Singapore's Jeyaretnam fights for another day
Vancouver, British Columbia
Asian Pacific News Service
Rebel' MP may lose seat after bankruptcy order
SINGAPORE'S longest-standing opposition member, and icon of government resistance, J. B. Jeyaretnam has managed to pay his political opponents, thereby staving off bankruptcy for the moment and clinging to his seat in the tightly controlled House of Parliament in the city-state.
As of January 17, he made a cash payment of S$23,450 to the plaintiffs from his last defamation suit. The next instalment is due Feb.12.
Because Jeyaretnam made the payment a day late, however, his opponents have decided to press ahead with bankruptcy proceedings.
The senior opposition leader once again finds himself struggling to pay off a new horde of plaintiffs who have been awarded damages against him. The individuals whom Jeyaretnam, the secretary general of the Singapore Worker's Party, recently paid had sued him for defamation from an article written in his party's newspaper,
Under Singapore law, a politician has to relinquish his parliamentary seat if he is declared bankrupt. (Under Canadian law, financial bankruptcy is not a barrier to holding a seat in parliament.)
First elected to the House in 1981, the fiery Jeyaretnam has been sued countless times for slander, and defamation. In 1997, he was sued eight times alone within that year.
Somehow Jeyaretnam manages, however, on every occasion to generate enough funds to meet the terms of each settlement. His elusiveness is known to be a source of frustration for People's Action Party (PAP) leader, Lee Kwan Yew, and his crusade to strike out the outspoken politician from the public eye.
"It seems to me that they [the PAP] will spare no effort to make me a bankrupt," stated Jeyaretnam, speaking from Singapore to the Asian Pacific Post. "It looks to me like that they are very determined to disable me from standing for parliament."
Stacy Foo, the Singapore Vice-Consul stationed in New York, told the Asian Pacific Post that the Singapore government has no comment to make on the issue. As a practice the government of Singapore does not respond to media requests for comments, she stated, but rather, through its Ministry of Information and Arts, releases press statements of its own accord.
Ruled over by the PAP since 1959, Singapore is a democratic state, but in nominal terms only. Because the PAP's hold on parliamentary seats is so tight, the ruling party has made it a policy of appointing opposition members when too few win constituencies.
Jeyaretnam is currently one of the Singapore parliament's 'non-constituency' members who won a seat because he was an opposition member who polled the highest number of votes.
Currently there are only two opposition members out of a House of 83 seats. Jeyaretnam is the only member of the Worker's Party currently holding a seat, and the biggest wrench in the system.
"They consider me the only threat to them [the PAP]," the 75 year old politician explained. "Mr. Lee has said in parliament that I have to be destroyed. The PAP accepts the other opposition MP's, but they cannot accept me. I'm against the system. I ask questions they find embarrassing. The others [opposition members] don't ask the questions I ask."
In an article published in 1999 in the Sydney Morning Herald, the former president of Singapore, Devan Nair, who resides now in Ontario, reported that Lee Kwan Yew was so infuriated by Jeyaretnam's ascent into the house of parliament in 1981 that following the election, Lee stated he would 'make Jeyaretnam crawl on his bended knees and beg for mercy.'
Lee Kwan Yew has himself sued Jeyaretnam on two separate occasions for defamation-both of which the Singapore leader won. Jeyaretnam was forced to pay nearly half a million Singapore dollars to the PAP strongman.
Rather than gagging political opponents through forced confinement or other means, the Singapore government has an unwritten policy of using bankruptcy to stifle dissent in the state. Amnesty International has, in the past, accused Singapore's leaders of using defamation suits as 'a politically-motivated tactic to silence critical views and curb opposition activity.'
That tactic is also all-too-familiar to anyone who crosses paths with the government. Dr Chee Soon Juan, the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, was a professor of psychology at the state university before he joined the opposition Democratic Party.
Three months later, he was fired from the university. "I disputed the motivation for the sacking and I was subsequently sued," Juan told the Post from Chicago, where he is currently working at the University of Chicago. "When I lost, I was forced to pay cost of damages of $300,000. We had to sell off our house, our car, everything. If I didn't, I would be forced into bankruptcy and not allowed to stand for office."
But defamation suits are still mild in comparison to the option of forced confinement occasionally utilised by the PAP government. Under the Internal Security Act, the government has the ability to detain any individual arbitrarily, and for an indefinite period.
A victim of forced detention, Francis Seow, the former solicitor general of Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew was one dissident who decided to leave, (or rather, had the decision made for him.)
Seow now makes his home in Boston, where he conducts research at Harvard University. Since leaving Singapore, Seow has resigned himself to his nomadic existence.
"I can't go back, I am one of these renegades who is permanently in exile: a Singapore émigré in the USA. I'd be arrested if I returned," Seow said in an interview with the Post. "They'd put me in jail, and throw the key away. They threatened to do that the first time they arrested me."
Seow was detained for seventy-two days under the Internal Security Act in 1988. He was accused of accepting large sums of money from the US government, though he was never accused of spying.
Despite the potential that his final years may be wasted fighting off more plaintiffs and defamation suits, Jeyaretnam is determined not to give up his struggle to bring democracy to Singapore.
"It's been a long struggle. We are a small community of highly literate people. We should have had democracy long before any other country in this part of the world. Yet countries like the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia are outstripping Singapore."
For Jeyaretnam, his struggle has become his raison d'etre. As long as he can keep paying the fines, he will continue speaking out. That resilience has made the senior statesman symbol of resistance to the working people of Singapore.
Chris Lydgate, a journalist who used to work in Singapore, summarised Jeyaretnam's place in the city. "He represents something to Singaporeans. Many have put with all sorts of minor indignities at the hands of the government. Many of them feel like they've given up their freedom in exchange for material goods. It's something they've done willingly, but nonetheless they feel they've lost something," Lydgate explained.
"Jayeratnem represents the conscience that they have abandoned. Singaporeans have an extraordinary respect, and admiration for him," he continued. "If you walk around Singapore with him, you see the cab drivers smile and wave at him. The hawker stand guys wave him over and give him free stuff. He has become a symbol in his old age."
Asked if he would do it all the same again, Jeyaretnam does not hesitate in saying yes.
"This is my commitment, it's how I feel. Some people will feel it's foolish, but I say life is not to be lived for yourself. Life has to be lived for others."