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.
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
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