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Lawyer and activist, he was for many years the only political opposition to Singapore’s rulers
Joshua “Ben” Jeyaretnam, who has died aged 82, was for many years Singapore’s only political opposition, standing courageously for universal values of fairness and free speech against Lee Kuan Yew’s “Asian values” of hierarchical order, public submissiveness and government by the fittest – that is himself, his son and his People’s Action party (PAP). Jeyaretnam, as leader of the Workers’ party, was regularly persecuted, briefly imprisoned and ultimately bankrupted by colonial libel and contempt laws, but he continued his struggle to make Singapore a more open society.
Born into an Anglican family of Christian-Tamil descent in then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he was educated at St Andrew’s school, Singapore, during the Japanese occupation and won, via a correspondence course, a place to study law at University College London. There, a lecture by Nye Bevan inspired his early socialist beliefs. They were put on hold while he developed a successful legal practice back in Singapore, where he became increasingly angered by the PAP government’s attacks on trade unions. So in 1971 he made his political move, joining the Workers’ party, which was at that time moribund through lack of effective leadership.
His first electoral attempts failed, but his mild criticisms of the government, delivered in a deep and booming voice from the hustings, infuriated Lee Kuan Yew, who in 1978 attempted to crush him with a libel case. In court, with the help of his wife, dying of cancer, and of John Mortimer QC acting pro bono, Ben survived, albeit much poorer from the libel damages, to fight another day. That day came in 1981, when the electors of the constituency of Anson stood up to PAP threats to cut their public utilities and elected Ben as Singapore’s first opposition MP.
This victory was the trigger for a long-running campaign to diminish and then destroy him. He was forced to pay the Kuan Yews and other PAP grandees for criticisms that would scarcely raise eyebrows in real democracies, and was fined for contempt of parliament for making allegations of the kind commonly made by MPs in other countries: he estimated he had paid out more than 1.6m Singapore dollars in damages and costs. His bankruptcies disqualified him for several periods from parliament and no shops would stock his books: he was forced to sell them on street corners.
Ironically, it was the PAP government’s obsession with destroying – rather than merely defeating – its opponents which led it to overplay its hand. Not content with having him convicted, bankrupted, and expelled from parliament, its obsession with humiliating him led it in 1987 to take away his right to practise law. But it failed to notice an obscure clause in the Legal Practitioners Act, which permitted an appeal by a debarred solicitor to the privy council in London.
It was there that the whole trumped-up series of charges against Ben unravelled. The English law lords reviewed the case and voiced a devastating condemnation of the Singapore judges who had handled it, expressing “deep disquiet that by a series of misjudgments” Ben and his co-accused had suffered a grievous injustice.
The Singapore government responded by abolishing all appeals to the privy council, and still adamantly refuses to sign any human rights treaty which would permit any more decisions of its courts to be appealed to an international tribunal. But the privy council judgment in Jeyaretnam’s case still resounds, as a warning to other judges tempted to fail in their task of standing up for the subject against the state.
For the last 40 years, Ben pointed out Singapore’s democratic deficit. His speeches were not properly reported in the Straits Times, and any foreign newspaper that interviewed him risked having its circulation cut to 400 copies and sold only in tourist hotels. His voice was loudest in 1988 when Lee and son (the latter as home affairs minister) detained for two years without trial 20 young Catholic youth workers, lawyers and playwrights accused of participation in a “Marxist plot”.
They were tortured by use of what Lee junior (now Singapore’s prime minister) described as “psychological pressure” to extract confessions – dressed in cotton pyjamas, they were blasted for hours with freezing cold air conditioners. With organisations such as Amnesty banned from Singapore, Ben’s voice was important in exposing the cruelty of their treatment.
Ben felt that many western criticisms of Singapore were misplaced. They focused on laws against jay-walking, urinating in public and dropping chewing gum wrappers. The real concern was that the PAP had turned the city state into an ersatz democracy by suppressing well-intentioned dissent, and even the reporting of such dissent, in order to maintain its monopoly of power. His views were set out in a book in 2003 by Chris Lydgate that serves as his biography: Lee’s Law – How Singapore Crushes Dissent.
Ben was never in any realistic sense Lee’s rival for national leadership. With his tailored waistcoat, watch chain and mutton-chop whiskers, he looked the model of a Gladstonian Liberal, but voters who wanted their monorails to run on time preferred PAP precision to the shambolic Workers’ party. Nonetheless, the persecution he stoically suffered gave his life a significance it would not otherwise have had.
The PAP, which has ruled Singapore since 1965, still holds 82 of the 84 elected seats in parliament. Ben lost his seat in 2001, bankrupt again because he could not pay another $367,000 libel judgment to Lee and son.
However, on emerging from bankruptcy earlier this year, he helped to form the Reform party and announced that he would once again stand for parliament, in an attempt to give Singapore “rights that are most essential to our well-being: the right to speak up freely, the right to tell the government that the way things are going is wrong”.
Ben’s wife, Margaret, whom he met when studying law in London, died in 1980. He is survived by two sons, Kenneth, an economist, and Philip, a poet and president of the Law Society of Singapore. The privy council’s recommendation that the Singapore government make amends for his wrongful conviction has, of course, been ignored.
A future generation will understand that Ben deserves not only to be pardoned, but to be honoured.
Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, lawyer and politician, born January 5 1926; died September 30 2008