Still standing

  Star, Malaysia
September 7, 2003

To some, he is a foolhardy troublemaker who took on the Singapore PAP government and lost, suffering personal ruin in the process. But after more than 30 years of chasing what others might consider a lost cause, J. B. Jeyaretnam is still fighting and he tells MARTIN VENGADESAN why.

LOVE him or hate him, it really is difficult to question Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam's courage. Singapore's most recognisable opposition figure may have lost a few battles but there's no doubting his determination to soldier on.

At 78, J.B. Jeyaretnam is still energetically engaged in his struggle to turn his country's dominant party system into a multi-party democracy. Despite losing his parliamentary seat in 2001 due to bankruptcy (which occurred after he paid out more than RM3mil in damages and court costs), Jeyaretnam is committed to changing Singapore. His latest project is the recently released book, The Hatchet Man of Singapore, which he now sells at Singapore street corners.

Jeyaretnam was down in Kuala Lumpur last month for the launching of his book by former Bar Council chairman Raja Aziz Addruse. In an interview with Starmag, he was jovial and optimistic, belying the image of the bitter firebrand that some would like to equate him with.

With his trademark Dickensian whiskers and cultured English accent, Jeyaretnam seems for like a retired country squire from a by-gone era. What prompted him then, to pursue an arduous career in opposition politics when most men in his situation would simply have settled down quietly to enjoy their wealth?

“My major reason for going into politics was that when the People's Action Party (PAP) was in the opposition in the 1950s, I had felt that it would be good if they took over,” he reminisces with a wistful smile. “Its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was a great democrat who didn't want detention without trial, wanted free speech and defended workers’ rights. I was in the legal service then and couldn't fully take part, but I thought there was a man after my own heart.

“But when PAP did take over in 1959, it seemed like everything changed overnight and I wasn't at all happy with what was happening. The main reason for my leaving the legal service was that I felt that the judiciary should be free from political appointments, and after a while I wasn't satisfied that that was the case.”

The political landscape that Jeyaretnam entered in the early 1970s was a bleak one for the opposition. In 1963, as part of the prelude to its entry into the Malaysian Federation, the PAP government had detained more than 100 prominent opposition activists in Operation Coldstore (including many former PAP leaders who had split from the party to form the Barisan Socialis), a move that decimated the opposition.

In fact, by the time Jeyaretnam's active involvement in politics commenced, when at the age of 45 he took over the leadership of the dormant Workers Party, there were no opposition members in Singapore's Parliament!

“I became very active in politics in 1971 when I became leader of the Workers Party, which had been founded by David Marshall after he resigned as Singapore's Chief Minister in the mid-50s. But it had remained quiet through the 60s. Unlike the Barisan Socialis, which comprised mainly ex-PAP members who were left-wing and gave the impression to the public that they were willing to go beyond constitutional means, the Workers Party leadership was not of the left fringe and were willing to work within the system.

“But what I was angry about was the injustice in society, the disparity between rich and poor, and if that is leftist then I am very happy to be labelled a leftist,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

Jeyaretnam's ascent in politics was certainly not rapid as he contested three general elections and was defeated each time. However, in the 1981 by-election at Anson, he enjoyed his biggest triumph when he defeated the PAP candidate and became Singapore's first opposition parliamentarian in more than a decade. Jeyaretnam enjoyed celebrity status as his dogged battles with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew were televised live on Singapore television.

He was re-elected MP for Anson in 1984 with an increased majority, but by 1986, he had been forced to give up his seat after receiving a heavy fine and a one-month jail sentence.

It was to be the first of many legal battles which saw Jeyaretnam raking up a number of convictions, getting them overturned on appeal by the Privy Council, and finally losing the libel case which resulted in his bankruptcy and second disqualification from Parliament.

While much has been written about Jeyaretnam's political views, his private life is somewhat less publicised.

He was born on Jan 5, 1926, to a Jaffna Tamil family that had settled in Malaya. His father was with the Johor Public Works Department. But Jeyaretnam was born in Sri Lanka because the family had returned there for a holiday.

A bright student, he attended the University College in London, where he met his future wife, Margaret Cynthia Walker. The couple married in 1957 and returned to live in Singapore, where he began his legal carrier.

They had two children, Kenneth, a London-based economist and Philip, a lawyer/author who resides in Singapore. (As a proud father, J.B. was unable to resist adding that both his two sons achieved double-firsts at Cambridge!).

His wife’s untimely death in 1980, at 50, was a devastating blow to the family.

“I lost Margaret to cancer. She was my greatest supporter, always accompanying me to all my rallies and even though we had suffered financially from my going into politics, she was always behind me.

“I have never been unduly worried about losing my properties and wealth but losing her was difficult to accept,” he says quietly.

He had a brother and two sisters who lived in Malaysia. They too have passed away. Jeyaretnam has four grandchildren – Jared, Tristan, Quentin and Miranda – whom he clearly delights in. He spends his time shuttling between Singapore (where he stays with Philip) and the home of a relative in Johor Baru.

“Some people worried about me after the bankruptcy, but I'm not starving,” he laughed, “I don't have a car and when I'm not staying with family, I rent a room in a budget hotel.”

He also has a wide range of interests to keep him occupied. “I try to read a lot. I usually read historical works but I also really enjoy English novels. I love authors like George Orwell, E.M. Foster, Fielding and Somerset Maugham, all of whom have a liberal/humanist bent to their writing.

“I do things other people do. I enjoy listening to music. I watch football – I'm an Arsenal supporter. I used to travel as well – to India, Australia and the UK – but not much anymore.”

Jeyaretnam also describes himself as a religious man. “I was raised in the Anglican faith. And if it weren't for my religious conviction, I don't think I would have carried on this far. I believe that I have a duty to continue this struggle for as long as God chooses to allow me to.”

In recent times, Jeyaretnam has been busy setting down his thoughts in print. In 2000, he published his first book, Make It Right For Singapore, a collection of speeches he delivered in Parliament from 1997-1999. His latest work, The Hatchet Man Of Singapore contains Jeyaretnam's views on Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

The intriguing title is a reference to a quote by Lee published by the Straits Times on Nov 3, 1995: “As Prime Minister, I reserved executive powers in the Internal Security Act and Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, both inherited from British times, which I did not repeal in order to be able to act against subversives or criminals like drug traffickers against whom there is insufficient evidence for a court of law without having recourse to the courts. In other words, I was my own carrier of a hatchet.”

“The book is an account of how Lee has ruled Singapore, not the whole story, but how it relates to me,” Jeyaretnam explains. “The focus of the book is the 1997 general election and the Cheng San Group Representative Constituency (GRC) contest and how the PAP felt that there was an actual danger they might lose Cheng San.”

The Cheng San GRC was a real flashpoint of the 1997 general election when a five-member PAP team narrowly defeated Jeyaretnam's Workers Party line-up.

Jeyaretnam argues that the PAP leaders targeted one particular member of the Workers Party line-up: then party general-secretary Tang Liang Hong, who was accused by some quarters of being an anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist.

He also believes that the Cheng San voters were not really affected by the allegations against Tang, but by high pressure tactics.

“The PAP big guns came down to Cheng San and told voters it was all or nothing, linking all their future benefits to a vote for the PAP.”

Jeyaretnam adds that senior PAP leaders came to the polling centres so that when Cheng San voters went to cast their votes, they would see these leaders looking at them.

“In Singapore that's enough. What was very encouraging is that despite all the pressure, our line-up got something like 44% of votes.” Despite being part of the line-up that lost at Cheng San, Jeyaretnam made a return to Parliament in 1997, occupying one of the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats that Singapore reserves for the opposition.

Just prior to the 2001 general election, however, he was disqualified from Parliament and not allowed to stand for election. “I was not even allowed to go on the platform and make speeches for other opposition candidates at the last election.”

The last general election saw Singaporean voters deal a humiliating defeat to the opposition, which had handed the PAP government a victory on nomination day itself by entering candidates for less than half the parliamentary seats. Despite this “no-risk” strategy, the opposition suffered its biggest thrashing since Jeyaretnam's breakthrough win in 1981.

“I was very disappointed by what happened in the last general election. In 1981, PAP had 76% of votes, in 1984 it dropped to 64% and kept dropping until 2001, when they had a sharp increase to around the 75% mark again,” he sighs. “I wouldn't blame it on in-fighting in opposition, but we didn't do the best possible job either.

“People talk about the opposition coming together, but that is easier said than done. Even among the opposition some feel that I'm too confrontational. (Singapore Democratic Alliance leader) Chiam See Tong has said that my style is not his style.”

But given Singapore's obvious prosperity and the huge vote of support for the PAP, why should the opposition persist?

“Firstly, it's a little bit of a myth that Singapore is a truly prosperous country. Yes there are 5-10% who are filthy rich, and aside from the current situation and the 1985 recession, they've been able to put out impressive GDP growth figures and we have huge foreign reserves.

“But I believe the reality is that not all of it filters down. Many Singaporeans live in cramped, often one-room, flats and certain economic markers, like the employment figures, are not very encouraging.

“Secondly, my purpose in entering politics was to try and bring about a democratic system of government. The job has not been done yet, and I feel that as long as God gives me the health and the strength, then I will carry on the fight to bring about responsible opposition in Parliament. I'm very grateful that I don't have diabetes, heart trouble, liver problems or any of the major ailments which normally affect people my age.”

Jeyaretnam does not limit his concerns to democracy in Singapore. “I think that the world at the moment is in a very sorry mess. Last year I had hoped that things would settle down, but I think what happened in Iraq has brought on a great uneasiness in the world about unchecked US power.”

Jeyaretnam's former Workers Party colleagues Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong have gone into self-imposed exile rather than risk enduring the sort of difficulties he has undergone. Yet for all his battles, leaving his beloved Singapore is something that Jeyaretnam would not consider.

“I always felt that Francis and Tang could have stayed and fought on. Lee Hsien Loong surprised me during last year's National Day celebrations when in reference to Goh Chok Tong berating all those who were leaving the country, he said that Jeyaretnam is a good example of a true Singaporean, because in spite of all our differences, he has never left.”

Ultimately this battle-hardened warrior is determined to go down fighting for what he believes in.

“I think it is not really for me to say what my legacy will be,” he smiles in response to the question, “but I think that even people who are not my friends say that if only for breaking the PAP monopoly in 1981, Jeyaretnam will be a part of Singaporean history.”

The Hatchet Man of Singapore is priced at RM40 and is available at Silverfish bookshop or through Ranee Achariam. Tel: 03-7981 0487 or 016-308 1843.