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Farewell, great JBJ

Melvin Tan / Guest Writer

The very first piece of news that greeted my ears as I opened my eyes today was the demise of veteran opposition stalwart Mr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, or affectionately known as “JBJ”.

In that instance, shattered imagery of Mr JBJ’s unfulfilled political dreams came to my mind before I came to terms with reality.

Although I understood that his health had not been good of late, the news of his death came too sudden.

The former Member of Parliament for Anson (1981 – 1986) and Non-constituency MP (1997 – 2001), who passed away from heart failure early this morning, had been trying to stave off bankruptcy since 1997 – eventually succeeding ten years later – merely to earn the opportunity, technically, to return to the Singapore Parliament and represent the people once again.

1971 was the year Mr JBJ, then a district judge court, entered opposition politics with the formation of the National Party of Singapore shortly before joining and reviving the comatose Workers’ Party.

He was the WP’s secretary-general for an uninterrupted three decades until 2001.

After three GE and two by-election attempts, he clinched victory in the ward of Anson in the 1981 by-election, becoming the first opposition Member of Parliament in 15 years – breaking the PAP’s monopoly in the process – and in the 1984 GE, retained his seat.

However, he was found guilty by the courts over some party accounts matters and was struck off from Parliament in 1986.

The offence also barred him from contesting any elections for five years, which expired in 1991 – just after the GE was over in the same year.

In the 1997 GE, his team obtained the highest share of votes among defeated opposition candidates when his team contested in Cheng San GRC and JBJ resumed his presence in Parliament once again as an NCMP – until a civil suit by PAP leaders led to a bankruptcy and another disqualification before the 2001 GE.

Owing to this, he had to sit out the 2001 and 2006 GEs.

At 82, he had reinstated his legal practice after being discharged, established a new electoral vehicle – the Reform Party of which he is founder and inaugural secretary-general – and readied himself with only about three years to go before the next GE due in 2011.

There was even anticipation that he would lead a team in the Tanjong Pagar GRC to challenge his “arch-nemesis”, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in a final face-off, as this could perhaps be the last GE he planned to run in.

But fate denied him even this little last opportunity and wish.

My first encounter with Mr JBJ was in 1999 when, as a political activist with the Think Centre, we worked together on a few political projects.

Subsequently, in the year 2000, we organised a “Save JBJ Rally” in Yio Chu Kang to raise money for his cause and I became one of the speakers.

While I had my occasional fair share of private criticism against the various aspects of his political approaches, he is undeniably one of very few men with the pugnacity and tenacity essential for the harsh political environment that is not conducive for opposition politics to progress.

Heartfelt condolences to his family and the two sons he leaves behind.

The elder, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, is a successful hedge fund manager who has worked in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

He recently returned to Singapore and through the social utility Facebook, he initiated contact with me to offer to fill in bits of information missing from the “J B Jeyaretnam Supporters” Facebook group that I had set up (the group has since been converted to “In Memory of J B Jeyaretnam”).

The younger, Phillip Jeyaretnam, is a Senior Counsel, former President of the Law Society Singapore and author of various novels.

Both being fine gentlemen, Mr JBJ should have no regrets.

He was widowed when his wife, Mdm Margaret Cynthia Walker, passed away in 1980 – not long before he was elected into Parliament.

Let us hope that he will meet her again and unite with her.

Mr JBJ may have had unfulfilled dreams like anyone else but, in my view, has achieved more than what he had originally set out to accomplish.

The author is a member of the Workers’ Party. This article was written on 30 September 2008.


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