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

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Singapore opposition loses icon as Jeyaretnam dies

Posted by jbjmemorial on October 2, 2008

Singapore’s opposition dealt body blow with death of iconic politician J.B. Jeyaretnam

(SINGAPORE) With the death of Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, this thriving Southeast Asian city-state has lost its most iconic political maverick, dealing another blow to an opposition movement enfeebled by government lawsuits and voter apathy.

Jeyaretnam, a once wealthy lawyer driven to bankruptcy under the weight of defamation lawsuits filed by Singapore‘s leaders, died Tuesday at age 82.

In recent years, he had stood on street corners and outside subway stations peddling his books about politics because no retailer would stock them. A socialist at heart, he argued Singapore’s free market policies enriches the elite while an underbelly of poor struggles to get by.

Jeyaretnam found his place in history as Singapore’s first opposition politician to be elected to Parliament, in 1981 — 22 years after the governing People’s Action Party took power when Britain granted self rule.

“He will, of course, be remembered as the man who ended the PAP monopoly,” said Simon Tay, a former opposition legislator and now chairman of a think tank, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “Even if this first victory did not grow into a two-party system, it is an important marker.”

Singapore joined Malaysia in a federation in 1963 but broke away as an independent state two years later, led by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a contemporary of Jeyaretnam and his most bitter foe.

In 1981, Jeyaretnam seemed poised to carve out a power base when he entered Parliament as a Workers Party lawmaker. But the opposition has made little headway, proving at most a minor irritant to the ruling elite — with Jeyaretnam as its most vocal nuisance.

Twenty-seven after he broke the PAP’s monopoly in Parliament, the ruling party still holds all but two of the 84 seats, a stranglehold on power maintained by limits on free speech and other civil liberties.

Most Singaporeans don’t seem concerned, caring more about their strong economy. The city-state has grown from an economic backwater to be Southeast Asia’s financial hub and one of the world’s wealthiest nations — with per capita annual income soaring from $512 in 1965 to $35,163 last year.

The government, first led by Lee and now by his son Lee Hsien Loong, says strict social controls are necessary to preserve that hard-won economic prosperity as well as maintain racial stability in this multiethnic state of 4.8 million people.

“The rhetoric of democracy at all costs doesn’t appeal to the majority of Singaporeans,” said Chua Beng Huat, a sociology professor at National University of Singapore. “Singaporeans aren’t culturally liberal, in an individualistic sense. Singaporeans who are liberal democrats are a painful minority, and J.B.J. symbolized that.”

Jeyaretnam was a cautionary tale for other opposition leaders of the perils of directly criticizing government leaders. He was driven to bankruptcy in 2001 by defamation lawsuits brought by the two Lees and Goh Chok Tong, who served as prime minister after the elder Lee stepped down in 1990 until the son took over in 2004.

Jeyaretnam estimated he paid out more than $925,000 in damages and court costs over the years. Still, after emerging from bankruptcy earlier this year, he announced plans to run for Parliament in the next elections, due by 2011.

Friends and foe alike hailed his tenacity and selflessness.

“I did not believe his brand of politics was good for Singapore,” said Goh, the former prime minister. “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.”

 

Source: Newsweek

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