In remembrance of a Singapore Patriot – Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (1926 – 2008)

Just another weblog

JBJ on the role of the judiaciary in relation to the executive

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 12, 2008

“Good government, Mr Speaker, Sir, requires that government acts in accordance with the law. Government is not above the law. No one is above the law in a coutnry which observes the rule of law.

In a civilized democratic country, if the government acted above the law or outside the law, then it ceases to be a democractic government subject to the rule of law and it becomes no better than a mafia government.

And any issue, whether the Government has acted under the law, must be determined by the Judiciary, not be the Executive. Otherwise, the Executivve becomes judge and jury, master in its own cause, decides what is the law and whether it has followed the law or not. that is not the case wheter the Rule of Law prevails and in a country which professes to practise Parliamentary democracy.

Parliamentary democracy, by its term, implies that Parliament shall be supreme and the Government shall act under the laws passed by Parliament and shall be accountable to Parliament, not act as a law unto itself. There are absolutely necessary if we are to have any transparency or accountability in our system of Government.”

– JBJ, in a speech to parliament, 1998



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Obituary: Joshua Jeyaretnam

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 11, 2008

Lawyer and activist, he was for many years the only political opposition to Singapore’s rulers

By Geoffrey Robertson

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

Source: The Guardian


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A revisionist death in Singapore

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 11, 2008

By Terence Chong

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the first opposition party candidate to be elected a member of parliament in Singapore, died of heart failure on September 30, aged 82. [1]

SINGAPORE – The passing of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s best-known opposition politician, may not have been psychologically seismic enough to prompt Singapore’s middle classes to search their souls, but it did offer an insight into how Singaporean institutions simultaneously constructed and sanitized his life for national memory.

Certainly, the manipulation of personal narratives by the state and its apparatuses is not new, a nation-building process that constructs heroes and demons for citizens to revere and despise. To this end, the way the Singapore media and some members of the government chose to interpret the live and ideology of JBJ, as he is fondly referred to, is a reflection of how it sees opposition politics, society and, ultimately, the Singapore nation.

Reading through the numerous media reports of plaudits and  memories that various prominent people have of JBJ, and the way his death was covered, it is clear how he was posthumously reconstructed: as a fighter, a man of idealism and passion, and one who never gave up no matter how insurmountable the obstacles or opponents.

Comments in the national broadsheet, The Straits Times, included quotes from the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP), one lawmaker observing that “He was like the Chinese doll, the bu dao weng – you knock him down, he comes back, you knock him down, he comes back up again.”

Another PAP parliamentarian noted, “I have admiration for people like him, a person who never gives up, a person who suffered for his convictions, and who goes down fighting all the way.” Why he needed to be knocked down over and over again, or go down fighting, was expediently left out of the reports.

A columnist of the same newspaper noted that “when both your friends and political enemies use the same descriptions of you, you can be sure they are true. In Mr Jeyaretnam’s case, sincerity, tenacity and courage are words many have used to describe him.” Other words that could have been cited include social justice, human rights, martyr and PAP hegemony, but you didn’t see them used in the media.

In a way, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s silence about JBJ’s death has been the most honest reaction so far. The mutual dislike between the two men was real, with Lee infamously promising to leave his rival on “bended knee”. Lee’s lack of a condolence message may seem uncharitable to some, but it is, at least, a dignified stance and more importantly spares JBJ’s family and Singaporeans a public display of crocodile tears.

Of course, if the construction of JBJ is but a careful cherry-picking of the man’s beliefs and actions, then his persona may have been turned into an ideological site to fulfill a specific purpose. In Singapore’s politics, despite the country’s economic success and material affluence, the one nagging concern amongst citizens and politicians alike has been the price of that success.

Political apathy, ignorance of national history, over-dependence on the state, and crass materialism winning out over idealism have all been perennial tropes in countless public forums and conferences dealing with local politics. The flight of talented Singaporeans overseas, adding to the estimated 150,000 already abroad, is another side-effect of economic success.

JBJ had always been the embodiment of idealism, but he was often portrayed as naive and full of rhetoric against the better-grounded, pragmatic and dependable – and ruling – PAP. As an idealist, JBJ was seen by the authorities as unsuitable for the technocratic demands of modern-day governance. It was precisely the authorities’ response to his idealism and passion for what he believed in that made him a walking, talking reminder for Singaporeans to stay out of politics. As the embodiment of idealism, he was deemed politically irrelevant.

Now, after his death, when his response is no longer possible, this embodiment can be fashioned for the purpose of nation-building. It was never the case that JBJ was irrelevant, rather he was inconvenient. Now that the negative connotations that came with his idealism are purged, leaving only opaque words like sincerity, tenacity and courage, the man can now be rehabilitated for national memory. We can now co-opt his idealism and passion for our own agenda.

And so we sanitize him. We speak of him as a fighter, but not what he fought for – pluralist democracy, human rights and press freedom. We speak of his great struggles, but not what he struggled against – PAP hegemony, authoritarianism, the use of punitive lawsuits in politics and so on. He was a fighter in a vacuum; he struggled against the unspoken; and JBJ is well on his way to becoming an abstract museum artifact in the halls of our national memory.

All nation-building projects are exercises in cognitive dissonance on a grand scale. Cognitive dissonance comes about when one’s beliefs do not match reality, resulting in a modification of these personal beliefs because reality is harder to change than beliefs. And so too with nation-building: historical events and personalities cannot be totally erased, but they can, and often are, redefined and reinterpreted to match the beliefs and values of dominant interests.

If this were to happen to JBJ, then Singapore’s loss would be aggravated. We would not only have lost the man, but also his values. We would have allowed his life, his struggles, and his beliefs to be redefined and reinterpreted by the very institutions he confronted.

Terence Chong is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

1. Jeyaretnam, a lawyer, served as an MP for the Workers’ Party of Singapore from 1981-86, and again from 1997-2001. He was a continual barb in the flesh of the ruling People’s Action Party. In the course of his political career, he faced numerous court cases involving defamation suits and other charges, which led to his disbarment, disqualification from contesting elections, and bankruptcy, from which he was discharged last year. He leaves two sons and four grandsons.

(Republished with the permission of OpinionAsia,

Source: Asia Times

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JBJ on the press as an institution of a democratic society

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 8, 2008

“The press is one of the institutions of a democratic society. Some people might say that it is the most important institution of a democratic society. It is, along with the other institutions, the guardian of the liberty of the people.

It must take it upon itself the responsibility to eke out any injustices, any wrong doings committed against the people or even one member of the society, and to speak out against it. “

– JBJ, in a parliamentary speech made in February 1999


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JB – principled till the end

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 7, 2008

THE death of Singapore opposition leader Joshua Benjamin (JB) Jeyaretnam of a heart attack at the age of 82 on Sept 30, almost went unnoticed here. To many Malaysians, his was a familiar yet distant name as we were pre-occupied with our own affairs than to be bothered by the thorn in Lee Kuan Yew’s side for 30 years.

But to others – Singaporeans and Malaysians who cared enough – Jeyaretnam was the epitome of a principled man who could have struck gold by shutting his mouth and crossing the divide; but decided that he would want to be remembered as a person who stuck to his guns, no matter how anal and irrelevant some may perceive him to be.

Former premier Goh Chok Tong in his condolence message puts Jeyaretnam’s life and character into perspective: “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.”

As Singapore’s only other opposition member (leading the Workers’ Party), Jeyaretnam’s role to many, especially non-Singaporeans, was a paradox. What was his beef with the government of a country which has among the world’s highest per capita income, a civil service that works with almost clock-work precision and an administration that is run almost graft-free?

If he were Malaysian, Jeyaretnam would have his work cut out for him, thanks to one scandal after another, a lethargic civil service which is just turning the corner and transparency and accountability still buzz words and nothing more than a syllabus of the National Integrity Institute.

Our own Lim Kit Siang would have gone mad with boredom if he was in the Singapore opposition!

Friends and colleagues alike have always compared Malaysia with Singapore and to some of our politicians too, the little speck at the foot of the peninsula is a gnawing reminder of what Malaysia could have become had it adopted the sole principle that Singapore did to make it a leading global player – meritocracy.

Perhaps this is why instead of lawatan sambil belajar down south which the current Selangor government had embarked on, others are turning away from the best examples available at our doorstep, to venture to far flung places like Mauritius to study toilets.

“I would gladly give up my right to vote if the government can guarantee the kind of life that Singaporeans lead and especially an education system that is par excellence,” said one colleague.

“They have it all – unparalleled economic strength, a civil service that puts the people first and transparent procedures wanting of any bureaucracy or avenues for corruption,” said another.

With such favourable perceptions on the island republic, it was quite clear why the likes of Jeyaretnam were a pain to the Singapore government.

The Singapore that was painted by Jeyaretnam was like Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives, where beneath all that clinical hygiene, robot precision, competency to a fault and contented, smiling faces, was a sentiment of repression, disquiet and a general sense of foreboding. A welling emotion of wanting to listen to something different, and also to be heard.

Any dissent and talk of alternative ideas and options were quickly – and at times ruthlessly – silenced. Amendments to laws were fast-tracked to give the ruling party an upper hand. This, Jeyaretnam learnt bitterly in a slander suit brought against him by Kuan Yew.

His avenue for appeal to the Privy Council was shut as Parliament amended the law regarding appeals to the Privy Council a few years earlier when the Privy Council reinstated Jeyaretnam, a lawyer, to the Bar. (He was disbarred following a conviction for false declaration of his party accounts that saw him jailed for a month and fined S$5,000.)

With everything he uttered against the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) becoming fodder for a defamation suit by its leaders, Jeyaretnam ultimately became a bankrupt.

Adding to the misery, Jeyaretnam was also treated like a pariah. Corporations and legal firms would not touch him with a 10-foot pole, prompting Chok Tong to issue a letter to Jeyaretnam’s lawyer sons Kenneth and Philip, after they complained that legal firms in the republic were reluctant to hire them.

Chok Tong’s letter, among others, says that although he and Jeyaretnam had political differences, Kenneth and Philip, like all Singaporeans, must have a place in the island state.

What is the likelihood of our own leaders being so magnanimous? That’s anyone’s guess.

Speaking of magnanimity, even his enemies could not help but speak of Jeyaretnam with the highest regard – albeit with difficulty as mirrored in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s condolence message: “… perhaps it was because he and the PAP never saw eye to eye on any major political issue and he sought by all means to demolish the PAP and our system of government. Unfortunately, this helped neither to build up a constructive opposition nor our Parliamentary tradition. Nevertheless, one had to respect Mr JB Jeyaretnam’s dogged tenacity to be active in politics at his age.”

It is comforting to those who knew him personally that just 11 days before he died, the long-suffering Jeyaretnam had something to smile about. Following his discharge as a bankrupt in May, he was reinstated as a lawyer by the High Court on Sept 19.

Asked by reporters outside the court house what was next for him, Jeyaretnam, perhaps comprehending his age and frail health, replied: “A trip to Mars!”

His wit was pronounced in the books and articles he authored. Sadly, many Singaporeans had limited access to Jeyaretnam’s musings as his speeches are not covered by the mainstream media, while publishers have refused to publish his books. Bookstores too would not sell much less display his books. Thus, the man regarded as Singapore’s conscience cut a forlorn figure hawking his books and Workers’ Party publication The Hammer, at bus and train stations.

But in Malaysia though, Make It Right for Singapore was a bestseller – testimony that he also inspired many Malaysians to expect more from their own government.


Source: The Sun

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Photos of JBJ’s funeral service at St. Andrew’s Cathedral AND memorial event at Speakers’ Corner

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 6, 2008

Click the image above to view my photos from the funeral service


Click this image to see my photos of the memorial event at Speakers Corner. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who came for the event. A huge thank you to those who made this event possible. You know who you are….thank you to each and every one of you.

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Meeting JBJ

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 6, 2008

Almost 10 years ago to the month, the National University of Singapore’s newspaper, The Ridge, published an interview with the late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam. At that time, he was the Workers’ Party secretary-general and in Parliament as a non-constituency MP. This may be 10 years old, but some of the issues that he touched on are still relevant.

JBJ Talking

Talking to JBJ

Initially, NUS did not want The Ridge to publish this interview and the matter went up to the highest levels of the university’s administration.

The editors, though, stood their ground and wanted that issue of The Ridge to come out with the interview intact. After a delay of almost a month and much negotiation, the university finally relented.

The interview was published without any changes, and was one of the few that JBJ gave at that time to come out uncut.


How did you get involved in politics?

Before 1959, I was very much in support of what the People’s Action Party [PAP] was saying – they were claiming to be champions of the workers. Lee [Kuan Yew] was the champion of worker.

So I thought, “Very good. I’m very glad that this man is standing up for the freedom of the individual.”

But soon after the PAP took over, I became very disillusioned because it became clear to me that the man had changed drastically.

I wanted to form an opposition party initially and the Workers’ Party [WP] was more or less dormant after Marshall left in 1962. The leadership then invited me to lead the party in 1971.

How much of progress has the WP made all these years?

In the 1976 and 1980 general elections, I came very close to entering Parliament in Kampong Chai Chee and Telok Blangah respectively. For example, in Telok Blangah, only 1,000 votes separated me from the PAP candidate. But though I lost, the WP had grown in the public’s estimation.

JBJ campaigning at Anson

JBJ campaigning at Anson

I finally won in the 1981 by-elections at Anson where the PAP’s share of the vote was overturned from 84% in 1980 to 48%. This signalled the introduction of opposition in Parliament after 16 years.

In 1984, Chiam See Tong and myself were elected and the PAP’s share of the vote dropped to 62%.

Then, I was disallowed from running for Parliament for five years from 1986 till November 1991. Elections were brought forward to before that to prevent me from running.

In 1996, I contested Cheng San with four other candidates and you must know the story. The PAP were desperate to stop from getting elected not just myself but also my co-candidate Tang Liang Hong who was well known among the Chinese community and had been outspoken on Chinese affairs.

And he was like me, a daring man, and so, they were desperate. So they dug up an old speech he had made in 1992 and some other speeches or remarks he had made and said he was a Chinese chauvinist and anti-Christian.

I think we would have won still if not for the frightening of the voters in Cheng San by the PM Goh Chok Tong. On the eve of polling day rally, he had a crowd of 2,000 people brought there in their lorries. We had more than 50,000 people listening to us.

He told them, “It’s all or nothing for you. You vote for us and you’ll get everything and more. The MRT, the LRT, the new township and we’ll upgrade your HDB and so on. Only on one condition – you vote us in.”

He said the Government was at stake. That will tell you how important it was for them to keep us out. As though the government would collapse if we had won. It may be right, the government might have collapsed.

So, all I am trying to say is, we lost because of their allegations that Tang was a Chinese chauvinist and anti-Christian. But even despite that, we would have won, if not for this “frightening” of the voters.

Yet, we emerged far stronger than any other opposition party. So that’ll tell you the progress that has been made by the WP in all these years.

Do you feel there is a need for a change of tactics by the opposition; perhaps moving away from the by-election strategy of giving the PAP power on nomination day to actually trying to form a government?

Well, it was not our strategy. We didn’t it put up. Anyway, I don’t think it makes any difference. I don’t know what tactics you think we need to change. The PAP and the media, which is under their control, will say that we have no alternative programme.

We have an alternative programme – ‘Towards a caring society’. We first produced this in 1976, again for the 1988 elections, made some changes and had the latest one in 1995. We have a programme in every subject.

But of course, the press doesn’t comment on it and no one ever bothers to tell the public about it and the PAP keep pointing that “they have no programme”.

Why is it difficult to attract people to the WP?

Again, the fear.

Let’s talk about this fear of people joining and voting for WP and other opposition parties.

An important factor is the fear of the ISA.

You spoke up recently in parliament about that.

Yes, the speeches by NMPs [Nominated MP] replying to me appeared in the newspapers, but they never published my speech.

The ISA was used after the 1976 elections when they attempted to detain one of our own candidates but he evaded arrest and is now in London. They have used it against those who have come to help the WP in some way or if they are potential candidates.

Apart from detention, people have lost their jobs. After the ’72 elections, two of our candidates lost their jobs. So this fear became embedded. There was no need for the PAP to make an announcement.

I have mentioned this. Candidates who themselves are very keen to join in, then suddenly come in at the last minute and say, “I spoke to my employer and they said, yes please join the WP as a candidate, but we will give you our notice.” So, what does the man do?

So that’s how people have been kept out. Not just the employer, the family too. At the last elections, 3 candidates withdrew.

One said, “My wife is crying and can’t sleep while my children are asking me why am I doing this to the family. So I can’t break up the family.”

Another told me, “My father is in the hospital, he’s worried. My brother is worried, my sister in-law is worried.”

The last one said, “My wife and family are worried and saying that I shouldn’t stand.”

As I said in Australia recently, unless this fear is broken, Singapore is never going to advance anywhere. They seem to have broken it in Indonesia, and it’s happening in Malaysia – but when in Singapore?

What about the voters then? Why do think they are afraid to vote?

Like in Cheng San, they don’t want to lose everything.

So what do think they should do?

They must say, “It doesn’t matter. You can take whatever you want but we are prepared.”

But that is a very difficult choice for people to make.

The voters are afraid because they will lose things and this will affect their family and children. It is all these tactics. And they call it free and fair elections!

It is a very depressing state of affairs in this country. You get NMPs in parliament saying that Singapore’s elections are free and fair.

I say what do they know? Have they taken part in elections to pronounce that they are free and fair?

What do you think about the NMP scheme?

I’ll only say this. NMPs have no place in parliament as they never went through the electoral process. I am an NCMP and I went through the electoral process and the constitution provides for my place as a reflection of the voters’ preference.

I am in Parliament because 46.9% of voters in Cheng San wanted me in there. Which voter wanted NMPs in Parliament?

The WP was initially against the NCMP scheme as well.

I’ll explain that. The scheme was initially introduced to buy off the voters. Then, they put out another half-truth that non-Chinese would find it difficult to get into parliament.

The ignored the fact that in Anson, it was 78% Chinese votes and I got in. What they mean is that their own non-Chinese candidates will find it difficult to get into Parliament. So, we opposed it.

But in 1984, the PAP hadn’t resorted to the tactics they used from 1988 onwards, and especially two years ago when they resorted to large-scale frightening like announcing that votes would be counted precinct by precinct.

My party decided that in these circumstances, I should accept the seat.

Do you think it is possible for a party other than the PAP to come to power in Singapore?

Of course it is. If one day, the people stand up and say, “We’ve had enough of this. We don’t care anymore.”

Do you see that happening?

However you look, it will eventually happen. In spite of all that they did in Cheng San, nearly 47% voted for us. It will come about if the people decide it is enough.

What is your personal opinion of the NUS undergraduate?

In other countries, students are in the forefront of political change, for example in Indonesia. Not in Singapore.

But I can sympathise with you because the University might throw you out. I can’t expect you to lose your place in the university.

It is important to want to further your education and get something out of your life. The University is wrong in clamping down on student participation in politics. I understand your problem and am not willing to condemn.

Do you believe that the general apathy in Singapore is due in part of the political culture here?

There is only one culture here – that of fear. Everyone knows that they have to be frightened and mustn’t speak out. They can’t do anything that displeases the government.

Do you refer to the government or the PAP as a political party?

There is very little difference between the government and the PAP.

What is your view of the Singapore 21 committee?

A lot of words, nothing else.

Where do they talk about people living in dignity without fear, about people having the basic freedoms? They don’t talk about removing the fear from the hearts and mind of the people – I said that in Parliament.

They are always talking about making Singapore the best home, a happy place. Just more and more words, which is what the PAP is good at.

What is your vision of Singapore in the 21st century?

I want the people of Singapore to be possessed of their own basic human dignity which they are denied and enjoy what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “The inalienable rights of human beings” – which is to live without fear.

I want Singaporeans to be allowed to make their own choices – to participate in the decision making process of their country, which they are not given at the moment.

How do you respond to criticism JBJ is out of with the younger generation?

That was something that the papers put out.

It was a question at the last elections.

Well of course they want me to retire and give way to the younger generation. Isn’t that obvious?

But all I can say is, whenever I walk along the streets sometimes I get even school students who come up and say, “Sir, may I shake your hand? We admire you so much.”

So, have I lost touch? I don’t know.

What is your motivation to stay in politics for so long?

I believe that life is not to be lived for oneself, but there’s a duty.

What would you like to say to the NUS undergraduates?

Well, this is also what the PAP says – the future of any country lies in those who are going to take over from their parents. Something has to be handed over to the next generation. This is what I have asked the people and the voters – what are you going to hand over to your children?

A few notes on some of the topics that were touched on in this interview:

1) Mr Jeyaretnam was part of the Workers’ Party team that narrowly lost to the PAP at Cheng San GRC in the 1997 General Elections. It was one of the most fiercely contested election campaigns in recent times.

2) Opposition parties used the by-election strategy, through which they would contest less than half of the seats that were up for grabs in an election and therefore make sure that the People’s Action Party returned to power on nomination day. The premise was that Singaporeans wanted the PAP to remain in power, and would therefore be more amenable to voting for opposition candidates during the elections if that was confirmed before polling day. This was most successful in 1991, when four opposition MPs were elected. 

3) Singapore 21 was a government programme to reach out to all Singaporeans in an effort to gather feedback on how they would like the country to develop in the new millennium. It resulted in a set of aims, which are listed on the official website that has not been updated since January 2004. Whether the country has actually achieved all of that is debatable.


Source: Gee Siva

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JBJ’s Anthem for Singapore

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 6, 2008


We got to make it right for Singapore

and let the people have their say once more

The winds have changed the art of blowing

a brand new spirit will be flowing

There will be love and care for everyone

There have been to many wrongs in this our land

But the power to change is in God’s hands

Singapore will have a new dawn

A proud nation cleansed and re-born

Once again we’ll have true liberty

It’s up to you and me to draw the line

and stand by rights that are truly yours and mine

Muster all the strength and courage

The world will surely applaud and encourage

a free and prosperous caring Singapore

Singapore, Oh Singapore, a free and caring Singapore

Singapore, Oh Singapore, how I love you my Singapore

How I love my Singapore, Singapore, SIngapore


The anthem was commissioned for the Workers’ Party and first sung at the Party’s Democracy Day Dinner either in 1985 or 1986. Mr Jeyaretnam was then the member for Anson. The party decided to hold a dinner every day to commemorate Democracy Day – 31st October 1981 – when Singaporeans got their first Opposition Member after 16 years. The first dinner was held in 1982.


Source: Make it Right for Singapore, Speeches in Parliament 1997 – 1999 by J.B. Jeyaretnam

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Philip Jeyaratnam’s Eulogy of JBJ on 4 October 2008

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 5, 2008

Video and editing by Eugene Yeo

“Since I got to know him, JB has been an incorrigible optimist. He was convinced that a better Singapore, a better ASEAN and a better world is possible.”

Part 1

Part 2

“A great man, a lion as many would say, but a nice man, and a kind man too. His life carries a simple message: that no matter who we are, we can do something, we must do something to make this world a better place.”

Listen or download the entire MP3 of the eulogy here:


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J B Jeyaretnam: The iconography begins

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 5, 2008

In its immediate commentary following the death of opposition leader Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam on 30 September 2008, the Straits Times wrote: “Yet, the old warhorse refused to believe that he was irrelevant to Singaporeans.” [1]

In the days following, the actions and words of both the newspaper and its political masters demonstrated they didn’t believe themselves. Over and over again, one saw attempts to downgrade the man and his passing. Yet the fact that such attempts were necessary belied the newspaper’s own assertion that he meant little.

A candlelight memorial for J B Jeyaretnam was held at Hong Lim Green on 4 October 2008.

Leader writer Chua Lee Hoong opined: “With the benefit of hindsight, it could even be said that it was Mr Jeyaretnam’s highly combative style that led the PAP government to develop an aversion to confrontational politics, Westminster-style.[2] It’s a rather strange assessment. Just ask the Barisan Socialis, Singapore’ s main opposition party in the 1960s, who were crushed by a liberal use of the Internal Security Act. Or ask any leader of independent trade unions and publishers of newspapers of that era. Blaming Jeyaretnam for the PAP’s habit of crushing its opponents is far-fetched to say the least. And again, the very laying of (false) blame contradicted the claim that he was irrelevant, for if he was so pivotal in making our politics the way it is, then he can’t be irrelevant, can he?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong were even more artless. In their condolence messages, released to the media, they came across as self-serving, taking the opportunity to burnish their own reputations, painting themselves as principled and magnanimous.

PAP leaders never wanted their fight with Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam to affect his two sons, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday.

In their condolence messages, they referred to a letter that the late opposition politician’s elder son Kenneth had written to then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1993.

He wrote to Mr Goh to say that he had found employers in Singapore reluctant to offer him a job.

Mr Goh replied with a letter that could be shown to prospective employers.

In it, Mr Goh stressed that the Government did not hold anything against Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam and urged employers to evaluate him on his own merits.

In a statement yesterday, Mr Goh said: ‘As prime minister, I did not allow the PAP’s fight with Mr Jeyaretnam to affect his sons’ place in society.

— Straits Times, 1 October 2008, JBJ’s fight with
 PAP did not affect his sons: PM Lee, SM Goh

What that has to do with expressing sympathy escapes me. They then went on to accuse Jeyaretnam of wanting to destroy the People’s Action Party (PAP), oblivious to the fact that in the public’s eye, it’s been the other way around. Everybody sees it as the PAP who has been obsessive about persecuting Jeyaretnam, through the last 27 years.

Quoting Lee Hsien Loong’s letter,

‘Perhaps it was because he and the PAP never saw eye to eye on any major political issue and he sought by all means to demolish the PAP and our system of government.

‘Unfortunately, this helped neither to build up a constructive opposition nor our parliamentary tradition. Nevertheless, one had to respect Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam’s dogged tenacity to be active in politics at his age.’

— ibid

Hello, who has destroyed the parliamentary tradition that we inherited from the British? Who invented Group Representation Constituencies? Who resorted to defamation suits for stump speeches that are normal in every true democracy?

See how rabid they are in mauling the man even posthumously?

Reporting the funeral

When it came to reporting the funeral, the Straits Times again demonstrated how much of a PAP mouthpiece it was. Whereas AFP reported that eulogies delivered by Jeyaretnam’s sons Kenneth and Philip made references to his ideals, and his political trials and tribulations, the Straits Times reported not a word of that.

First, the AFP story:

In a eulogy, Jeyaretam’s eldest son Kenneth compared his father to a raging bull who, despite the blows he received, remained “undefeated and unbowed”.

Another son, Philip, a prominent lawyer, said his father’s principle of “giving voice to the silent” led him to enter politics.

— AFP, 5 October 2008, Hundreds pay final
respects to Singapore opposition leader

You can verify for yourself, through the YouTube videos put up by The Online Citizen that Kenneth said the above and quite a lot else about his father’s political life, including: “I think of my father as a man who received blow after blow and yet remained undefeated and unbowed.”

He also noted that his father, through his “bravery and tenacity in fighting for the cause of individual freedom and human rights in Singapore”, showed fellow citizens that “they were not powerless to change [things]…. and that through the democratic process, they possess the means to control their own destiny.”

Rebutting the rush to judge him as irrelevant: “And despite the government’s denial that my father had any impact on their attitudes and policies towards the electorate, every Singaporean knows the legacy of his victory.”

Younger son Philip Jeyaretnam recalled the “savage attacks on his patriotism” that his father faced in the 1970s when he first stood for election, losing 5 times, often narrowly, before the ground-breaking 1981 by-election victory in Anson that shot him to fame.

“For him,” Philip said, politics “was law and advocacy in a new guise, speaking for those who might not otherwise be heard, arguing always for fairness, due process, and equity.”

When Jeyaretnam was disqualified from the bar as a result of PAP accusations, those were the “worst times of his life.”

Then Philip got even more pointed: “Notwithstanding this, he was the epitome of grace, even though others failed to accept the true implications of the Privy Council’s restoration of him as an advocate and solicitor, and so he was not pardoned or reinstated to his seat in Parliament. He bore it all stoically, fully confident that right was on his side.”

“Away from his political battles, where he had to fight heart and soul, he was gentle and committed when helping individuals around him. Throughout his life, the way [my father] helped people earned him the friendship and love of many. He lived among the people, preferring the bus to a taxi even in his last days. Perhaps he felt embarrassed that so often taxi drivers refused to take the fare from him.”

But none of that was reported in the Straits Times. Instead, you’d learn from the newspaper’s story unceremoniously relegated to the bottom of page 11, deep inside, that Philip told the congregation “how dedicated [his father] was to his faith and how devoted he was to his wife.” Kenneth recalled, the Straits Times said, that his father “always insisted on accompanying [his grandson] Jared to Robinsons at Christmas time to choose him a present.” [3] 

Excuse me, but these are things one hears at every eulogy. They are not news. What was news -– because it is not said everyday at eulogies -– was the way Jeyaretnam’s sons spoke of his political life. In its complete silence, the Straits Times once again abandoned its journalistic craft.

And unknowingly underlined everything that Jeyaretnam had been pointing out about the state of democracy in Singapore.

Maybe he *was* irrelevant

A few days ago, a young lawyer seemed surprised when I told him that much as we speak of the Worker’s Party’s 2006 showing in Aljunied as some kind of high water mark, others, including J B Jeyaretnam, had actually done better in previous Group Representation Constituency contests.

Whereas the Workers’ Party (WP) team in Aljunied 2006, led by Sylvia Lim, got 43.9 percent of votes polled, Francis Seow got 49 percent in 1988.

Year GRC Team % of votes cast
1988 Eunos GRC WP team led by Francis Seow 49.1%
1991 Eunos GRC WP team led by Lee Siew Choh and Mohamed Jufrie Mahmood 47.6%
1997 Cheng San GRC WP team led by J B Jeyaretnam 45.2%

The young lawyer didn’t know that. In that sense, it spoke to the generally low level of political awareness in Singapore, which is associated with widespread apathy and fear of being “political”.

You could argue then that this young man, and the many like him, might indeed see Jeyaretnam as irrelevant to their lives. Yet, by the same token, wouldn’t Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister (and former Prime Minister) Goh Chok Tong or former student-activist, now born-again PAP believer, Vivian Balakrishnan also be irrelevant? For isn’t all politics “irrelevant” to this entire class?

Indirect importance

On the other hand, even politically apathetic Singaporeans tend to share certain views about the system we live under. There is a consensus that the PAP can be brutes, that our political order, justice system, and certainly the mainstream media, are nowhere near as fair as should be ours by right, that we have an arrogant government which bulldozes its way through a voiceless people.

But from where did people learn these? Who has opened their eyes for them? Certainly, J B Jeyaretnam, through his struggles and dogged outspokenness, must have played a big role in even this minimal level of political consciousness. So, even if people cannot say how they know what they know, that they know, must owe something to the life work of the man. That they are dissatisfied — and dissatisfaction is the driving force of change — is the legacy Jeyaretnam has left us.

How many remember Lim Chin Siong?

Fine, so subliminally, Jeyaretnam’s impact is there, even among the politically disengaged. But how long before they forget the physical man and his place in our political history?

It is sobering to ask how many Singaporeans know about Lim Chin Siong, and be able to describe the significance of his life and politics. Lim was at least as well-known as Lee Kuan Yew in the 1950s and 1960s, and equally popular too. Lim paid an even heavier price for his beliefs than Jeyaretnam, arrested in the 1950s and spending 6 years in detention without trial in the 1960s (1961 – 1969). After his release, he spent a further 10 years in exile in London. He died in 1996 at a relatively early age of 62.

Lim’s constituency of supporters was drawn mostly from the Chinese-speaking majority of a different generation. This demographic group is one that is dying off. Furthermore, he died before the internet took off, and so his memory did not have the opportunity to be articulated and spread through a popular medium. Unlike Jeyaretnam who fought to his last day, Lim became politically inactive after being released from detention, but this is probably not from choice. A common condition of release from detention is that the person should not engage in further political activity.

For these and perhaps other reasons, Lim is fading from our collective memory. The question is: Is Lim’s fate a harbinger of Jeyaretnam’s?

Enduring significance?

It could be worse. He could end up as just another fashion symbol like Che Guevara’s visage.

Whether it goes that route or not, almost surely, the process of iconography will begin. The real Jeyaretnam will slowly be forgotten (or fashionalised) by the majority, but those who remain doing political work will start to use him for their own purposes.

It is the nature of politics that we create symbols, distilled to their essence, sometimes retooled to represent whatever is needed for a new age (Examples: Robert F Kennedy, or Stonewall [4]). Remade into a symbol, Jeyaretnam will be beyond rational debate; it will no longer be whether his ideas are good or bad, practical or dreamy. Instead, he will represent idealism and hope; his example will provide proof to his successors that their struggle reaches back in time, and therefore must surely be enduring into the future, which in turn must testify to the indestructibility and ultimate righteousness of whatever cause his memory is hoisted over.

Detractors will use every chance to point out that this is empty symbolism; that he was never relevant to the “heartlanders”, the “average Singaporean”, the “majority”, even in his time.

But to formulate it thus is to forget an even more enduring lesson of politics: In the long run, the centre never matters. History is a continuing story of how margins conquer the centre, wave after wave, whether we’re referring to “unpopular” political ideas, “immoral” social trends, “useless” technological inventions, or even “outlandish” fashion.

Of course, margins are always multiple; they compete to seize the centre. For every one which succeeds and carry their icons to the mantle, countless other margins fade into oblivion, their icons with them. The interesting question, therefore, is not whether J B Jeyaretnam lives in the hearts of the many today, but whether his memory and symbolism mean anything to the few who, by the dice of history, turn out as the ultimate victors for the soul of Singapore.


Source: Yawning Bread

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