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

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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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