I am saddened by the news that JB Jeyaretnam died of heart failure at the age of 82 yesterday. Whatever his politics, no one can deny his courage and self-sacrifice. Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam could have made a fortune as a lawyer. Instead, “he fought a long and lonely campaign for greater political freedom in the tightly governed city state” of Singapore, reports AFP.
Dubbed the Grand Old Man of Singapore opposition politics, according to the BBC, he did not give up his struggle even after being bankrupted by costly defamation suits brought by members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
He represented not just a different viewpoint in politics but set a different example in his personal life as well.
While Singapore’s ministers are paid million-dollar salaries on the grounds that top dollar has to be paid to attract top talent to public service, JBJ, as he was fondly known, a British-trained lawyer, remained in politics despite the high price he paid for it.
It shows his indomitable spirit that, after being discharged as a bankrupt last year, he was still working as a lawyer and had a business meeting the day before he died.
We will never know if, had he succeeded in politics, Singapore would have enjoyed the peace, prosperity and stability it has found under PAP rule, which has made it one of the richest countries in Asia. But it’s impossible not to feel at least a grudging admiration for a man who had to:
- sell his house in Singapore
- pay more than $900,000 in damages and court costs according to news services
- leave the opposition Workers Party he had once led
- and yet returned to politics, forming the small Reform Party earlier this year with plans to fight the next election in 2011
What his critics say
JBJ — the first opposition politician elected to parliament in 1981, 16 years after independence — helped “neither to build up a constructive opposition nor our parliamentary tradition”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a condolence letter to JBJ’s sons, Kenneth and Philip Jeyaretnam.
The letter, duly published by the local media, scored a political point. PM Lee reminded Kenneth that when he had complained he couldn't get any job in Singapore because of his father’s politics, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong had written a letter asking prospective employers to consider him on his own merits and had also invited his brother, Philip, “to lunch”. “I am therefore happy that both of you have established yourselves in Singapore,” PM Lee wrote.
Former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock referred to JBJ’s battles with PM Lee’s father — Singapore’s first prime minister and current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew:
“In Parliament, he was concentrating on Lee Kuan Yew. He wasn’t at all interested in discussing or engaging a debate with us.The saddest thing I noticed about JBJ was that he was so obsessed only about one particular subject – human rights and rights of parliamentary democracy.”
What others say
JBJ was concerned about poorer Singaporeans too, according to others. His death was reported by the international media.
He lost his seat in parliament twice as a result of legal actions — and when the legal expenses bankrupted him in 2001, he was barred from politics until he cleared his debts last year, noted the International Herald Tribune. The journalist, Seth Mydans, recalled a memorable quote:
"It would be terribly funny if it weren't tragic for me," he said in
an interview at the time. "A lot of people tell me: 'Why do you carry
on? It's hopeless in this place. Why do you sacrifice yourself,
suffering all this pain?' Not that I suffer that much."
"Funnily enough, I enjoy the fight," he said. "It's true. And if I had to give it up, I wouldn't know what to do."
The Financial Times notes his influence on Singapore politics:
The problems caused by Mr Jeyaretnam’s tactics led his successors in
the Workers’ Party to take a more moderate approach. The party has one
elected member and one non-voting one in parliament. Mr Lee says they
are “responsible” opposition politicians.
However, Chee Soon
Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic party, has followed Mr
Jeyaretnam’s lead by promoting the use of civil disobedience. He has
been sued several times by top officials and cannot stand for office
after being declared bankrupt for refusing to pay damages to them.
The Associated Press reports:
In recent years, Jeyaretnam — once a wealthy, flamboyant and high-profile lawyer — had stood on street corners and outside subway stations to peddle his own books about Singapore politics because no retailer would stock them.
Jeyaretnam's one-man street sales were a striking commentary on the iron-fisted control that the ruling People's Action Party wields over Singapore.
The book sales were also meant to raise money to help pay off damages stemming from defamation suits Jeyaretnam lost to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee's father and Singapore's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime ministers Goh Chok Tong, and others.
"It's a very heavy price I have paid" for taking on the government, Jeyaretnam, the first opposition member to be elected to Parliament, told The Associated Press recently…
Jeyaretnam served as a member of parliament from 1981 to 1986 and from 1997 to 2001 for the Workers' Party, which he founded. He left the party in 2001 and helped form the Reform Party this year. He was planning to run in the next parliament election, due by 2011.
Jeyaretnam, whose thick white whiskers and misty eyes made him instantly recognizable, often faced jeers and catcalls in Parliament from the ruling People's Action Party, whose members have always vastly outnumbered the opposition.
At present, the opposition holds two out of 84 elected seats in Parliament.
The PAP has ruled Singapore since independence from Malaysia in 1965. Although it has provided a high standard of living and prosperity to Singapore's 4.5 million people, the government is often accused of stifling civil liberties, freedom of speech and political space.
A socialist at heart, Jeyaretnam contended that the government's economic policies created a wealthy upper class and an underbelly of poor citizens who have to work twice as hard to survive. He also often railed against what he called the "Lee dynasty," a reference to Lee Kuan Yew and his prime minister son.
Jeyaretnam's views inevitably got him into trouble with the Lees and other government leaders who frequently sued him for defamation. He said he had lost count of how many times he had been sued — and lost.
He estimated that he paid out more than S$1.6 million (US$925,000) in damages and court costs over the years.
After losing the last defamation case, Jeyaretnam declared bankruptcy in 2001, unable to pay the fine of about US$367,000 in damages stemming from defamation lawsuits brought by the two Lees and Goh.
He was found guilty of defaming them at a 1997 election rally, when he said a colleague had filed a police report accusing the ruling party leaders of defamation. Jeyaretnam emerged from bankruptcy last year.
"Outside of Singapore … Jeyaretnam's allegedly defamatory words would not have excited comment – let alone prompted actions of this kind," Amnesty International said at the time.
The government argues that such defamation suits are necessary to uphold the integrity of its leaders, saying any aspersions on their character would reduce the respect they command and hence compromise their ability to govern the fragile multiracial society properly.
An Anglican Christian of Sri Lankan Tamil decent, Jeyaretnam attended Saint Andrew's School in Singapore and University College London where he earned a bachelor's degree in law.
His wife, Margaret, whom he had met when they were law students in Britain, died of breast cancer a year before he was elected to Parliament in 1981.