A Persistent Opposition J. B. Jeyaretnam (1926-2008)

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

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10 Responses to A Persistent Opposition J. B. Jeyaretnam (1926-2008)

  1. He live for Singapore. He is a true legend.

  2. aaa says:

    Most Sinkies including PAP party members will read his life story with scorn.

    Here was a man who, if he had just continued following the rules, could have become the Chief Justice of S’pore, with multi-million dollar salary, multiple posh properties, and a lifetime of big pension and free A-Class medical care for both himself and his spouse.

    Instead he chose to sacrifice his career, his wealth, easy living for his family etc in order to fight for what he thought was right for S’pore.

  3. Nice try Buddy says:

    It’s not how many books you write or get people to write about you, seeking self glory. It’s not how many awards bootlicking foreign institutions award you. It’s not about how many fancy titles you give yourself. It’s not about how many schools or scholarships are named after you. It’s not about how many statues are built of you. It’s not whether you get a state funeral. It’s not how many people attend or are made to attend your funeral. It’s not about how many people are publicly shown to be crying for you.
    How many how people privately shed a tear for you. That’s all that matters. JBJ we miss you.

    • Nice says:

      Wow. Your prophecy is actually spot-on. The fact that you wrote this 3 years ago, and the exact things are happening right now or recently, is incredible. And also somewhat sad for Singaporeans. Isn’t it a sad thing when Singaporeans are so predictable? You nailed them to a T.

  4. Soon Eng Huat says:

    Truly a great hero and my greatess respect for his sacrifices for the future of S’pore.Please don’t be dissappointed as your efforts are getting results very soon.

  5. championgrumbler says:

    I remember seeing him at Centrepoint outside Robinsons, standing there for long hours trying to sell his books. I was in my teens that time. Political apathy was appalling back then. People were afraid. Singaporeans were force-fed with propaganda and majority were afraid to be even seen around JBJ, which also explains the shunning mentioned in this article.

    I always have this tad bit of sadness whenever I read or hear about JBJ; because I did not (dare not) talk to/chat with him when I had the chance to do so. Thank you JBJ for fighting for Singapore, for fighting for Singaporeans… Great hero and absolute legend.

  6. Believer says:

    JBJ, You are the first hero for Singaporeans. I was a teen when I realized your passion for the truth and how you would stand by it. You never faltered, not once when struck with the deepest blow. That because you are a man of substance. I bought your book and you were kind to autograph it. I was not afraid to come up to you and encourage you, even as a young boy, and I still have the book with me. Your son, KJ, he is doing a fine job. He is carrying on your great work for the people of Singapore. God is with you, and your son always.

  7. deshmukh says:

    If only I had known he was there selling the books, I would have undoubtedly joined him even though I would have only been primary 1 or so. Why?!!!

  8. Opposition MP J.B. Jeyaretnam asked about Phey Yew Kok again and again

    Opposition MP sought inquiry, Mr Lee accused him of smear attempt

    Jun 28, 2015

    It was March 3, 1982, and Parliament was in session. Barely minutes into the first item on the agenda, one of the legendary exchanges between the sole opposition MP J.B. Jeyaretnam and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was already under way.

    The lawyer and MP for Anson had called for the appointment of a commission to look into the details surrounding the disappearance of Phey Yew Kok, the powerful unionist and People’s Action Party (PAP) MP who had absconded after being charged with criminal breach of trust.

    Mr Lee shot down the idea, saying any such inquiry would be prejudicial to the charges Phey was facing and that Mr Jeyaretnam’s intention was “really to create a smear that there has been a cover-up”.

    The following are edited extracts from their exchange that day:

    Mr Lee: “As long as there are reasonable prospects of bringing Phey to trial, nothing should be done which can be said to jeopardise the process of law.

    “The Member for Anson is inviting me to investigate the facts, or to appoint a commission to investigate the facts, of a criminal case which is sub judice… However, not to be the Government’s own legal officer, I asked for the opinion of the Attorney-General. In a written opinion, he has advised against the appointment of a commission of inquiry.”

    Mr Jeyaretnam: “As I understand it, it would be contempt of court to inquire into it while proceedings are pending before a criminal court, but the trial has not begun as yet.

    “It is, in my view, always open to the prosecution to withdraw for the moment the charge against Mr Phey and that he be discharged not amounting to an acquittal and then an inquiry held, and when Mr Phey is apprehended and brought into this country he can be freshly put on trial on those charges. Would the Prime Minister like to consider that?”…

    Mr Lee: “As I understand it, I am now being asked to suggest to the Attorney-General to go into an elaborate subterfuge.

    “In other words, the Member for Anson, in putting his question which is really to create a smear that there has been a cover-up, knew that he was suggesting something improper and had come prepared for an answer that this was being thwarted because it is sub judice, and therefore he proposes that we withdraw the charge; warrant will lapse; commission of inquiry is held, Phey’s trial in effect is held by the commission of inquiry; all the issues involved are prejudged; the commission reports, charges are then re-introduced; warrants for arrest are re-issued.

    “Is that what is being seriously suggested that a government should require its Attorney-General to do because a Member of the Opposition wants to satisfy his curiosity?”…

    Mr Jeyaretnam: “Mr Speaker, Sir, I was not attempting smears. I would ask the Prime Minister not to impute too readily motives to the Opposition Member. The terms of inquiry of the commission can be drafted in such a way as to exclude any inquiry as to the guilt or otherwise of Mr Phey. The inquiry can be directed as to how – I have set out some of the matters on which the inquiry can be conducted, and that is whether accounting and correct accounting and audit practices, procedures, had been followed and whether anybody else was aware of the manner in which these monies were being taken from the amounts held by these unions.”…

    Mr Lee: “What he really wants to know is whether there has been a cover-up, whether anybody has been let off. I am prepared to have such a commission without touching the evidence against Phey because such an inquiry will be a credit to the Government.

    “It will show how thoroughly and impartially an investigation was conducted against a very senior and close associate of several ministers in the Government and of the President, and how it was relentlessly pursued until no evidence was left unturned and that he was not allowed to get away and abscond because the Government was afraid it would open up more horrendous skeletons in the cupboard. That is what I am offering, but without touching the evidence against Phey. Are you wanting that inquiry because I am quite happy to have it?”

    Mr Jeyaretnam: “If the Prime Minister will let me know the terms of reference of this commission that he proposes to appoint, then I will answer him.”

    Mr Lee: “I am offering the Member a commission to investigate any alleged cover-up. He is alleging the cover-up. Write it out without touching on the facts relating to Phey Yew Kok’s charges, and he will have his commission.”

    Mr Jeyaretnam would continue to highlight in Parliament the Government’s failure to capture the PAP’s black sheep, questioning ministers on Phey’s whereabouts again and again over the next few years.

    On March 16, 1983, he tried to push then Home Affairs Minister Chua Sian Chin to publicly reveal the country Phey was last known to be in, but Mr Chua said the information had to be kept confidential so as not to tip off the fugitive.

    He asked again in 1984 about the progress in the hunt for Phey, and in 1986, he asked Minister of State for Home Affairs, Dr Lee Boon Yang, if the police had “given up all hope” of finding him. Dr Lee replied that the warrant of arrest was still in force.

    In 1998, Mr Jeyaretnam posed the same question again in Parliament. And the answer from Minister of State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee this time was that the case was still alive.


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