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

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Outspoken Singapore dissident dies

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 1, 2008


Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, the opposition politician whose outspokenness and persistence made him Singapore’s leading dissident, died Tuesday of a heart attack, family members said.

At the age of 82, recently freed from bankruptcy, Jeyaretnam was preparing another run for Parliament, where he had broken the governing party’s monopoly by winning the first opposition seat in 1981.

“We were trying to surmount the last hurdle,” said a close friend and political partner, Ng Teck Siong, speaking of Jeyaretnam’s attempt to enter Parliament once more. “But we were not able to do that. He had to leave us.”

Jeyaretnam’s career was defined by his persistent attempts to win a seat in Parliament and his ongoing criticisms of the political establishment.

Since that first win in a special election, Jeyaretnam had lost his seat twice as the result of legal actions. He had been sued for defamation more times than he said he could count, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, mostly to members of the governing People’s Action Party.

He fell into bankruptcy in 2001 when he was unable to pay a damage award, and was barred from politics until he cleared the debt early this year.

During that time of political exile he sold self-published books from a cardboard box on a sidewalk, shouting out their titles in the booming voice he had used to challenge the government in Parliament.

Though his photograph rarely appeared in the government-friendly press, the man known by his initials, JBJ, was easy to recognize with his long, somber face, exaggerated features and white fringe of whiskers.

“It would be terribly funny if it weren’t tragic for me,” he said in an interview at the time. “A lot of people tell me: ‘Why do you carry on? It’s hopeless in this place. Why do you sacrifice yourself, suffering all this pain?’ Not that I suffer that much.”

“Funnily enough, I enjoy the fight,” he said. “It’s true. And if I had to give it up, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

In his doggedness and refusal to compromise, Jeyaretnam was an irritant to the country’s leaders, particularly to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who called him “a poseur, always seeking publicity, good or bad.”

Although he never won a libel case and lost more political battles than he won, Jeyaretnam’s lone challenge made him a hero to some people.

“First, you see, I respect his courage,” said a 46-year-old machine-parts salesman who bought one of his books by the side of the road. “This is a culture where if you can sleep well and eat well, nobody wants to find trouble. There’s no right and wrong sometimes, in my opinion. For me, I just want to hear another voice.”

In May, freed from bankruptcy, Jeyaretnam announced the formation of a new political party, the Reform Party, whose objective he said was “a complete and thorough change in the way this country is run – no tinkering.”

“We are not allowed to exercise the fundamental rights given to us in the Constitution,” he said at a news conference announcing the registration of the  party.

“These are not abstract rights, airy-fairy rights, but 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,” he said.

With his new party duly registered, Jeyaretnam was in the process of preparing one more challenge for an open seat in Parliament – the last hurdle mentioned by Ng.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam was born in 1926 and grew up mostly in what was then Malaya, where his father worked as a clerk in the public works department.

A devout Anglican Christian of Sri Lankan descent, he often said he was motivated by a religious mission to do good for other people.

He earned a law degree at University College in London in 1951, where he met his future wife, Margaret. She died in 1980 and it was a point of regret to him that she was not there to share his victory when he won his seat in Parliament.

Back from London with his law degree, Jeyaretnam rose quickly in the legal establishment, serving as a magistrate, a district judge, a prosecuting counsel, a registrar of the Supreme Court and chief of the Subordinate Judiciary, a position of status and influence.

He resigned in 1963 at the age of 37 and went into private practice because, he said, “I was disillusioned, completely,” and in 1971 he made the first of his many unsuccessful runs for a seat in Parliament.

He is survived by his two sons – Philip, a prominent lawyer who is president of the Law Society of Singapore, and Kenneth, an economist, at whose home he died.

Source: International Herald Tribune


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