my mother keeps an incredibly well-organized collection of photo albums. Going by year, I can see a series of glossy photos of my grandfather with my brothers and me through the ages, sitting on an aging brown leather couch, the egg-white walls of the house crinkled like a crumpled piece of paper. For me, looking at these old photos felt like something we so often fail to do during our hectic lives at Yale: taking stock of where we come from and what our pasts hold.
I remember always being fascinated by the adults’ conversation, even though it was somewhat lost on me. I understood vaguely that my grandfather was an opposition politician in Singapore, and this was a fact I boasted proudly about in primary school. But I knew only enough to confirm to adults that yes, indeed, I am related to the J.B. Jeyaretnam — I am, in fact, his granddaughter. By slowly learning about my family’s history, I was able to develop my own identity and sense of self.
Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, also known as JBJ, was a formidable figure in Singapore, a country that since its independence in 1965 has had no change in government, and whose first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, also referred to as LKY, reigned for three decades. JBJ was the first opposition politician to be elected as a member of parliament in 1981.
In digging into my grandfather’s history, I developed a new sense of who I am, too. In later years, I became more politically engaged, and my understanding of that house in Johor Bahru changed. I used to wonder why my grandfather lived outside of Singapore. In my childhood, I thought that he lived in JB (Johor Bahru) because his own initials were J.B. I now think that his move was born out of a sense of exile and necessity. The multiple defamation suits taken up against him by members of the People’s Action Party (the ruling party with LKY as its leader) had reduced my grandfather to bankruptcy and the cost of living in Malaysia was much cheaper.
And yet, when he did return to Singapore, taxi drivers would give him free rides and members of the older generation would approach him to shake his hand. Grandpa was a hero in the eyes of many. People respected him for his indomitable courage, his willingness to fight for the underdog and his refusal to be cowed by a harshly authoritarian system that would brook no dissent. Hearing about his life has given me newfound strength as I become politically active myself, helping me learn to question the historical narratives I was taught in school.
By taking on the establishment, my grandfather immediately became a social outcast. Indeed, there was a time not too long ago when my father, a fresh law graduate from Cambridge with first-class honours, was shunned by law firms for being the son of JBJ. Many Singaporeans would lower their voices to a hush whenever they mentioned the surname Jeyaretnam or said anything critical of the government. My mother recalls an occasion in which a good friend of hers cancelled a dinner engagement with her and my dad because the friend’s parents had gone into a panic after finding out who would be at the dinner.
After my grandfaters’ death, no one could decide what to do with the house. There was talk of making it a small museum, some way of memorializing my grandfather, but it never came to fruition. I did not see that house for years after Grandpa died. When I did, it was much smaller than in my memory, further dwarfed by the overgrowth of weeds in the garden. The house was in a state of extreme neglect: dilapidated, paint peeling off the wall and the front door latch broken. My father mentioned that there were sometimes squatters or drug addicts who stayed in the unoccupied house.
In 2015, LKY passed away. Unlike my grandfather’s home, LKY’s house still stands undiminished in its glory. One house ruined by neglect, the other preserved for its legacy. If the houses carry the same weight as the great men who inhabited them, has my grandfather been forgotten? My only hope is that as much as LKY’s home is kept as a symbol of authority, a building that looms large and mighty, the public memory of my grandfather does not erode with the collapsing stucco walls of his house. In looking back on his life, I can channel his spirit and his work into how I carry myself every day.
For all of us at Yale, our histories can provide strength and meaning — as difficult or as messy as they can be to recover.
Miranda Jeyaretnam is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .