By John Burton
4 May 2004
J.B. Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s most prominent opposition politician, yesterday said he would appeal against a recent court decision that would bar him from standing in the next general election.
Mr Jeyaretnam, 78, has been entrapped in a welter of libel suits filed by leading government officials for more than 20 years after he broke the parliamentary monopoly enjoyed by Singapore’s long-ruling People’s Action party (PAP) by winning a seat in 1981. His inability to pay libel damages resulted in his being declared a bankrupt in 2001 and stripped of his non-voting parliamentary seat under Singapore law, which bars a bankrupt individual from holding political office.
In the latest round of his legal battle, a court last week dismissed his application for a discharge from bankruptcy status after lawyers for his creditors rejected his offer to pay 20 per cent of the S$600,000 he still owes from one of several libel cases.
The US State Department, in its annual human rights reports, has criticised Singapore for using libel suits to silence and, in effect, remove political opposition through bankruptcy proceedings.
PAP leaders say the lawsuits are necessary to protect their reputations, with the proceeds donated to charity. Mr Jeyaretnam, who has been forced to sell books of his parliamentary speeches on street corners to help settle debts since he was denied the right to practise law, has estimated he has paid S$1.6m in damages and court costs over the years to PAP leaders.
He still owes money to Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister, and S. Jayakumar, the foreign minister, for other defamation lawsuits.
“My goal is to try and contest the next general election. This is no secret and I have said before that I am totally committed to the political cause,” Mr Jeyaretnam told Today, a local newspaper, last week. The next election has to be held before mid-2007.
Mr Jeyaretnam’s political career has been dogged by legal troubles. After being elected to parliament in 1981 and 1984, he was barred from standing in 1988 after being convicted of fraud involving funds from his Workers’ party. He returned as a non-voting member in 1997, but was evicted in 2001 when he was declared bankrupt after he missed a payment by one day to several defendants who had successfully sued him for an article that had appeared in his party’s newspaper.
It is from that case Mr Jeyaretnam is seeking to end his bankruptcy status. Other leading opposition leaders have also run foul of Singapore’s libel laws. Chee Soon Juan, who led the Singapore Democratic party in the last election in 2001, was declared bankrupt after he failed to pay libel damages to Lee Kuan Yew, the PAP founder, and Mr Goh for remarks he made during the campaign.
Critics charge that the government’s frequent use of libel laws against prominent opponents has made it difficult for the opposition to attract capable leaders.