Tng Ying Hui with contribution by Khairulanwar Zaini
Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam joined a distinguished list of speakers who have been invited to share their thoughts by the Foreign Correspondent Association (FCA). The list included Mr Jeyaretnam’s late father, Mr JB Jeyaretnam, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Jaswant Singh of India, Malaysia’s Mr Anwar Ibrahim, Nobel Prize winners, and many others.
An economist by training, he spoke at lengths about the economy of Singapore, which provided a refreshing angle to opposition politics. He gave tribute to his father and with unabated candour, shared his thoughts on the future of the opposition.
Carving a new direction beyond JBJ
Mr Jeyaretnam spoke of the impact JBJ had on Singapore when he spoke about The Reform Party, founded by his father. The late Mr J.B Jeyaretnam’s legacy persists through the party’s objective, which was “freeing the people of Singapore … through political Reform.”
While his father was a fervent advocate of exercising democratic rights, urging Singaporeans to “rise from their slumber” during his own speech at the FCA, Mr Kenneth Jeyaretam believed that the recession has awaken the people.
The Reform Party, according to Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, has evolved to a “double Reform Party” as it adds another dimension to the integral part of the Party’s platform of “reform[ing] in the field of democracy and civil rights”.
“I believe that there are equally fundamental reforms that need to be made in the economic sphere”, he says.
Under his leadership, The Reform Party’s message is clear: exchanging liberty for economic progress is unnecessary.
Mr Kenneth Jayaretnam said, “I feel we’re victims of the approved version of history.”
He noted that this is a result of indoctrination by the government, which has repeatedly emphasized the authoritarian framework as beneficial to the economic progress of the country. But in fact, says Mr Jeyaretnam, “Singapore’s growth record is good but not spectacular.”
He raised examples of other countries like Taiwan and South Korea, which were once straggling behind but which are now on par with Singapore in terms of per-capita real incomes and those that were once under the clutches of authoritarianism have become freer comparatively.
“[The] authoritarian framework is clearly no longer beneficial,” he says.
He criticized the economic model for being “outmoded “as it “doesn’t really improve the welfare of the bulk of Singaporeans.”
Furthering that point, he explained that although the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) looked “impressive” , it was however “fuelled globally by an unsustainable growth in US imports” and the “productivity of the workforce first stagnated and then fell sharply.”
Mr Jeyaretnam disapproved of how growth has expanded at the expense of the middle and lower income strata of society as cheap labour was incessantly sought.
He says, “Domestic consumption has been driven down to a level that is on a par with China and countries at a much earlier stage of development.”
This, however, could be improved by reducing the "manifestly excessive" savings rate that "rose to 47% in 2008."
Future of Opposition
Mr Jeyaretnam holds two diverse views about the road ahead for the opposition. Despite believing that these are “exciting times”, he soberly reminds us that the road is fraught with difficulty as Singaporeans have been conditioned to think “very differently to those who have been brought up in a liberal western democracy.”
To him, the fear that has been imbedded deeply in Singapore’s political culture has made talks on human rights meaningless, for example. Also, the new parliamentary changes were merely “smokes and mirrors” for more gerrymandering, calling the changes “a cheap parlour trick.”
He underscored the need for a democracy to engender the principle of "election not selection" - a popular tagline during the recent Iranian protests.
Fit to stand for Singapore
Mr Jeyaretnam wondered why he was always referred to by the local media as a “‘British-trained economist”. “I wonder why I have never read in the Singapore press, British-trained mathematician prime minister LHL or British trained-lawyer, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew,” he asks. He suspects that such references by the mainstream media here is “to light up a subliminal marker in the people’s minds that a) I’m a foreigner and b) that my economics is suspiciously left-wing because it’s from a country associated with economic failure and the welfare state.”
Giving a brief summary of his education abroad and how he has completed his National Service duties as a Singaporean, Mr Jeyaretnam said, “And I always say that if I’m fit to die for my country then I’m fit to stand for it. I’m not ashamed of being a patriot.”
Mr Jeyaretnam ended his speech by affirming his faith in the people of Singapore. “Throughout all, I maintain my belief in the people of Singapore. We are its greatest resource. We are a uniquely talented and situated nation and we deserve prosperity and emancipation,” he says. “In time we will come to the realisation that these are not mutually exclusive but actually are dependent one upon the other.”
Read Mr Jeyaretnam's speech in full here.