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

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Death of Singaporean maverick

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 1, 2008

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.

Source: Financial Times

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