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Wall Street Journal Asia
Singapore lost a man yesterday whose life reflected the best of the city-state. He suffered under the Japanese World War II occupation of the island; earned a place at the British bar; devoted himself to his work, family and faith; and forewent personal wealth to fight for democratic ideals in public office.
No, we’re not talking about the country’s founder and longtime Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, for whom much of the above is true. Yesterday Singapore lost its pre-eminent opposition leader, Joshua B. Jeyaretnam.
The ruling People’s Action Party liked to paint Mr. Jeyaretnam as a communist, but he was more a moderate social democrat who spoke of his “calling as a Christian” and talked of “social justice.” His economic ideas — a welfare state and a minimum wage — struck a chord among some voters, as did his message that an overcentralized government could be harmful.
“JBJ” entered politics in Singapore in 1971, when he joined the Workers’ Party. At the time, he was a wealthy lawyer who vacationed in Europe and had a maid and driver. He contested the 1972 and 1976 elections and lost to the PAP, which held every seat in Parliament.
Mr. Jeyaretnam soon had his first legal run-in with the PAP. In 1976, he lost a defamation suit brought by Mr. Lee over a speech the opposition leader gave at a campaign rally. To pay the damages, Mr. Jeyaretnam sold his house and moved into a rented apartment.
Over the years he was repeatedly sued by PAP leaders, and repeatedly bankrupted as a result of the judgments against him. But the convictions didn’t stop him from winning public office, which he did in 1981, becoming the sole opposition MP elected to Parliament, and again in 1984 and 1997.
During a 1986 inquiry into whether he had violated parliamentary privilege by questioning the integrity of judges, Mr. Jeyaretnam asked Mr. Lee, “So, do you think I have to be destroyed?” “Politically, yes,” Mr. Lee responded. In his autobiography, Mr. Lee called his old opponent “a poseur, always seeking publicity, good or bad.”
Mr. Jeyaretnam lost his seat in 1986 and was disbarred after being convicted of mishandling party funds. In 1988, the Privy Council in London overturned Mr. Jeyaretnam’s disbarment, concluding that through a series of “misjudgements” Mr. Jeyaretnam had suffered “grevious injustice.” The Law Lords found that JBJ and a colleague “have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they were not guilty.” In 2001, JBJ lost another libel suit, became bankrupt, and was disqualified from running for re-election to Parliament.
Yet to the end, Mr. Jeyaretnam was never cowed by a fight. When he paid off his debts last year, he was readmitted to the bar and soon took on controversial cases, including the defense of another opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, who, like JBJ, had lost a defamation suit brought by Mr. Lee.
Mr. Jeyaretnam leaves behind a small group of opposition leaders, including two members of Parliament and a rowdy blogosphere of Singaporeans who agitate for more freedoms.
At the time of his death, Mr. Jeyaretnam, who was 82, was gearing up to contest for office again. At a press conference in April to announce the news, he said: “We are just beginning!”
Death of Singaporean maverick
The death on Tuesday of J.B. Jeyaretnam has left Singapore devoid of one of its most prominent forces in the opposition.
Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, who died of heart failure at age 82, had been planning a political comeback after years of fighting defamation lawsuits by senior government officials that left him bankrupt and hawking books of his speeches at street corners to help pay damages.
His treatment by the government after he broke the monopoly of the long-ruling People’s Action party in parliament in 1981 has since been repeated on other opposition politicians.
A British-trained lawyer, Mr Jeyaretnam criticised a political system in which some civil liberties were suppressed in the name of promoting social harmony in the multi-ethnic state.
”Even though I did not agree with his political cause, I respect his fighting spirit to advance it and his willingness to pay a price for it,” said Goh Chok Tong, a former prime minister.
Lee Kuan Yew, the Cambridge-trained lawyer who brought the PAP to power in 1959 and still serves in the cabinet, once dismissed Mr Jeyaretnam as a “poseur, always seeking publicity, good or bad”.
Mr Jeyaretnam began his political career by trying to revive the Workers’ party, the political vehicle of David Marshall, Singapore’s first prime minister in the mid-1950s.
He stood in a by-election in 1981 and to the surprise of many became the first time opposition politician to enter parliament since 1968.
The victory came as Singapore’s growing prosperity brought with it the rise of a middle-class that appeared to want a relaxation of political controls. In response, the PAP defended the political system by saying it was based on “Asian values” that favoured social stability over the rights of individuals.
Shortly after being re-elected in 1984, Mr Jeyaretnam was convicted of mis-stating his party accounts and barred from standing for election for five years. He was also disbarred and appealed to the Privy Council in the UK, which ruled in his favour. Singapore then restricted the use of judicial appeals to the Privy Council.
In 1997, he returned to parliament as a non-voting member as he fought defamation suits filed by Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. He lost the libel cases and was declared bankrupt in 2001 for failing to make payments for damages on time, which again barred him from political office.
It was only in the past year that he was declared to have settled his debts, and in June he formed the Reform party, which planned to contest the next election by 2011.
“Mr Jeyaretnam showed the importance of having an opposition party . . . in spite of the PAP’s record of delivering good governance since he served the role of helping provide checks and balances,” said Gillian Koh at the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore. In spite of his legal troubles, his son, Philip, later served as head of Singapore’s Law Society.
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.