Jeyaretnam: A Worthy Legacy
Asian Wall Street Journal
July 31, 2001

REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial)

IN Singapore, the opposition politician's lot is not a happy one. The city state may have a high standard of living, but ask residents to discuss the ruling People's Action Party's lock on power and the undercurrent of fear rises quickly to the surface. While most know they wouldn't end up detained under the Internal Security Act just for voting the wrong way, there is still plenty of pressure from all around not to step out of line, and plenty of uncertainty as to what the consequences of doing so might be. Getting involved in opposition politics is the kind of trouble the average Singaporean just doesn't need.

That leaves just a few citizens of the island republic who are courageous enough to stand up and offer alternative policies. For more than two decades one of those few has been Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, or JBJ as the local papers call him. The 75-year-old Mr Jeyaretnam is a lawyer by trade and, until earlier this year, the leader of the Workers' Party. His big break came in 1981 when he broke the PAP's 12-year monopoly on seats in parliament by winning a by-election.

That made Mr Jeyaretnam a hero to some. But he has faced his share of fear and loathing, fear from those Singaporeans who don't want to be seen talking to him, loathing from the political establishment. During a 1986 inquiry into whether he violated the parliamentary Privilege Act by questioning the integrity of judges, the opposition MP asked the country's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, "So you think I have to be destroyed?" Mr Lee replied, "Politically, yes."

Mr Lee has found that difficult to achieve. Two months later, Mr Jeyaretnam was fined and served a month in prison for allegedly making a false report of his party's accounts, but he was soon back in politics. That's because he was able to appeal his disbarment to Britain's Privy Council. The Law Lords called the conviction a "grievous injustice," saying that he and a colleague had been "fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they were not guilty."

Shortly thereafter the government changed the law so that cases couldn't be appealed to the British Law Lords anymore. And the PAP found other means of making Mr Jeyaretnam's life difficult. It stepped up defamation lawsuits against opposition politicians, never losing a case or settling one without making money. The government defends this behavior as necessary to defend the dignity of high officials against the opposition's attacks. But its effect has been to prevent the development of parties that could challenge the PAP for power.

The lawsuits ultimately achieved Mr Lee's goal of driving J.B. Jeyaretnam from the political stage. Last week Singapore's Court of Appeal declared him bankrupt by rejecting the last of his appeals against a petition by his creditors. Since a law prohibits bankrupts from serving in parliament, the speaker declared his seat vacant. "So the creditors can have a drink tonight, they'll enjoy that," the elderly lawyer said ruefully.

The case that broke Mr Jeyaretnam's finances involved an article his party's newspaper published about another newspaper. But he still faces hefty bills for other judgments. One involved a 1997 incident at an election rally when a fellow opposition politician, Tang Liang Hong, handed him an envelope. Mr Jeyaretnam told the crowd, "Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he had made to police, against, you know, {Prime Minister} Goh Chok Tong and his people." That simple and true statement became the basis of a defamation suit, since, in the words of Mr Goh's lawyer, ". . . no one is ever going to think more of someone if they are told he's been reported to the police."

The government won its case, but not before Mr Jeyaretnam's British lawyer, George Carman, subjected the prime minister to a grilling he won't ever forget, accusing him of lying under oath, using the courts as instruments of oppression against the opposition and releasing defamatory material to the press in order to make his own case stronger. Mr Goh then upped his request for damages on the basis that this treatment was a sign of Mr Jeyaretnam's malice.

The bitterness of the political contest between the PAP and its opponents might lead one to believe that the Singaporean populace is deeply divided over the future direction of the country. Yet this is hardly the case. In fact, the PAP is constantly urging the largely apathetic population to become more politically aware, even as it stifles the one thing that might make that happen, competition for votes.

Mr Jeyaretnam garnered quiet support from many sectors of Singapore society because of the symbolic nature of his opposition. But if the PAP hadn't tried to demonize him, that support would have been much more limited. He certainly wouldn't be our choice for prime minister. He's an unreconstructed socialist, most frequently berating the government for the size of the gap between rich and poor, and his prescriptions, like a bigger welfare state and a minimum wage, would hurt the economy and foster class resentments.

Other opposition figures, however, have more constructive platforms and they are intelligent, capable people who might have found a place inside the PAP if they hadn't been turned off by the ruling party's monopoly on power. Singapore could benefit by letting them play an oversight role, and allowing them to grow into positions of greater responsibility.

For now the city seems locked in the old ways, at least until Lee Kuan Yew passes from the scene. Last week the government introduced new legislation to control political speech on the Internet. This is probably related to general elections that must take place in the next year but will probably be called in a few months.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the PAP faces a challenge for power in these elections. The opposition parties have trouble raising campaign funds -- donors of more than S$5000 (US$2744) must reveal their names -- and they can never find enough credible candidates. But the elections still serve as a way for citizens to rate the PAP's performance anonymously -- in 1991, the ruling party polled 61 percent of the popular vote in contested constituencies and seemed to be losing momentum. In the last election four years ago it clawed its way back to 65 percent, in part by emphasizing that government renovation programs increased property prices faster in districts that voted for the PAP.

Today the economy is faltering as the flaws in the government's longstanding policy of maintaining a large manufacturing sector become apparent. Four opposition parties are forming an alliance for the first time to coordinate their efforts, and Singaporeans might want a few new voices to help the city face new challenges.

So Mr Jeyaretnam's legacy is a simple but important one, the idea that opposition politicians have a role to play in Singapore. In the future, when Singaporeans look back on the period of PAP rule, they will no doubt be gratified that, despite the vitriol and the defamation lawsuits, not all citizens were too afraid to raise a dissenting voice. In our book, Lee Kuan Yew failed in his mission to destroy J.B. Jeyaretnam politically, since his long career was a laudable one.