2 July 2003
His booming voice once reverberated through the Parliament chamber, hounding Singapore’s founding father in debates over the state of government coffers, civil liberties and other matters.
These days, 77-year-old Joshua “J.B.” Jeyaretnam is reduced to hawking his own books on street corners after being declared bankrupt and losing his legislative seat in this Southeast Asian city-state.
He can no longer battle former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew face to face.
Instead he does it in front of ultra-modern buildings by cajoling people to read his books on what he sees as the island’s problems – “Make It Right for Singapore” and the recently released “Hatchet Man of Singapore.”
“Speak up! Don’t be afraid!” the slightly hunched Jeyaretnam, book in hand, tells lunchtime shoppers downtown.
Once a wealthy lawyer with a stately home in an upper-class district, he now lives with his sister in a bungalow past its prime in neighboring Malaysia.
He told The Associated Press that “Hatchet Man” is selling well on street corners, with as many as 10 books sold every time he heads out.
An initial print run of 2,000 copies is almost gone, he said.
With his election in 1981, Jeyaretnam became the first opposition politician to serve in Parliament since Singapore’s independence from Britain in 1965.
He led the attack on what some people consider the heavy hand of the People’s Action Party in its long governance of Singapore, which is known for prosperity coupled with a strictly enforced social order.
But numerous defamation suits filed by Singapore’s government leaders and the People’s Action Party drove Jeyaretnam into bankruptcy.
Human rights group contend the government uses tough defamation laws to try to silence criticism from Jeyaretnam and others. Singapore’s leaders say the lawsuits are necessary to defend their reputations against untrue remarks.
Lee is no longer prime minister but wields considerable influence under the title of senior minister.
His business and political acumen turned the malaria-infested island into a gleaming high-tech powerhouse.
But growth has come at a price, say critics, who argue that there is not enough room for dissent in the city-state of 4 million people.
Singaporeans enjoy one of Asia’s highest standards of living but live under some of the world’s strictest laws.
The sale of chewing gum is banned, and people are fined for spitting and not flushing public toilets.
Despite his travails, Jeyaretnam remains a persistent voice of opposition.
“My main intention is to get back in Parliament and fight for human rights again,” he said. “I can still fight, but first I need to settle my debts,” he added.
He was alluding to 500,000 Singapore dollars (US$290,000) in damages and legal costs stemming from a 1995 defamation suit lodged by members of the People’s Action Party.
He missed one payment, declared bankruptcy and is using proceeds from the sale of his books to pay off debts from that case.
Jeyaretnam estimates he has paid out over 1.6 million Singapore dollars (US$925,000) in damages and court costs to the ruling party over the years.
The government’s critics say the pace of liberalization is glacially slow, although some people have been heartened by a loosening of the official grip in recent years.
For instance, two years ago, officials allowed an unprecedented opposition rally in support of Jeyaretnam that drew about 2,000 people.
Previously, the government had banned such rallies, saying they could pose law and order problems.
Officials are experimenting with allowing artists a freer hand.
The government also has opened a Speakers’ Corner in a park where Singaporeans can for the first time speak publicly without obtaining a permit from police.
The area isn’t without rules, however. Topics like religion and race remain taboo, to avoid possibly inflaming divisions in the ethnically diverse state.
Also, speakers must register at a nearby police station, no public address systems are allowed, and all speeches must finish by 7 p.m.
Jeyaretnam isn’t impressed. He said he no longer would “help the government justify its free speech claims” by going to Speaker’s Corner.
In 1979, Lee successfully sued Jeyaretnam for libel over an election speech that Lee argued was defamatory.
Eighteen years later, with several other lawsuits in between, Jeyaretnam was sued by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong; Lee; Lee’s son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; and other ruling party leaders for alleged defamatory comments made during a 1997 election rally.
“I think Lee was not content to defeat Jeyaretnam but was obsessed with destroying him,” said Chris Lydgate, a former foreign correspondent in Singapore and author of a recently published book, “Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent.”
“Outsiders have no idea about the state of the libel and defamation laws here – no idea how those laws strangle robust debate about political issues,” Lydgate said.