Lee’s Law : JBJ’s Legacy

August 28, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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This is the third and final instalment of our excerpts from ‘Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent’ by Chris Lydgate.

On the 23rd of July 2001, JB Jeyeretnam appeared before the Court of Appeal in his final attempt to stave off bankruptcy and hang on to his NCMP seat in Parliament.

Jeyeretnam begged the court to reverse the bankruptcy order. “It’s a scene straight from the Merchant of Venice,” Jeyeretnam told the three-judge panel.”There was Shylock demanding his pound of flesh. He didn’t want the money …just an order of bankruptcy.”

Then the chief justice announced their verdict. The decision was unanimous. Jeyeretnam’s appeal was rejected. He had lost. He was bankrupt -finally, irrevocably, bankrupt.

Jeyeretnam was stunned. Despite his almost unbroken string of defeat in the courtrooms of Singapore, he had been certain the justices would see through (Davindar) Singh’s arguments.

I was disgusted, really shaken by the decision. The court couldn’t see that the bankruptcy proceedings were brought solely for the purpose of taking me out of parliament. That was the whole plan, executed with vigour by Davindar Singh. But the courts couldn’t see that. Less than one day late! I was shocked – dazed. Where am I going to go from here? That was the end of the road. It was terrible.

His eyes glistening with disappointment, Jeyeretnam turned to walk down the steps of the courthouse into the blistering heat. After 30 years as the leader of the opposition, he had nothing – bankrupt, isolated from his party, no longer licensed to practise law. His ejection from parliament was now a mere formality.

Everything that had given his life purpose – the lofty speeches in parliament, the cut and thrust of courtroom debate, the political platforms, the press conferences – had now crumbled. His health fading and his steps faltering, even his luxuriant muttonchops seemed to wilt. The man who smiled for the cameras while he was dissected by the Committee of Privileges, the man who saluted his supporters as he was driven off to prison, could no longer muster any words of hope. In a telephone conversation, the despair crept into his voice:

“I’m shattered … I have to think hard and long … 31 years .. But now, you see … there’s very little I can do having been declared a bankrupt. They can be very nasty to me now … It’s terrible. You’re made to feel like a man who’s caught the plague.”

With his last appeal exhausted, Jeyeretnam had to give up the most precious thing of all – his seat in parliament. There was no ceremony. When parliament met on the following day, Speaker Tan Soo Khoon read out a terse notice:

The seat of JB Jeyeretnam has been vacant with effect from July 23, 2001.

Jeyeretnam’s political career was over.

What had he accomplished? In 30 years, he had not passed a single piece of legislation. The PAP was more firmly entrenched than ever, while the opposition lay in hopeless disarray. The Internal Security Act remained in place. Trial by jury was a fading memory. The links to the Privy Court had been severed. Singapore had become an increasingly materialistic society, even as the gap between the rich and poor widened.

His concrete achievements were so few that Lee Kuan Yew arily dismisssed Jeyeretnam as an ineffectual gadfly:

“Jeyaretnam was all sound and fury. He made wild allegations of police high-handedness and repeated every grievance disgruntled people channeled through him without checking the facts. That he had no principled stand suited us, because he was unlikely to become a credible alternative. I decided he was useful as a sparring partner for the new MPs who had not gone through the fight with the communists and the UMNO Ultras. Besides, he filled up space on the opposition side of the political arena and probably kept better opponents out. His weakness was his sloppiness. He rambled on and on, his speeches were apparently unprepared. When challenged on the detailed facts, he crumbled…Jeyeretnam was a poseur, always seeking publicity, good or bad. (Source : Lee Kuan Yew: From Third World To First pg.124-5)

It is pointless to search for Jeyeretnam’s accomplishments in the realm of the concrete. His achievements were set in a far more durable medium: the hearts and minds of the people of Singapore. Despite the odds against him – indeed, because of the odds against him – he inspired a generation of Singaporeans who for years had bitten their tongues and held their breath.

Lee got it partly right. Starved of resources, Jeyeretnam was disorganised in parliament. Surrounded by injustice, he did dissipate his energies. In a sense, he was a publicity-seeker, trying desperately to focus attention on the plight of the poor and the downtrodden, only to find the spotlight reflected back at him.

But Lee’s backhanded slap at Jeyeretnam’s principles was a low blow. Principles were practically the only thing Jeyeretnam did have. His stubborn loyalty to his principles, long after they had gone out of fashion, was the reason he jumped into the political arena in the first place, and the reason he soldiered on alone, battered and bleeding, for 30 years. Principles were what gave Jeyeretnam his strength and his courage. The people, he felt, had chosen him as their champion. He would not, could not, abandon them.

A reporter who followed him around on his errands would find his notebook littered with admiring quotes:

“For 20 years, nobody stood up, but JBJ did. I think we owe him something, collectively, as a nation. Whether he is right or wrong, just the fact that he stood up – we owe him for that.”

“He’s doing this for me – for all of us. He stood up when I should have stood up.”

There is no need to conjure up dark conspiracies in order to understand what happened to Jeyeretnam. The conspiracy was out in the open. Lee had vowed, in public, to destroy him. Like a colony of honeybees attacking an intruder, a deadly swarm of ministers, bureaucrats, prosecutors, lawyers, and journalists descended on Jeyeretnam with an apian savagery.

It was, however, a pyrrhic victory for the PAP. Jeyeretnam’s primary transgression was to accuse the government of running an ornamental democracy. Ironically, the PAP’s scorched-earth tactics only made Jeyeretnam’s case more convincing.

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What the critics say
A splendid account…Lydgate does an excellent job of exposing the dangers that restrictive libel laws…pose to democratic freedoms…It would be nice to think that Singaporeans could read this foreigners account of their history, and make up their own minds. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, the government will do that for them.
Christopher Kremmer, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 22, 2003.

Lydgate demonstrates that the misuse of democratic power can be as brutal and suppressive as a dictatorship.
Patrick Cullen, Newcastle Herald, March 29, 2003

“Can the concept of democracy be effectively transferred to countries with little experience of its workings? That question has been lurking in the international background since the founding of the United Nations, and may well be driven to the surface by the current terrorist scenario. Dividing the world into good and bad on the basis of countries’ institutions is easy to attempt, but not so easy to achieve. Singapore is a prime example of the difficulty of applying such a test, and Chris Lydgate’s account of how one man was broken by the methods it used shows that governments can silence dissent quite efficiently without attracting outright condemnation This is an important and well-researched book.”
Canberra Times, March 29, 2003