“The strength is in the ordinary people” – JB Jeyaretnam

Opposition politician JB Jeyaretnam argues that the limited freedom of expression has stifled the country’s search for talent.

Jamie Lee

Speaking up came at a great cost for political figure Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam.

The 82-year-old, who was only discharged from bankruptcy last year, ended more than five years of withdrawal from politics after the courts found him guilty in a string of defamation suits.

But Jeyaretnam has not been deterred. In a recent one-hour interview, he argued that there must be more space for opinions to emerge, adding that while the Internet has become a place for lively debates, such discussions should not be left online.

“People are feeling that they’ve got to express, but it’s not enough to leave it on the Internet,” said Jeyaretnam, who has applied to set up a new opposition outfit, the Reform Party, this year.

He has pledged to address what he deemed as systemic flaws in Singapore’s governance by working to “educate, empower and energise” the people and focusing on their civil rights.

“They’ve got to come out openly, take part in peaceful processions, expressing their dissatisfaction and what they want,” said Jeyaretnam, who was elected into Parliament in the 1981 Anson by-elections.

He added that through discussions, Singapore will be able to find the next batch of leaders – a deep concern for the current government.

A blanket over discussion and debate

“The government has thrown a blanket over discussion and debate. You’ve got to open it up and have many meetings where people will give talks and others will respond,” said Jeyaretnam, who revealed that he has recruited two university graduates into his new party.

“Somebody will try to sell his ideas and then the more he is accepted, he becomes the leader. That’s how you groom talent. A leader is someone whom people accept and is ready to follow.”

“What else do you do? Put them back in school? That’s school for them, having debates on every topic under the sun,” he said.

“Do we still need capital punishment in Singapore? Let’s get talking on that. Do we need the caning in Singapore? Let’s get talking on that. Let’s get talking on whether the GST (Goods and Services tax) is really necessary in Singapore. I think it is but there should be exemption for basic necessities. Let’s get talking about the CPF (Central Provident Fund), a very sore point among our citizens,” he urged.

It is an uphill task, as he has to work to quell the worries among people for expressing their opinions.

“There is a definite fear. I can see it, sense it. So all for a quiet life, peaceful life, they say, ‘keep quiet, we can’t do anything’,” said Jeyaretnam, who plans to reach out to the working class with his new party.

He intends to first apply for a permit to demonstrate peacefully, in a bid to work with the rules and “play by their game”.

“If they refuse it then challenge it in court and try to impress upon the court that they have to grant that permit,” he said.

But if that fails, Jeyaretnam said he has considered civil disobedience.

“If the time comes for civil disobedience, then I think we should go ahead and do it,” he said.

“What you’ve got to get into the people’s heads is that the law that prohibits them is (an) unjust law. So when you’re going on civil disobedience, you are trying to uphold the law as it should be.”

JBJ of 1981

But using human rights as a political agenda could alienate Singaporean voters, noted Assistant Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University’s School of Law.

“I’m not sure that the Singapore electorate is ready for a deep discourse on civil rights,” said Tan, noting that such issues would only attract the minority. “Like it or not, civil disobedience and human rights are not going to be issues that will be able to pull at the heartstrings.”

Instead, Jeyaretnam should identify a constituency and work the ground faithfully by tackling bread and butter issues in a time of rising food prices and widening income gap, he said.

These would help to garner support for the next general elections that is expected to be in 2011 and help him enter Parliament, where he can champion other issues there, said Professor Tan.

“In the end, it’s about showing that you have concern for the common man. He should go back to the JBJ of 1981 Anson when he actually focused on very municipal issues,” which were then about addressing the residents’ anger over being evicted from their flats, noted Tan.

“It’s not enough to talk at a national level because you are not going to be elected by the whole population. He needs to start small.”

And by working with a targeted constituency, Jeyaretnam can build credibility among Singaporeans, added Tan.

At the same time, the parallels with the confrontational tone and political tactics of Dr Chee Soon Juan could hurt Jeyaretnam’s return to politics, he said.

Besides sharing similar legal wranglings and subsequent bankruptcy, both Chee and Jeyaretnam had earlier collaborated on the Open Singapore Centre, a political interest group.

“Dr Chee has essentially turned his back on a constructive form of political engagement. He’s a man of all seasons so whatever’s in mood, whatever the flavour of the day, he’ll jump in… I’m not sure if in the end his interest is really about the people, or is it more transient,” said Tan.

In the ordinary people

Jeyaretnam has lost much in his 37 years of challenging the political status quo, including disbarment after his defamation suit that robbed him of his livelihood. He has since been reinstated and has resumed practice, handling simple cases such as drafting wills that he schedules on a small whiteboard in his office on Smith Street.

But he brushed aside any sympathy or speculation that his return is motivated by a personal vendetta.

“I don’t think I’m suffering but people think I’ve suffered; it’s okay. I’m not crying over it,” he said.

“(People) think it’s personal, they think I want to get even with Lee Kuan Yew. It’s all nonsense. I don’t want to get even. I don’t bear him any animosity or ill will.”

Despite all the battles over the years, his lowest point remains losing his wife 28 years ago to breast cancer, just before his historical victory in the Anson elections.

“She shared my ideals and then, she left me… for a time I thought why should I carry on? I should just give up,” he said. “But if I wanted to give up, I should have given it up before she died. Then, I don’t know. I might have saved her life.”

His devotion to politics has not created tension among his sons, though he admitted that “sometimes, they wished that I wasn’t so aggressive and so pushy”. He has moved to an apartment owned by his elder son in Newton and visits his younger son and prominent lawyer Philip Jeyaretnam at least once a week, discussing the Mas Selamat case with him recently.

Asked if he felt lonely, Jeyaretnam said: “I feel disappointed when people don’t come and stand with me. Not that they don’t agree. They agree but they are frightened. Lawyers who don’t want to come because, ‘please, I don’t want to go into politics’, because they see what has happened to me.”

“So of course I do feel lonely. But the strength is in the ordinary people.”


By a strange alignment of stars, Jamie Lee snagged this interview with the legendary opposition figure and offered it to TOC. Jamie is an aspiring journalist.

Pictures by Alphonsus Chern

TOC thanks Jamie and Alphonsus for this contribution.


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