JBJ's legacy is an inspiration for change. Kelvin Teo

The man who stretched the political machinery

Kelvin Teo

When a brave soul ventures to reform a difficult system and makes an inroad, the system will evolve to impose greater barriers and obstacles that the reformers must overcome. It is like Neo who is trapped in a titanic struggle with an ever evolving Matrix. So what’s next? Well, either swallow the blue pill and join the Matrix or continue the struggle. A simple choice between the blue or red pill.

There appears to be a flurry of activity after an interview with the Youth wing of the Workers’ Party was published on The Online Citizen. The first two paragraphs pretty much sum up the sentiments of the Workers’ Party youth wing members towards the party’s founder, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ).

It seemed a little unfortunate for these younger members to associate JBJ with “unrestrained election rally speeches and rambunctious attacks on the PAP government” and the target of a “bevy of defamation suits”. Unfortunate because this is really a microcosm of what JBJ went through and it is a case of missing the woods for the trees.

For starters, the first question that should be asked is what it means to be opposition or to support the opposition’s cause. Is it about a mere token presence with minor disagreements on certain issues or is it something bigger? Can we consider an opposition that agrees with the status quo set by the ruling party and works within set limits, albeit with minor disagreements, a real opposition?

Debatable, no? So, do we consider a party that challenges barriers and red tapes to the limits more of an opposition as compared with one that works within status quo? Arguably, yes. Sure, some may not agree with unrestrained election rally speeches and passionate verbal attacks on the PAP government” but it can be argued that such tactics allowed JBJ to make inroads. Arguably, this could be JBJ’s style that established himself as a cult personality which won over the voters.

And he had the results to speak of – winning the Anson by-election and his subsequent re-election during the 1984 elections to become the first opposition MP. However, the reformer is locked in a struggle with the system he wants to reform, and hence, the system evolves to make things harder.

The rise of JBJ as the first opposition MP also saw the evolution of methodologies adopted in dealing with individuals deemed too ‘troublesome’ by the system. The olden days saw the prevalent use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to clamp down on those who dare to oppose. It successfully clipped the wings of Barisan Socialis, but the rise of JBJ was too meteoric that it made the prosecution by ISA out-dated.

Furthermore, the use of ISA to prosecute JBJ will have wide-ranging ramifications that includes sparking an outcry that will not reflect well on the ruling party. Hence, the need for the system to evolve too and its new focus – legal and judiciary actions. Thus, JBJ’s term as opposition MP wasn’t a smooth ride as expected.

Following the 1984 elections, JBJ was brought down by a series of charges and fines which he claimed were politically-motivated. Two months after his 1984 re-election, he was charged for allegedly mis-stating his party accounts. Initially, the senior district judge Michael Khoo found JBJ innocent of all charges save for one. However, the Chief Justice ordered a re-trial and JBJ was guilty of all charges. JBJ was to be expelled from parliament and disbarred.

JBJ subsequently appealed his disbarment to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, which duly reversed the judgement of the Singapore district court, noting:

Their Lordships have to record their deep disquiet that by a series of misjudgements, the appellant and his co-accused Wong, have suffered a grievous injustice. They have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they are not guilty. The appellant, in addition, has been deprived of his seat in Parliament and disqualified for a year from practising his profession.

Their Lordships order restores him to the roll of advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Singapore, but, because of the course taken by the criminal proceedings, their Lordships have no power to right the other wrongs which the appellant and Wong have suffered. Their only prospect of redress, their Lordships understand, will be by way of petition for pardon to the President of the Republic of Singapore.

Thus, JBJ made inroads in his appeal, but as the saying goes, a difficult system will simply evolve to create more barriers. The following year, the system abolished Privy Council appeals. The use of defamation suits instead of ISA also represents the system’s increasing sophistication. This made JBJ, with his style of unrestrained election rally speeches and passionate verbal attacks on the PAP government an obvious target.

True enough, JBJ was sued for defamation. Following his election as a Non-constituency Member of Parliament in 1997, he faced a total of eleven defamation suits. He was bankrupted and disqualified from participating in the elections. What was the larger picture that these youths from the Workers’ Party are missing out on?

Simple, the titanic struggle waged by JBJ against an ever-evolving system that he sought to change. When JBJ won, the judiciary and legal machinery came down hard on him. When JBJ appealed to the Privy Council in what seemed to be meting of justice, the appeal was abolished the following year.

When the ISA method of prosecution was too crude, the machinery evolved legal and judiciary mechanisms. And JBJ was at the receiving end of the stick. Those defamation suits, imprisonment, fines and abolishment of Privy council appeals are the system’s responses to the inroads that JBJ have made. We may talk of testing OB markers today, and the biggest among all testers should undoubtedly go to JBJ, who tested the political machinery to the limit.

Thus, let’s revisit an earlier question – what constitutes an opposition? Is it about minor disagreement and preserving status quo or about striving to change the system? Some may say that keeping to status quo is akin to agreement with the definitions, conceptions and vision laid down by the ruling party, and that isn’t remotely considered opposition by any standards.

As for the choice between the blue pill or red pill, it is fair to say that JBJ has taken the red pill. So, what is the colour of pill that the Workers’ Party youth wing has chosen? Hopefully, it is not the color of their uniforms.