In the early 2000s, an old lonely Indian with unmistakable white sideburns was regularly spotted at Orchard, sometimes at City Hall or Raffles Place, standing for long hours and trying to sell his books to the crowd. Most walked past him without a second glance, some even shunned him.
The man was Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, or better known as J.B.J., the leader of Workers’ Party (WP) for some thirty years from 1971 to 2001. J.B. Jeyaretnam had a reputation of being a fiery fighter who dedicated his life pursuing the idealistic dream of a true democracy. Born in an Anglican Christian family, Jeyaretnam was a bright student during his studies at St Andrew’s, and would later earn his law degree in London in 1951. During his stay in the United Kingdom, Jeyaretnam also met his future wife Margaret.
When he came back to Singapore, Jeyaretnam was a rising star in the legal sector, promoting to the chief of the Subordinate Judiciary by the age of mid-thirties. In 1963, a “disillusioned” Jeyaretnam resigned before venturing into private practice and eventually the political realm.
After taking over Workers’ Party in 1971, Jeyaretnam contested in five straight elections and by-elections, losing them all. 1981 was the turning point in Jeyaretnam’s political career, when he became Singapore’s first ever opposition Member of Parliament after beating People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Pang Kim Hin in a by-election at Anson. Three years later, he was re-elected again, and was joined by Singapore Democratic Party’s Chiam See Tong, winner of Potong Pasir constituency.
An outspoken figure with a booming voice, Jeyaretnam’s debates in the parliament were aggressive but popular among the supporters. Shortly after his 1984 by-election victory, Jeyaretnam was charged for misreporting Workers’ Party’s accounts. The case dragged on for years, but it was enough to bar Jeyaretnam from contesting in the next election. He would also lost his license as a lawyer, despite backing from the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.
Jeyaretnam was further hit by defamation suits for slander when, at the 1988 General Election rallies, he gave a misleading speech in public about the former Minister of National Development Teh Cheang Wan, whose suicide in 1986 had shocked the Singapore society. Jeyaretnam was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands in compensation to the then-Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew.
After many years of banishment from the politics due to the defamation suits, Jeyaretnam finally got his chance to make a comeback in the 1997 General Election when he was elected by the Workers’ Party as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP). However, Jeyaretnam was once again removed from the Parliament in 2001 when he was declared a bankrupt due to his inability to pay the damages of the suits.
Despite a history of imprisonment, court cases and bankruptcy, Jeyaretnam never gave up. He was finally discharged from bankruptcy in 2007 after making partial payments to the previous damages. With the 2011 General Election in mind, Jeyaretnam founded the new Reform Party in mid-2008.
In the early morning of 30th September 2008, the persistent 82-year-old Jeyaretnam finally let go of his dreams, only three months after the establishment of the Reform Party. He passed away at Tan Tock Seng Hospital with a heart failure, leaving behind two sons Kenneth and Philip.
J.B Jeyaretnam never lived to see the “watershed” General Election of 2011, when the opposition created another history by winning a GRC (Group Representation Constituency). With the increasing political awareness among Singaporeans, will they continue to avoid him like a plague, if he is still alive today?
Published: 25 February 2012