Two Fridays ago, I took a day off work and drove into Johor Baru with a friend. There, we ended up at a simple hotel with about 350 others. Many had travelled from Singapore in three chartered buses.
The event was the Sept 19 screening of To Singapore, With Love, a documentary film by Singaporean film-maker Tan Pin Pin. The 70-minute film tells the stories of nine people who fled Singapore in the 1960s to the 1980s, and lived in exile overseas.
The state considers some of them fugitives from justice. They view themselves as exiles, or as activists fighting for democracy and freedom. Some downplayed but a few were upfront about their communist links.
The screening was a charged event, because the film is banned in Singapore. The Media Development Authority (MDA) gave it "Not Allowed for All (NAR)" rating, which effectively bans the film from public screening.
The MDA says "the contents of the film undermine national security because legitimate actions of the security agencies to protect the national security and stability of Singapore are presented in a distorted way as acts that victimised innocent individuals".
Like some of the dissidents in the film who made use of Malaysia and Johor as a safe haven, the film-goers were sensitive to the poignancy of having to travel out of Singapore to watch a film banned in Singapore, and one titled To Singapore, With Love.
For me personally, it was a hat-trick of JB jaunts in pursuit of political hot potatoes.
In January 1991, I joined The Straits Times as a rookie reporter. A book highly critical of Singapore came out around then.
Singapore: The Ultimate Island (Lee Kuan Yew's Untold Story) was written by Singaporean T.S. Selvan, who published the book in Melbourne. The book was not available in Singapore, but was in the stores in JB.
I decided to write about it. After many phone calls and a trip to JB to interview booksellers, the article finally made it to print on April 1. It was a single column story on Page 22, nestled almost unnoticed among Tat Lee Bank ads and a big article on new identity cards.
But I was inordinately proud of it. It was the first "story idea" which was my own, which I had managed to pitch to my bosses.
The book was controversial but was not banned outright - distributors did not want to bring it in for fear of being stuck with unsold copies, in case it was banned.
That was my first encounter with JB as a safe haven of what's out-of-bounds in Singapore.
Then, in 1993, I went up to JB again, this time to meet a teacher. He had taught me in junior college. Then he retired and went back to England, where he got involved with local politics and with Amnesty International.
He told me he had been turned away from entering Singapore on one visit. So this time, he planned to visit friends in Sarawak and to stop over in JB to see Singapore friends.
A group of former students went to have dinner with him at a hotel across the Causeway. I was among them. I wanted to catch up with this ageing, much-loved teacher who had taught a bunch of restless 17-year-olds how to think, probe, and assess things critically.
Of course as we grew up intellectually, we started to use those skills against him. I, for one, came to see that his world view was not mine and that his views on Singapore were not always fair.
I had visited him and his wife at their home in England, and decided I would make the effort to travel to see him in JB.